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UN Climate negotiations in Lima, Peru

Published December 4, 2014

by iboran

Idil Boran
from Lima, Peru


The 20th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 20) at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has convened on Monday, December 1, 2014, in Lima, Peru.

COP 20 is of critical importance as the international community is currently working on a new climate agreement. As noted in previous updates from Warsaw in November in 2013, and from Bonn in June 2014, the negotiations are being conducted within a specific timetable known as the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. This phase is expected to come to a close at COP 21 in Paris next December. Put another way, COP 20 in Lima is the penultimate annual meeting of the parties before Paris. For this reason, it is considered to be an important step. It is the meeting that will set the tone for the future of the global climate regime. To be more precise, it is in Lima that the text of the new agreement is to be fully drafted.

In this opening update from Lima, my focus will be on some general reflections on the multilateral process on climate change. The updates from Lima will be thematically organized and, altogether, they will catalogue some of the main issues arising from Lima, while assessing their merits and shortcomings. My goal, today, is to reflect on the multilateral process in general, in an effort to carve out an appropriate framework for understanding the progression of political decision-making. In short, what exactly should we expect from the negotiations?

First, the pace of the meetings during the two-week conference is, inevitably, going to be slow. At times, the discussions become highly technical and give the appearance of being focused merely on minutia. The reality is that every detail has to be taken into account and negotiated. For this reason, the multilateral process is bound to frustrate those who look for quick fixes, easy answers, and grand solutions. But those who are familiar with the intricacies of collective decision-making understand that it is not reasonable to expect policy to simply pop-up into existence. They need to be carefully thought through, taking into account the diversity of positions and standings. This is no different for a global climate regime.

Second, what is being negotiated is unambiguously multifaceted. The agreement that is currently being negotiated includes both mitigation and adaptation components. These form the two pillars of negotiations. This structure distinguishes itself significantly from the previous era of climate agreements, which was focused solely on mitigation. Today, there is an understanding that mitigation and adaptation strategies must work in tandem. Any agreement on a specific issue – such as an agreement on finance, or transfer of technology, or loss and damage – has to be consistent with all the aspects of the overall agreement under the Convention. Given the deep differences between negotiating blocks, it is expected that the discussions will be highly focused, as opposed to being diffused and broad. Moreover, the language of the text is of great importance. Each word, or turn of phrase, needs be selected carefully to accurately reflect the nuances of what is agreed upon.

Third, the decisions to be made in the current phase set the tone for the next stage ahead. What this means is that the various aspects of the agreement are open to be reconsidered and reworked in the future in light of new information, as well as lessons learned. The goal of the multilateral process, overall, is to set the building blocks of an effective and durable agreement, which also satisfies the requirements of fairness. What is important, then, is to reach the goals that are set for a given phase, and then move on to the next steps. Critics often disregard this feature of negotiations. They often assume that if a solution is not found and implemented at once, then the process is failing. Unfortunately, this assumption provides poor guidance. It frames the thinking within a highly restrictive box.

Indeed, many are inclined to think that the focus on details, the technicality and tenuousness of the discussions are an indication of dysfunction. Some go as far as saying that not much gets done at the UN climate talks, and that the whole enterprise is futile. They are too precipitate in this judgment. Treaties and global agreements develop overtime and refine themselves through a process of rethinking and reconsideration. It is for this reason that the formal multilateral platform is of great importance. The formal platform provides an institutional architecture that sets, systematically and transparently, the conditions and methods for collective public deliberation and decision-making to take place.

Like the workings of science, international negotiations on climate change within the Convention constitute an ongoing, self-correcting, and formal process, with a well-defined and stringent method. Looked at superficially and from a given time slice, it may look like little or no progress is made. Taken as a whole, it becomes clear that the overall effort moves forward, provided that the institutional structure within which it takes place is strong, transparent, and just.

Stay tuned for further updates on the progression of the negotiations at COP 20.

Idil Boran, Associate Professor
Department of Philosophy, York University.
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