Blog: UN climate change negotiations, Bangkok, April 2011

Publication | April 2011

Wednesday 13 April - Six days (or a lifetime) in a leaky boat

The deal reached by parties at Cancun is said to have “saved the ship”, however as negotiations wrapped up at Bangkok it became clear that Cancun, like the Copenhagen Accord, papered over the cracks in the negotiations but did not resolve fundamental differences in approach.

The Bangkok round of negotiations was designed to solidify agreement on an agenda for the year and to get down to the business of setting out a work programme to make headway in the coming months, such that agreement could be reached on real measures in Durban. As we saw however, the negotiations under the AWG-KP were bogged down with divisions over a second Kyoto Commitment period, and the AWG-LCA almost failed to deliver an agenda.

As to the reasons for the difficulty in coming to agreement on an agenda in the AWG-LCA, see our earlier blogs.

The agenda that was eventually delivered in the AWG-LCA was brief, broad, and puts back on the table for renegotiation many issues that have consistently failed to be successfully discussed. It can be seen as positive that the “Cancun Agreements” are not seen as a ceiling for what can be achieved by the end of the year; however it is troubling that there remains scope for backtracking on what has already been agreed to date.

The agenda sets out the list of matters to be considered in the preparation of “a comprehensive and balanced outcome to be presented to the Conference of the Parties for adoption at its seventeenth session”. These matters largely mirror those set out in the Bali Action Plan, the starting point of the AWG-LCA. The agenda goes on to note a further and separate item; “continued discussion of legal options with the aim of completing an agreed outcome based on decision 1/CP.13 [the Bali Action Plan]” and “the work done at the sixteenth session of the Conference of the Parties [the Cancun Agreements].”

So as the UNFCCC ship glides out of Bangkok and through the Chao Phraya River Delta region, we brace for a tension-filled year of negotiations on all fronts before docking in Durban. Expectations for Durban must surely now be modest in the light of Bangkok. This is perhaps not surprising given the outpouring of compromise and expenditure of political capital at Cancun.

Friday 8 April - The slow boat to Durban

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 5:00pm 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.

Wednesday 6 April - Deja vu in Bangkok

Late on the evening of Tuesday 5 April, the Parties got down to what they do best - talks about talks. This represents an awesome opportunity to reopen wounds, remind each other what they have (or haven’t) done, and debate what they really meant by “agreement” and “Decision”. Discussing agendas (which are arguably not necessary given that everyone knows what needs to be negotiated) provides the perfect backdrop.

The AWG-LCA work programme

It became apparent early on in the session that there were critical differences in opinion about what needs to be achieved this year, and the process that needs to be followed to get there. Two opposing views came forward:

  • that the Cancun Agreements narrowed the focus for this year and provided us with a path forward towards developing the frameworks for the key aspects that need to be brought together for agreement in Durban later this year.
  • that the Cancun Agreements provide agreement on the way forward for only some aspects of the breadth of the work of the AWG-LCA as defined in the Bali Action Plan, and as such the agenda for this year needs to be broadly inclusive of the other matters referred to the AWG-LCA in Bali so as to have a comprehensive package agreed in Durban.

The provisional agenda proposed by the chair of the AWG-LCA reflects the former view. It was added to on five occasions before the meeting, and even more agenda items were proposed from the floor at the beginning of the meeting.

This draft agenda was (perhaps unsurprisingly) not acceptable to many developing countries, leading to the G77 and China (a group representing some 131 developing countries) proposing an alternative agenda. This proposal was a brief statement reflecting the broader authorities of the AWG-LCA as laid down in the Bali Action Plan, rather than the narrower developments in Cancun.

A number of parties, including Switzerland on behalf of the Environmental Integrity Group, Norway and Tajikistan, expressed the view that the G77 proposal was too broad, fragmented, and would dilute efforts to achieve what is required by the end of the year, a comprehensive agreement in Durban. The USA was the most strongly opposed to the G77 proposal.

Towards the end of negotiations for the evening on the agenda, there was increasing support for a compromise position. The European Union in particular noted that the agenda should not treat the Cancun Agreements as a ceiling that should form the basis of what is worked upon throughout this year, but rather it should be a floor upon which to build a more comprehensive agreement.

The session was adjourned with no agenda agreed. The session will be resumed on Wednesday afternoon.

The AWG-KP work programme

Just as the gavel was falling to formalise the agreement of the parties to the AWG-KP agenda (much less controversial than that of the AWG-LCA), Tuvalu objected! Tuvalu was of the view that there should be one thing on the agenda only, namely ensuring that there should not be a gap between the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and any subsequent commitments by developed country parties under the Kyoto Protocol. The interjection raised significant applause; however the agenda was passed while noting the objection of Tuvalu. Tuvalu’s suggestion of not breaking off into small groups to continue circular discussions that have been unfolding over many years was clearly not going to gain traction. With Tuvalu’s comments still ringing in the air, the parties began their opening remarks, pantomiming Tuvalu’s prophecy of failing to obtain political commitment on the one big issue.

Of all the developed countries, only the European Union noted its willingness to agree to a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. The Umbrella group (made up of Australia, Norway, Canada, Japan and Russia, among others) stressed that the work of the AWG-KP should be considered alongside that of the AWG-LCA, meaning basically that agreeing to a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol is contingent upon agreements reached by all parties to commit to a framework for further action under the UNFCCC and outside of the Kyoto Protocol. This view was rebuked by Saudi Arabia and others, with the statement that discussions surrounding a second Kyoto commitment period under the AWG-KP should not be contingent upon developments in the AWG-LCA. The delegate from Saudi Arabia summed it up with the Shakespearian phrase “to KP or not to KP, this is not a question”. If only!

Those who attended last year’s Bonn talks immediately post-Copenhagen will recall similar discussions about the “legitimacy” of the Copenhagen Accord and objections to its integration into the formal UNFCCC negotiations. As the Accord has now largely been integrated into the negotiations by way of the Decisions coming out of Cancun, many parties now appear to be attempting to reverse out of agreements at Cancun by referring back to the negotiations at Bali. This is unsurprising, but indicative of the challenges faced this year.

Tuesday 5 April - Thai green flurry

Setting the agenda

The opening remarks of the Secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, outlined what needs to be achieved this year, and were targeted and precise about the process required to get there. Figueres said that this year we need to complete the work begun at Cancun and this requires the parties to move forward in a spirit of flexibility and compromise. Figueres, after noting that the pledges currently received by the Secretariat amount only to 60 per cent of what is required, sees two key issues for this year:

  • the resolution of key issues under the Kyoto Protocol; in particular, overcoming the very real danger that there will be no legally binding limitations on emissions for any countries after the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol
  • delivering on the Cancun Agreements to ensure that the institutions and frameworks required therein are in place in 2012 in accordance with the deadlines set out

Figueres is of course optimistic. It is, after all, easier to be optimistic at the start of the year than at the end, when yet another “crunch time” looms.

The early workshops

Sunday and Monday saw sessions presenting quantified economy-wide emission reduction targets by developed country parties and also developing country parties’ presentations on their “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” (NAMAs). These sessions allow all parties to have a good look at what each party is doing in order to meet its stated emissions reduction targets. Two presentations of interest were those of United States and China. Their targets haven’t changed, which is neither surprising nor controversial, but the statistics surrounding their implementation actions are significant. Let’s just put a few numbers out there:


  • will endeavour to lower its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40 to 45 per cent by 2020 compared to the 2005 level, increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 15 per cent by 2020 and increase forest coverage by 40 million hectares and forest stock volume by 1.3 billion cubic meters by 2020 from the 2005 levels
  • has closed down small inefficient power plants taking 60 GW of dirty power off the grid, saving 110 million tons CO2-e
  • leads the world in clean energy investment (including in hydro, solar PV and solar heaters)
  • has implemented vehicle efficiency standards “more stringent than in some developed countries”
  • has implemented many “market based” mechanisms, including differentiated electricity pricing in all 30 provinces
  • has implemented a range of successful subsidy programs (such as for the promotion of efficient air conditioners, taking them from 5 to 80 per cent market share)

The United States

  • will reduce all its greenhouse gas emissions “in the range of 17 per cent (below 2005 levels by 2020), in conformity with anticipated US energy and climate legislation, recognizing that the final target will be reported to the Secretariat in light of enacted legislation”
  • has issued increased efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, and has proposed increased efficiency standards for heavy vehicles
  • plans to propose emissions standards for electricity generation through the EPA
  • has proposed a target of 80 per cent of energy to come from clean sources by 2035
  • invested US$91 billion in clean energy in 2009, including US$29 billion in energy efficiency and US$21 billion in renewable energy

Parties’ overall targets have not changed from what has been presented to the UNFCCC following both Copenhagen, and the workshops could therefore be criticised as simply going through the motions of presenting information already officially on the record. The usefulness of these sessions will therefore lie in the extent to which they really enable parties to genuinely understand each others’ targets and actions (and the detail underlying them). If this is possible then they may be a useful baby step in unlocking some aspects of the negotiations.

Separately, a Workshop on the Technology Mechanism discussed issues relating to the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN). Though there is much interest in this area, one which could have significant commercial impacts, there has been uncertainty as to how it will work in practice. More clarity in this regard will be very welcome.

Climate - a done deal?

Some negotiators have commented that it almost seems that the so called “Cancun Agreements” are being spun into a “done deal” which may serve as the backbone of the future international regime, in the absence of the political will to go beyond them. There would of course still remain a significant number of issues to be addressed, such has what would happen to the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and how “legally binding” is “legally binding enough” to stimulate the private sector investment that is required to tackle dangerous climate change. This year should provide an insight into how far the Parties are looking beyond the “Cancun Agreements”.


The sixteenth session of the AWG-KP (AWG-KP 16) and the fourteenth session of the AWG-LCA (AWG-LCA 14), as well as workshops pursuant to the Cancun Agreements, are taking place from Sunday, 3 April through Friday, 8 April in Bangkok, Thailand.

This meeting will help to set the agenda and program for the year in the lead up to the Conference of the Parties to be held in Durban at the end of the year (COP17).

The AWG-KP and AWG-LCA (the main negotiating groups discussing, respectively, a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and a broader agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) opened today (Tuesday).



Andrew Hedges

Andrew Hedges

Tom Luckock

Tom Luckock

Tim Baines

Tim Baines