Climate Conference of Madrid, Spain
by Lucas Frye
The inability of any one person to see all of the sights at the COP was never made clearer than on my last full day in Katowice. This was the concluding day of the first week of the conference, and the subsidiary bodies of the UNFCCC were rushing to complete their work before sending it off to be handled by the Parties’ ministers in the second week. As such the bodies were required to hold their last sets of informal consultations and contact group meetings in the morning and their closing plenaries in the afternoon and on into the night, able to adjourn only when the work was concluded. I left around 7:00 P.M. and wasn’t even there for the conclusion of the first of these plenaries!
The tensions of the day before were amplified that morning, where I witnessed the frustration of the Parties with the co-facilitators at one of the final consultations of the SBSTA Adaptation Committee. Here, as in the APA meetings I had been attending in the days before, Parties decried the failure of the new iteration of the draft negotiating text to take into account their various views. Things started out fiery, with Uruguay (G77) immediately requesting that the group go into informal informals, given that there were provisions present in the text that were “impossible” for the negotiating group to accept. Australia and Norway agreed that this might be the only way forward, given the lack of consensus. Following this, Argentina asked for five minutes to huddle the countries of the G77 and discuss what would be required of a document hybridizing the previous iterations. And huddle they did far from my earshot, but I didn’t have to wait long before they returned to their seats and Argentina described the group’s demands, which largely consisted of specific reversions to the first iteration of the draft document. The United States quickly piped in to oppose what it saw as a rollback in progress and the addition of options it was uncomfortable with.
This was the first of a set of stronger opposing stances that would emerge from the U.S. delegation today, which I speculate was the result of the arrival of higher-ranking State Department officials (in other words, those under closer scrutiny of the administration) to join with the career environmental policy experts who had been covering the previous days of correspondingly lower-level talks. Most of what I had seen from the U.S. negotiators prior to these shows of defiance had been a real willingness to work on the policy questions presented here, especially when such work was primarily of a technical nature. Sure, there were no outward demonstrations of great political will from the Americans, but there was also little effort to stand in the way of the first week’s negotiations, which, as my blogs may indicate, seem to be a little less dramatic than those that take place after the ministers arrive.
The decision made by the co-facilitators, met with tacit approval by the Parties, was to revert to the first iteration of the draft negotiating text, with the exception of Section E (methodologies for reviewing adequacy of adaptation and support), around which the consensus was that the second iteration’s text here was fine. This allowed the text to reflect the concerns of the G77, while keeping options reflecting the diversity of views on some other controversial sections.
In the afternoon, I attended the APA contact group on agenda items 3–8, which gave a summary of the progress of each of the working groups associated with the APA agenda. In general, the co-facilitators for each set of consultations, now having all been concluded, had made progress in finding solutions. Many even reached a third iteration of the draft texts being discussed. Of course, this all sounded bright and cheery before the floor was opened to the Parties to voice their plentiful concerns on an item-by-item basis. Given that the COP operates on the basis of consensus, the ability of Parties to work together to find mutually acceptable solutions is vital. Therefore, one of the goals of negotiations here is to eliminate so-called “red lines” or stances that are so strongly held as to make defying them grounds for refusal to continue discussion. As the invocation of red lines raises the possibility of Parties having conflicting red lines, killing any chance of reaching consensus, negotiators are naturally keen to avoid making anything “non-negotiable”. However, as the time for discussions came to a close on this Friday, Parties seeing their preferred language dropped from iterations of the draft conclusions resorted to stronger and stronger language. By the time of this stocktake, provisions that were previously “concerning” became “unacceptable”, stoking fears that the night of plenaries ahead would be a long one.
Gabon (African Group) began the string of interventions with assertions that the agenda item 3 (mitigation, NDCs) document was “very weak” and that those resulting from agenda items 6 (global stocktake) and 7 (implementation and compliance committee) had language that made for a poor starting point for the coming ministerial talks. Things only got more heated when Saudi Arabia (Arab States) took the floor. They went straight to saying the R word and declared a red line on linking inconsistencies to compliance in the agenda item 5 (transparency framework). They also opposed the role of non-party stakeholders in participating in the global stocktake (surprise, surprise). Per usual, the remainder of the interventions here were mellow compared to that of Saudi Arabia, with Maldives (AOSIS) and Australia (Umbrella Group) keeping their suggestions labeled as “concerns” for the most part. Ethiopia (LDCs), Colombia (AILAC), and Switzerland (EIG) kept their two cents much briefer and also restrained their opinions to “should” rather than “shall” in the interest of keeping the window for unanimous agreement open. The co-chairs concluded the session with a reminder of the options which remained for the draft conclusions: identify clearly that more work is needed in sending the current texts to the COP president, revert totally to the first iterations, or forward nothing in writing. The wind whispered into the translation headset, “please not the last one”.
The SBSTA 3rd plenary meeting was the last event I attended before heading back to the hotel to prepare for my return home and it was not a finale to scoff at. I couldn’t have hoped for a more dramatic series of exchanges between bona fide diplomats as my send-off from the COP. It began with a bit of comedy, as the SBSTA chair, Paul Watkinson, took his post and began to speak in his native French, prompting a great exodus of Parties and observers alike out of the plenary room as they realized they would need their translation headsets from the table outside. Refusing to be delayed, he continued on, only giving a pointed remark translated into my ears as “Yes, go get your headphones, because I will be speaking in French”. He was allowed to continue just to the point of announcing the agenda item they would be addressing, when his foil, the delegate from Saudi Arabia, rose (so to speak; he pressed his mic button) to intervene. Slow down, he pleaded, lest the chair gavel in the wrong document. The chair, patient as ever, explained which document was being dealt with in the agenda item being discussed, being sure to repeat the document symbol three times, slowly. You know, for good measure. Then, after the chair was allowed to get a couple more words out, Kuwait chimed in with a—not so fast, Brendon Urie—set of comments about the document the chair had just explained that they weren’t dealing with at the moment, and the chair once again took a deep breath and detailed exactly how he was proposing to proceed.
Finally, the body was able to adopt conclusions on the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture, the SBSTA/SBI improved work programme, and the joint annual report of the Technology Executive Committee and the Climate Technology Centre and Network. Things were going swell until we were all reminded of how the international aviation and maritime emissions consultations had been so far derailed as to push further discussion until SBSTA 50 in June 2019. Seeking to keep things moving, he lamented the lack of agreement, but moved on to consideration of the draft conclusions regarding research and systematic observation, and this is where things got really interesting.
Before half of that familiar “hearing no objections, it is so decided” could be uttered, Maldives (AOSIS) asked for the floor, suggesting that there had been no consensus on the response to the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C. This is where Parties had previously run into disagreement over whether to “welcome” the IPCC report or merely to “note” it. The text had ended up retaining the weaker language, and now Maldives scolded the lack of urgency and the refusal to accept the best available science signaled in this phrasing. The chair asked if this meant that AOSIS was proposing an amendment, which was confirmed explicitly by the delegate from Maldives. The chair then received a few dozen requests for the floor and allowed Parties to take it one by one. And one by one, twenty or so countries representing negotiating groups of more than 80 expressed firm and explicit support for the amendment to “welcome” outright the IPCC report. It was a remarkable parade of recognition for the need to act quickly and boldly to fight climate change. Of course, they hadn’t been able to reach consensus in the meeting rooms and it wouldn’t come easier at the plenary. Four countries rose in opposition to this amendment: Saudi Arabia, Russia, Kuwait, and the United States. Saudi Arabia’s intervention began with verbal guns blazing. “How exciting”, the delegate remarked about this “showdown of countries”. His sarcastic rebuke of the process continued with lamentations of how such discord over a single word meant bad news for negotiations about real substance. After noting that Saudi Arabia too could bring its own barrage of states to oppose this amendment, the delegate attempted to end the discussion on a point of order. The chair asked for objections, and AOSIS didn’t technically object, it was argued. There are no objections, so we shouldn’t be hearing views on any amendments. This parliamentary confusion was quickly dispelled when St. Kitts & Nevis took the floor to say in no unclear terms, “we object to paragraph 11” and that what was occurring before them was the UNFCCC being in opposition to welcoming a report that it invited the IPCC to prepare. The delegate from St. Kitts concluded with “If there is anything ludicrous, it is that we are not in a position to welcome this report”, which met with applause throughout the plenary room.
How to proceed, the chair wondered aloud. The only option seemed to be to conduct further informal consultations until consensus could be reached, after suspending the meeting. Tuvalu asked that the chair seek the views of the plenary before this suspension and Saudi Arabia insisted that they might as well discuss the whole document now that the Pandora's box of paragraph 11 had been opened. The chair, not being allowed to continue with the agenda in the meantime suspended the plenary and for two hours or so, the plenary room was left empty while Parties attempted to iron out all of this noting/welcoming business. When the Parties resumed the plenary, it was clear from the first interventions that things hadn’t gone so well behind closed doors either. Delegates once again spoke one after the other, this time expressing disappointment about the lack of consensus and, in the words of the Swiss delegate, the politicization of this report. Cheeky as always, the Saudi delegate chimed in to ask “Did you gavel on Rule 16? I didn’t hear you gavel”, Rule 16 being the provision that ends discussion on an item in the absence of consensus. The chair thanked Saudi Arabia for its attentiveness and gaveled in the measure pushing further discussion on research and systematic observation to the next SBSTA meeting in June 2019.
After several more countries reiterated their support for the work of the IPCC and their disdain for the previous proceedings, eventually the chair was able to make it on to the next item of the agenda, the draft conclusions on the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform, which passed without a hitch. Praising the success of this platform in supporting the rights of indigenous peoples and the important role of traditional knowledge in climate action, the constituency of Indigenous Peoples Organizations made a statement emphasizing the importance of urgent and rapid action on climate change. Several nations then made interventions supporting the work done throughout the conference on this agenda item and welcoming the participation of local communities in dealing with greenhouse gas emissions, which affect them with such disproportionately devastating results.
It being about 7:00 P.M., I had to leave the conference at this time to debrief with the newly arrived ACS folks covering the second week of negotiations as well as to prepare for my flight in a matter of hours. Seeing as there were still the SBI and APA closing plenaries scheduled “upon completion of SBSTA plenary”, it seemed apparent that Parties would be talking into their microphones well into the wee hours of the night. This final bit of drama I was able to witness as the finale to my time at the COP, while entertaining, was disconcerting as well. How were they ever going to get a working rulebook out by the end of two weeks when multiple hours were spent arguing over the strength of a single word in one paragraph of one report of one subsidiary body? Let alone the fact that the goals these countries are working to achieve, even if met with flying colors, probably aren’t enough to prevent warming of 3.0 °C by the end of the century. Let’s not forget that the report they were arguing about described the catastrophic effects on human life occurring at half that figure.
If we want to prevent the displacement of hundreds of millions, the more common occurrence of devastating storms, and the degradation of our most valued ecosystems, we cannot accept the insertion of a little more symbolic weight to our language as a success. There is no time left for bickering over red lines. There is no time for denialism or hiding behind myths of panacean market forces. There is certainly no time to entertain the idea that the rising industrial average will allow anyone but the industrialist to outrun the rising sea. I wonder how many will be able to keep their heads above water.