Where will Glasgow lead us to is an open question: Will the decisions be mediocre and the negotiated text suboptimal? Or will it be successful like Paris?
By Mahua Acharya
Looking back over the last two decades, it is hard to believe that the world expected to tackle climate change through an international agreement that everyone agreed to. Maybe back then, things were less complicated. Or more binary—much like the ‘evil people’ and the ‘good people’? Or perhaps the world thought that if it tackled the ozone layer through the Montreal Protocol and managed to get overarching agreement on addressing climate change at the 1992 Rio Summit, it could do the same with climate change.
The Kyoto Protocol was signed in December 1997 with countries finally agreeing to take on emissions cuts at the final hours of the COP and only after reconciliation between (then) UK PM Tony Blair, US President Bill Clinton, Japanese PM Ryutaro Hashimoto and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Only 37 countries agreed to take on emissions cuts but the details around how this was to be implemented was pushed for later, three years later. And that too, after Clinton came in at the last minute authorising his delegation to deal.
Only six months later, his successor rejected it. The treaty had found itself in the middle of nowhere—the only way it could be made functional was if Russia joined.
The COPs have notoriously been clunky and increasingly difficult, heavily dependent on the leadership of the host county to pull together disparate interests and needs by 168 countries, all of which are affected by the same problem—climate change. The Copenhagen COP in 2009 should perhaps become a case study in international negotiations—on how ‘not’ to do things. In weeks before that COP, major emitters had announced unprecedented measures to control emissions, and differences had narrowed so much that a political agreement appeared to be within reach.
More than 120 leaders attended, only to be met with a mess. As quickly as the second day, talks had begun to fall apart. A compromise text—as early as day three—was undermined by being prematurely ‘leaked’. The COP’s organisation was appalling: I recall having had to stand five hours in freezing sub-zero Scandinavian winter to get into the venue. Negotiations were obstructed using procedural moves. And by the closing day when leaders usually celebrate success, almost the whole text was still ‘square bracketed’—a negotiator’s way to say there is major disagreement.
In a shocking move, as the conference was coming to a close and negotiators realised there was nothing to show, a small group of leaders huddled in a secret room and created what they thought would be a rescue deal—only to be snubbed first by China, and then others in revolt when it was presented at the plenary. Those five countries had excluded the rest of the world. Immediately after that, Danish PM stepped down and the environment minister took over—and managed to gavel through a precarious compromise, merely ‘noting’ a ‘Copenhagen accord’, a document that postponed discussions for later when tempers should have subsided.
In contrast, the Mexicans ran a fantastic COP, bringing discussions back on track, but this time the beginnings of a bottom-up approach were first contemplated. It was not until five years later that this came to fruition—the Paris COP in 2015 got global agreement (some last-minute alarms were there), and for the first time acknowledged a common quantified goal. Heralded as a successful treaty and very successful leadership, the world still found itself without clarity. How would things be done? What would the rules of the game be? What would happen to old promises?
No discussions could be held without baggage. The world’s biggest emitter even withdrew from the Paris Agreement and backpedalled on several things—reneging from funding commitments under the Green Climate Fund. This didn’t do much for building trust amongst countries, the developing countries in particular.
Against this backdrop—even as the UK had one extra year ‘to do work’ and get more countries on-board, craft more deals and make progress on global rules—where will Glasgow come out is an open question: As a non-COP where decisions are mediocre or negotiated text is suboptimal? Or a successful one like Paris or Marrakech or even Kyoto that gave rise to entire treaties or their rulebooks?
Watch this space.
The author is MD & CEO, CESL