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As Copenhagen nears, some realism is needed

06 November 2009

UNFCCC negotiations in Barcelona - the last negotiations before Copenhagen - concluded today. Our Global Policy team assess how the talks went, and what we can and should now expect from Copenhagen.

As they arrived in Barcelona earlier this week, climate negotiators probably felt like a lot of students the day before a big exam.  Having procrastinated during term time, they faced five days of intense cramming to bring order and clarity to over 200 pages of complex negotiating text.

Unfortunately, many of the divisions that were apparent at the last set of talks in Bangkok in early October quickly resurfaced. 

On Monday, the Africa Group of countries brought the Kyoto Protocol negotiations to a halt by stating that they would not participate in any talks until developed countries put ambitious emission reduction targets on the table.  A day was lost before agreement could be reached on how to proceed.

In the parallel negotiations on strengthening the overarching UN Climate Convention, countries moved behind closed doors from Tuesday morning.  These tough and difficult talks dealt with the core issues of mitigation, adaptation, technology and financing.

Across nearly all areas of negotiation progress was generally slow and limited. 

For example, on the important issue of market-based measures countries could not agree on key reforms to the Clean Development Mechanism, or on the role of sectoral crediting and trading mechanisms for developing countries.  These instruments will be critical in allowing developed countries and businesses to meet their emission reduction targets cost-effectively while also delivering potentially significant flows of finance to developing countries.  Developed countries see these mechanisms as central planks to any effective international agreement, but a number of influential developing countries are opposed to different aspects of these market tools.

The polarization of country positions and the lack of progress largely explained comments from Yvo de Boer, the UN's top climate official, and Ed Miliband, the UK's climate minister, during the week.  Both explicitly spelt out that a final, legally binding agreement was no longer a realistic expectation for Copenhagen.  Although some commentators have been suggesting this outcome for some time, such high-level opinions caused consternation amongst many NGOs and no doubt some negotiators as well.

Some realism is helpful at this stage.

While we all have hoped for a strong and legally binding agreement from Copenhagen, we may not be able to achieve that by December.  But a strong political agreement is still very much possible. 

Such an agreement - one stating clearly what we will achieve, how we will get there and leading to a legally binding agreement in a firm timeframe - will keep us on the right path toward an ambitious global deal on climate change.

Copenhagen is an important milestone, but not the end of efforts, on this journey. Achieving a strong political agreement at COP-15 will show that we are well on our way. 

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