Words are becoming phrases: Can climate change discourse be ever untangled?

We are midway through the Durban conference and the search for a ‘transparent’, ‘comprehensive’, ‘balanced’, ‘credible’, ‘flexible’,  ‘accommodating’, ‘fair’,  ‘ambitious’ and ‘binding’ outcome is on. 

[An aside: From Monday, the real talks begin, as the AWG-KP and AWG-LCA negotiation tracks ready themselves to present some material to the ministers who should be flying in Tuesday onwards. All of Sunday, ‘informal bilaterals’ were held, chit-chats between negotiating blocs. We know, for instance, that the BASIC negotiators met with the EU.]  

It is a very complex search, as the list of descriptors appended to ‘outcome’ above show. 10,000+ delegates from 190+ countries have to show action, provide the world with a solution to climate change. They must do so, not only for this generation of people but for all generations to come. At stake is the environmental integrity of the world vis-a-vis the Earth. 

So it was fitting—but disturbing—that the president of CoP 17, during an informal stocktaking of the work done so far, asked negotiating delegates to “focus on building agreements” and thanked them for being “flexible”. She wasn’t being ironic. She was being very, very diplomatic.

So it was equally fitting and more disturbing that the only real decision—unqualified by options, bracketed text, shaded text, submissions and addenda to submissions, draft conclusions, daft proposals, amalgamated text, non-papers—taken so far in the CoP is where the next one is going to be held. CoP 18 is going to be held in Qatar next year. There is complete consensus on it.

[An aside: the Western media is quite livid about this most recent evidence of UAE arrogance. First, the formula 1 racing circuit shifted to Qatar. Then, the Olympics. Arsenal and Barcelona football clubs get their money from the UAE. And now, even climate change talks are going to happen there. As a British report put it, “The choice of venue raised eyebrows among negotiators as the nation is a major gas exporter.”]     

But for those not allowed to sit in with the negotiating groups, those fated to roam about in the venue, collecting documents—an extremely panic-driven task, for people look at the document you have asked for and want a copy of it, and it’s impossible not to look at what the person standing next to you has asked for, and not desire a copy of it—and scanning them to understand what’s going on, the search has begun to seem more and more complicated. Needlessly complicated, in fact. 

Severely tangled-up, the Durban CoP will not go down to the wire.

[An aside: I really hope I am proved wrong] 

One fact is clear, though. Developing countries have been pushed to the corner. It seems amazing, or crazy, but they are seriously cornered. That’s one reason there’s been so much unity in the G-77 and China bloc.    

Another fact is clear: the words are turning into phrases, to justify inaction.

Thus, there is no more talk about reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. The focus now is on ‘Real, measurable, verifiable and additional emission reduction’. What does it mean? Read the submissions on AWG-LCA agenda item 3.2.5, and you will know. See? It’s clearer than crystal.

The focus is actually on ‘Quicker enhancement of the international carbon market’, ‘safeguarding environmental integrity (of carbon credits)’, actually creating a ‘homogenous market with fully fungible units’, ‘Attracting more private investment to a properly regulated market’. You want to reduce emissions? Damn easy. Go for ‘Voluntary participation’, ‘sectoral crediting’, ‘sectoral trading’. Done.

These are obsessive-compulsive phrases. But these are also what the EU (the EU-15, not the EU-27), Australia and Japan want. Just consider the second paragraph of a US submission on long-term finance:

Because private investment will continue to be the main driver of economic growth, the transition to a low-carbon, climate resilient economy cannot happen principally through public sector expenditure. Success in tackling climate change depends on our ability to motivate pools of institutional capital to make “green” versus “brown” investments and to overcome private sector concerns about developing country risk. The challenge for governments – both developed and developing – is to use a strong core of public resources and combine it with targeted policies to substantially increase private investments in green infrastructure. This will be an inherently complex task that requires concerted action at the national and international level, through a range of actors including bilateral aid agencies, multilateral development banks, and private investors.

The obsession is about transforming an Earth-wide phenomenon into a worldwide opportunity to make money. Climate change is the latest commodity created by the human imagination. Intelligence now dictates that climate change needs to be made more marketable; it has to be aggressively marketed.

Really refined retailing is on. The World Bank—a manic-depressive entity—is now offering ‘climate services’. It is promoting a ‘carbon market’, a ‘forest carbon market’ and an ‘adaptation market’. Hello, take a loan. Consult us: we take just 3 per cent as fee. There is better news in the future. Soon, you will be able to buy ‘forest bonds’. Want to reduce emissions? Easy. Just focus on ‘carbon service from forests’. Done.

On this base, a huge superstructure has begun to emerge, affecting completely the CoP process. Countries no longer want to take action on climate change, other than trying to make money off it. So, in CoP negotiations, they have begun to obsess about ‘internationally agreed rules and methodologies defining ex ante how countries would account for their emissions and their emission reductions’; a ‘common, accommodating, inclusive international accounting framework’; ‘response measures’,  ‘Set of rules’, ‘design features’, ‘methods and criteria’, ‘guidelines’, ‘accreditation’, ‘crediting thresholds’, ‘sector targets’ and ‘flexibility’.

These obsessions must be taken seriously. For unless these are resolved, there will be no ‘implementation’. 

Just as it happened in the years the CoP process got bogged down in working out the details of the Kyoto Protocol, the focus today is turning more and more towards  ‘modalities and procedure’.

‘Detail is required in order to ensure high quality and comparable responses’.

 More and more detailing. Workshops, and more workshops. Many more CoPs. Book your flight to Qatar now.