Global climate talks hinge on obscure rules and involve lots of standing around – punctuated by sudden bursts of activity and last-minute shifts in momentum. Like that sport the Americans call football, they are a riddle to the uninitiated but a fascinating display of subtlety and brinksmanship to those who pay attention – and often see more action in the last two minutes than in the previous two hours.
The stakes, however, are higher than those of any game – and too few people are paying attention to the details as talks enter their final, decisive phase. Indeed, the week of talks that kicks off on November 2 in Barcelona offers the penultimate chance to reach agreement on many key issues before high-level ministers enter the picture in Copenhagen in December.
The Bangkok talks that ran from 28 September to 9 October 2009 were part of this ongoing series of meetings designed to avoid the worst consequences of global warming by negotiating a comprehensive, fair and ambitious international climate change agreement by year-end.
Progress has been tedious, to say the least, with major disagreement on overall targets and still-unhealed rifts between developed and developing countries. By contrast, the gaggle of negotiators working to include ways of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) in developing countries as a mechanism for mitigating climate change have seen more progress. The REDD contact group within the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG LCA, see "The Bali Action Plan", right) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came out of Bangkok with a negotiating text and a consensus that REDD will actually become "REDD+" – the lingo for REDD as well as stabilization, conservation, maintenance and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.
The exact items and phrases to be incorporated, however, are still under discussion; and the full scope of plusses will not be agreed on until Copenhagen, when government ministers enter the picture. Furthermore, serious disagreements emerged over how to properly safeguard natural forests and how to ensure the rights of indigenous people – disagreements that many negotiators believed had been put to rest.
How the Talks Unfolded
The REDD text released on 3October was riddled with "brackets", which denote issues, phrases, and even single words that are to be negotiated by the different countries. Calm and composed Tony La Viña, facilitator of the REDD contact group has the immensely challenging task of getting the more than 100 countries to agree on each of the words within and boil it down to 4-5 pages of text by December.
In the course of one week, he managed to get the delegates to whittle down 19 pages to nine relatively concise pages of text – including brackets – while retaining the ideas expressed. How did he do it? He corralled them in meeting rooms and facilitated bilateral discussions. He had countries sit down in groups and consolidate text. He listened, suggested a way forward and they agreed. The REDD dialogue is reputed to be one of the most advanced in all of the ongoing climate change discussions.
On Tuesday, 6 October, the mood was one of great optimism. The Columbian delegate indicated that the different countries were not that far off on the issues – and several observers agreed.
"Chances are good that we will see some final agreement in Copenhagen," predicted Rane Cortez, Forest Carbon Policy Advisor for the Nature Conservancy (TNC). "What is required now is the larger framework into which to fit in this advanced REDD text."
Long Time Coming
"The discussions are also ahead partly due to the fact that REDD has been discussed the longest, for four years now," said John Lanchbery of Birdlife International, who heads the REDD working group for the Climate Action Network, a worldwide group of over 450 environmental and social NGOs. "All the countries want REDD, there is no real objection." REDD is unique in yet another way - developing countries have been the main leaders and sizeable Norwegian funding has been available to move the process forward.
By Tuesday, 6 October, consensus had been reached on many of the guiding principles: REDD+ implementation would be results-based, voluntary and matched to national circumstances and sustainable development goals. Agreement was still pending, however, on whether REDD+ would remain a separate initiative under the Conference of Parties (COP) or be integrated into the still unclear "NAMAs" or Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Activities. NAMAs are measurable, reportable and verifiable mitigation contributions to be undertaken by developing countries with financial and technological support from developed countries.
Countries were approaching consensus on the phased approach to policy measures and incentives as first proposed by the Coalition for Rainforest Nations and subsequently incorporated by the Government of Norway in its REDD Options Assessment Report. Mechanisms and operational issues were to be spelt out at a later date.
Federica Bietta, who represents the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, was concerned about the disconnect between the phases and the financing.
"Some of the items though operational in nature need to be linked up front such as appropriate financing for each of the three phases," she stressed.
The Financing Conundrum
Countries were still split on the financing mechanisms for REDD+.
Brazil, which created the Amazonas Fund, was a leading proponent of the fund-based approach. Other countries and the Coalition for Rainforest Nations were leaning towards an initial fund-based approach transitioning into a market-based approach in the later phases. At the same time, there was some concern about the inherent risks of a pure market-based approach.
"When considering market access, we require some tools to ensure stable credit values in order to protect rural communities. This could take the form of a guaranteed minimum price, price stabilization funds with revenues generated by auctioned allowances," said Bietta, "and expected supply plans submitted by developing countries to the COP to prevent unexpected market flooding."
Lanchbery suggested that agreement may be reached on the need for interim finance in the first phases to build capacity to implement a full regime, but detailed discussions on financing may be reserved for post-Copenhagen talks.
Public Support for Safeguards
So on Tuesday, 6 October, La Viña made a deliberate decision to reserve the objectives and scope for negotiation in Barcelona, and to move forward on items that were apparently less linked to the larger policy framework that would take time to resolve. Negotiators were then asked to provide their comments on the three safeguards for REDD in the principles section, safeguards on environmental integrity, stakeholder participation and governance.
To the surprise of many outside observers, all countries accepted and concurred on the critical relevance of all three safeguards to credibly implement REDD and receive financing for the same. But they diverged on some details.
Many developing countries stressed that any safeguards should pay due respect to – and be consistent with – existing national legislations, versus being imposed from the outside. They did not wish to reinvent the wheel and did not want the acquisition of a governance certificate to become a stumbling block. The Norwegian negotiator concluded that they should not break with national sovereignty but needed to find better language to address governance issues.
An interesting development was the call for governance safeguards for the developed countries financing REDD, and not just for the REDD countries or countries implementing REDD. The Papua New Guinea delegate believed it should be applied both ways.
Some delegates requested stronger language to address indigenous and local stakeholder participation while others proposed that it be left to national legislation. It was also argued that traditional resource use may result in non-permanence of carbon stocks and that participation safeguards should remain as general principles and not be mandated. The Gabon delegation cautioned that a need for 100% consensus from all stakeholders could stall any effort.
Later in the day, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues approved of the forward movement in the REDD+ and safeguard talks but hoped that countries would be agreeable to referring to existing international instruments such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
"You cannot restrict international agreements by the boundaries of national legislations, at least the minimum international requirements should be met," she shared. "In many countries there are no existing national legislations protecting indigenous peoples' rights and they are often not recognized as distinct peoples in countries where they are found."
On the environmental integrity side, promoting sustainable forest management versus promoting sustainable management of forests was a moot point. The latter was interpreted to encompass more than logging practices and include conservation. Many countries looked for safeguards to avoid conversion of natural forests to plantations under the name of REDD.
Overall, the delegates concurred on the Brazilian request to keep the REDD process simple and agile to enable quick implementation and avoid getting entangled in Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)-like modalities and requirements.
The first negotiations were held behind closed doors through Tuesday afternoon and all of Wednesday, with delegates and the appointed facilitator countries drafting text on the three safeguard-principles. On Wednesday night, La Viña commented on Twitter that he was happy with the drafting progress on rights of indigenous peoples and other stakeholders.
"Paraguay and Australia led the group which recognized the importance of such rights but there are formidable legal language problems ahead," he predicted.
Discord in the Ranks
On Thursday morning, 8 October, the newly-drafted text on safeguards was released. Social and environmental NGOs began stirring outside and the country delegates began commenting and restating their positions inside.
Many countries expressed their concern about missing text, watered-down text and the overall process. They stressed that the text was not negotiated among the parties and did not reflect any consensus. Some countries expressed their support for the text and the process. Others were silent. La Viña responded with good grace.
"So far, we have been a happy REDD family of more than 100 countries but I anticipate a family quarrel or two," he said.
Of dominant concern appeared to be the disappearance of the text referring to safeguards against the conversion of natural or native forests to plantations. Of the 25 countries or country groupings that responded, 16 voiced this specific concern, with Brazil making a very strong statement.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, speaking on behalf of the Congo basin countries, did not approve of the conversion safeguard being reinserted. They clarified that given rampant poverty, they still needed sustainable exploitation of their forests outside protected areas to meet their peoples' basic needs unless there was financial compensation for avoiding that.
Tauli-Corpuz, speaking on behalf of the Philippines, expressed disappointment at the watered-down language with regard to indigenous and local community participation and submitted alternative proposed text. Bolivia and Tanzania among others voiced their support for the Philippines position on this issue. Gabon however noted the risks of allowing specific rights and full consent without reference to national legislation, which could lead to unsustainable practices and countries becoming ungovernable.
The Thai delegate spent the allotted few minutes reviewing the process of the last two days and calling for a more effective use of time. How to proceed? Some countries wanted the avoidance of conversion of forests to plantations clause back in, others wanted different missing clauses back in, some preferred to avoid cherry picking now, some wanted it left as it was.
The final decision was to use the revised paper as the basis for further work in Barcelona. La Viña stressed that the entire draft could be viewed as bracketed, that it was fully open to negotiation, addition, deletion and modification. Nevertheless, some progress was made in Bangkok. A process was tested, lessons learned, and a resolve made to move ahead and negotiate an overall REDD+ agreement through Barcelona, Copenhagen and beyond.
Will the final text be to everybody's liking? Probably not. But it will be a painstakingly negotiated agreement forged by a 100 plus countries who all had their say on how they foresee managing and receiving compensation for their forest lands in the interest of mitigating and adapting to global climate change. This in itself counts for something. Good luck, Mr. La Viña.
The Bali Action Plan
The UNFCCC secretariat has, at different points in the negotiations, established groups to tackle discrete issues outside of the chaotic setting of the Conference of Parties (COPs). Two such working groups met formally at the September/October Bangkok meeting and are set to meet again in Barcelona in November.
Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex 1 Parties under the Kyoto Protocol (AWC-KP): This working group is primarily charged with negotiating future commitments from industrialized nations in the Kyoto Protocol.
Ad Hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action uner the Convention (AWG-LCA): This group focuses on developing long-term cooperation between developing and industrialized countries, focusing on the following issues: mitigation, adaptation, technology transfer, and financial provision.
Currently, REDD policy is being discussed within both of these groups simultaneously, while a third group, the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advise (SBSTA), discusses the technical aspects of REDD.
You'll find detailed analysis of how these groups work here.
Unna Chokkalingam is Forest Carbon Program Manager at Ecosystem Marketplace. She can be reached at email@example.com
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