Far from steaming rapidly ahead to cement progress in the battle to combat dangerous climate change, reports of slow progress in agreeing how to move forwards with the negotiations have continued. Debate continued on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday as to the agenda for talks under the AWG-LCA. Meanwhile, over in the AWG-KP, having avoided a stumble at the first hurdle of agreeing an agenda, Parties struggled with whether to proceed with political or technical issues first... The AWG-KP stocktaking plenary adjourned at 5:00 pm on Friday. The sixteenth session of the AWG-KP will reconvene in Bonn, Germany, in June. See you there!

An indication of the lack of political will to go significantly beyond the legal infrastructure “created” by Decisions at Cancun was given by Todd Stern, US climate envoy, earlier this week. Stern is reported to have stated, “I don’t think it’s necessary that there be internationally binding emission caps as long as you’ve got national laws and regulations. What I am saying is it’s not doable….You say ‘Oh well, it’s not legally binding.’ So what?” He added: “The moment you make the obligations legally binding, you will diminish the ambition of what countries are proposing to do.” We humbly submit that this is not necessarily the case, and that a good number of life’s daily affairs rely on a legally binding international law framework. It may however be true that if an international climate regime becomes politically unpalatable to the point that certain countries do not sign up, the net effect will be detrimental.

Speaking in the context of these remarks, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres identified that the importance of a treaty is that it provides certainty (although not a guarantee - as exemplified by Canada). Figueres also implied that countries decided at Cancun to take a “bottom up” approach, subject to a future review of the culmination of their collective efforts.

Stern’s view contrasts strongly to the views of many developing countries, including small island developing states and the least developed countries, who are terrified about the consequences of the establishment of an international climate regime that has no teeth, from their perspective, at all. Clearly no international legal regime represents a perfect safe haven from breach of legal obligations, but a system that relies purely on the current will of whichever far-flung government is currently in power offers little comfort to states already feeling the effects of climate change. Reponses to the financial crisis have highlighted the difficulties of governments in reconciling short term political needs with longer-term objectives.

Underlying this discussion is a need to determine whether to focus on operational aspects of the Decisions that came out of Cancun (such as how to establish the Green Climate Fund, the arrangements for a technology mechanism, etc), or dealing with contentious areas that were left out of the Cancun Decisions such as intellectual property rights, the treatment of “bunker fuels”, agriculture and “big font” issues such as the global goal, peaking, review and legal nature of the next chapter of the climate regime. It is clear after this week that these issues remain on the table despite not being fully addressed at Cancun.

Speaking today, Figueres tried to make sense of the negotiations this week. She said that discussions in relation the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol have made an “interesting shift this week” in discussing not the “what” but the “how” issues in respect of the Kyoto Protocol and said that there is a strong desire to protect and build on the Kyoto Protocol rulebook. Figueres distinguished between the fact that there is no country that is fundamentally opposed to a second Commitment Period under the Kyoto Protocol and whether countries individually determine to participate in such Commitment Period, which is a separate issue!

Under the AWG-LCA there have been several days of “honest” talks about what the tasks are ahead. Explaining the lengthy discussion about the “agenda”, Figueres clarified that these discussions are not really about the agenda per se, but about the much more significant issue of the future scope of work and the scope of the expected outcome of Durban (COP16). It is therefore not surprising that there are significant differences.

Meanwhile, two familiar “buzz words” have returned - with press and parties talking about the pursit of a “two track” process. This takes over from “balanced package” as the phrase du jour.