A never-ending night, and longer day

David Steven
14 December 2007

A rolling post, updating the tortuous path towards a Bali agreement. Update 1: a tentative agreement that will be debated further, 8am tomorrow morning. Update 2 (the next morning): the agreement begins to unwind. Update 3: misprint in the text! Update 4: farce. Update 5: Shameful scenes - Yvo de Boer in tears. Update 6: Just when it seemed impossible, Bali roadmap agreed. Update 7: De Boer returns.

The story so far

According to the UN's Yvo de Boer, a small group of ministers have agreed text on adaptation, technology transfer and finance. That's the good news, though their work could be unpicked later on in plenary.

Another group, meanwhile, has agreed text that covers developed country commitments to cut emissions. It's now arguing about arrangements for developing countries, an acrimonious discussion that we believe pits the US, Canada and possibly Japan against the 155 members of the G77.

Then, the group will move onto the question of the charmingly named ‘preambular text'. The EU is desperate to see this reflect IPCC findings and to specify a ‘range' of emission cuts by developed countries. The US is said to ‘agnostic' about IPCC science on these issues.

The next stage is to agree an end date for the negotiations. Most countries want 2009, though arguments over another date are still possible.

Finally, the question of the status of the negotiations needs to be agreed. Will it be a formal process? Or just an informal dialogue?

Once all this is settled, the small groups will report back to the conference President. And then, the proposed text will be presented to a plenary at which all countries have a chance to say their bit.

(First of course, it will need to be translated into six languages and photocopied a few billion times.)

Hopefully, countries will endorse whatever is given to them, but there will be plenty of scope for delegates to get picky about the details. That could add hours onto the schedule of a conference that was supposed to end hours ago.

Ban Ki-Moon, we have just heard, is flying in to assist the process. And he'll give a press conference at eleven tomorrow. I desperately hope everything will be done by then...

Update: A tentative agreement

It all ended suddenly - and inconclusively. The small island states had thrown a party in the corridors, while ministers struggled to iron out disagreements on the Bali text. The islands were drowning their sorrows while waiting to drown, a handwritten sign said.

Then, at around, 2 am, the ministerial meeting broke up. An agreement had been reached, ready for approval at a final session of all countries tomorrow morning. Bali was on its final straight - or was it?

As ministers attempted to break through a scrum of reporters, activists and other onlookers, rumours began to swirl round the convention centre.

The Japanese and Indonesian ministers briefed their domestic media, while German Environment Minister, Sigmar Gabriel drew the biggest crowd as he stopped repeatedly to put the European side of the story.

It had not been a good night for the EU, it seemed. A key battle had been over whether to include reference to IPCC science in an agreement that merely sets the stage for two years of negotiation that should lead to a new global deal on climate.

It seems that all numbers have been excluded, a key American demand. Instead, IPCC findings are referenced in a footnote, a somewhat undignified relegation in the week it picked up its Nobel Peace Prize.

For developed countries, negotiators appear to have adopted for a simple expedient. Throw as many words at the problem as possible. The rich world must take on "measurable, reportable and verifiable nationally appropriate mitigation commitments or actions, including quantified emission limitation and reduction objectives," the text we have seen says.

Importantly, all countries are asked to make comparable efforts to reduce emissions. This is a pointed reference to US, which will be expected to do as much as countries that are already attempting to implement the Kyoto protocol.

But it's the provisions for developing countries that have prompted the most acrimonious conflict. Gradually it became clear that at least two options had been left undecided in the proposed text.

I got caught in an eddy as the German minister swept by, bouncing off a Japanese cameraman, and ending up pressed against Herr Gabriel's well-fed flank. Rewarded by a benign smile, I asked why ministers had given up for the night when key issues were unresolved.

"Ask the United States and the G77," he said, "it's got nothing at all to do with Europe."

So the two foes have decided to sleep on their differences and the EU, it appears, has grown sick of acting as referee. But taking a still incomplete agreement to plenary is a risky strategy. According to the minister, it is now up to Rachmat Witoelar, the Indonesian environment minister and conference President, to save the day.

Even if we get an agreement tomorrow, it may well be an ambiguous one. And that was the result the UN's Yvo de Boer most wanted to avoid. Angus Friday, who represents the small island states, agrees

"By not being ambitious here, we are going to end up having to use a huge amount of time to reach agreement, and we do not have that time," he said.

Update 2: A great unravelling?

After minimal sleep, we're all back in the convention centre for the overrunning UN climate conference. We were due to start at 8, but the session doesn't open until 9, kicking off with some mind numbingly boring procedural stuff.

But suddenly, we're onto the main course - the text that will launch two years' negotiation that should culminate in a new global deal for climate.

In the chair, the Indonesian environment minister explains the tortuous path that the negotiations have taken and tells delegates that he has been forced to decide an issue left unresolved by last night's ministerial discussions.

He begs countries not to start unpicking the proposals that are in front of them. "Even minor changes will compromise our ability to reach an agreement here in Bali," he warns.

Then he opens discussion up to the floor. Portugal is first to speak, on behalf of the rest of the European Union. No text can be perfect, the delegate says. But the EU welcomes the compromises that have been reached and urges others to support it.

There is a pause and we all hold our breath...Then a smattering of applause - the core of the Bali roadmap appears to have passed without objection.

But wait, India has an intervention to make.

The text on developing country commitments is not the one proposed by the G77, India says, reading out a preferred alternative.

Here's the President's proposal:

Measurable, reportable and verifiable nationally appropriate mitigation actions by developing country Parties in the context of sustainable development, supported by technology and enabled by financing and capacity building.

And here's India's preference:

Nationally appropriate mitigation actions by developing country Parties in the context of sustainable development, supported by technology and enabled by financing and capacity building in a measurable, reportable and verifiable manner,

Huh? Yes it took me a while to see the difference. But look at what is being measured and verified in the two options. In the first, it's developing country efforts to cut emissions. In the second, developed country efforts to transfer technology, provide finance etc.

The President begs India to accept the original, but now the other 800 pound gorilla wants to speak - in Chinese, which sends delegates scrambling for translation units.

Eventually, the President tells everyone the gist of what has been said. According to China, consultations are taking place outside the hall and no decision can be taken until they're completed.

And with that, the session is suspended. The President's attempt to force through a decision may have backfired. We'll soon know if this is a minor hiccup or the beginning of a great unravelling...

Update 3: Misprint in the text

My friend Ron Bailey, the libertarian science correspondent, has just spotted...a misprint in the text. And it's a real howler.

"Mobilization of public- and private-sector funding and investment, including facilitation of carbon-friendly choices."

Carbon-friendly? Shouldn't that be climate-friendly, guys?


Update 4: Another false start

We're off again with the President asking the Indian delegation to repeat its statement from earlier, but it turns out the Indian minister is not in the room.

Then the Chinese ask to speak. And it turns out they are furious. Various G77 delegates are in a meeting with the Indonesian minister of foreign affairs, they claim. They sense a conspiracy to push through decisions while representatives are out of the room.

The complaint is uncompromising: "The secretariat did this intentionally. I would like to ask if this secretariat is our secretariat. I want an apology from the secretariat."

It is an embarrassing - even humiliating - moment for the Indonesian chair and, when the Pakistan delegate chips in to complain as well, he bows to the inevitable. After a farcical few minutes, the session is suspended again.

But we close with a plea for as short a break as possible. "We are running out of time," the President warns.


Update 5: Yvo de Boer in tears.

Astounding events as we reconvene. First, the Indonesian prime minister and UN Secretary General arrive to read the riot act to delegations.

Their message is carefully co-ordinated. The world's leaders demanded progress when they met in September. The science says the world needs to act immediately if it is to have any chance of stopping dangerous climate change.

The conference President, meanwhile, increasingly resembles a rabbit stuck in the headlights. He apologies profusely for allowing parallel meetings to take place before the first two suspensions. But China will not let the matter drop. The issue demands further explanation, its delegate says. China wants the UNFCCC secretariat to tell them what went wrong and why.

Then the bombshell. The floor is given to Yvo de Boer, UNFCCC head, a man who is normally unflappable, urbane and good humoured.

But now he looks devastated and sits head in hands, unable to speak. Eventually, he squeezes out a few words. He did not know that another meeting was taking place, he says, now openly in tears.

There is warm applause but de Boer has had enough and rushes from the room. I wonder whether that's the end of the line for him...


Update 6: Dawn follows the darkest hour

Back to the substance.

India repeats its proposal and the debate begins. The European Union, represented by Portugal, follows quickly to support the proposal. It just wants an agreement, it says.

But there is a split emerging in the G77. Bangladesh brings it out. Less developing countries feel the proposal is too hard on them, and by implication too soft on larger developing countries.

They want a caveat applied, similar to that used for the industrialized countries. All actions must take into account differences in the "national circumstances" of countries in the developing world.

This is, it seems, a widely held position among the less developed countries and small island states. Many come in to support the Bangladesh proposal, though some suggest a slightly different textual amendment and others say they like the idea in principle, but will respond to pleas not to unpick the text.

However, some of the richer developing countries are not so keen. Saudi Arabia, in particular, is adamant that no changes should be made to the text, apart from the one suggested by India. (Pakistan also chips in favour and adds another minor change.)

And then a new front is opened up when the US speaks. Developing countries have talked the talk, but failed to walk the walk, Paula Dobriansky tells a hushed floor. Their amendment completely changes the type of commitment they must take on.

The United States is not prepared to adopt the Indian proposal to change the text, she says. Her words are met with a chorus of boos.

Japan speaks next, giving the United States some kind of fuzzy support. But South Africa issues a ferocious and articulate denunciation of the American position. Developing countries have gone much further than they needed to. It's the United States that has failed to take on strong commitments.

The mood is now bleak, as countries speak to argue for more favourable treatment for the world's poorest, or to denounce the US position. It becomes hard to see where agreement will come from.

But then suddenly, the US flags its wish to speak again. Dobriansky argues that the US has shifted its position considerably, agreeing to the principle of taking on a "quantified emission limitation and reduction objectives."

And then we get to the turning point. The US wants a shared vision, Dobrianky says, and to agree a Bali roadmap. In a spirit of co-operation and responding directly to the words of South Africa, she is prepared to withdraw her objections and go with the consensus position.

Surprised applause follows and builds, as delegates realise the talks have been pulled back from the brink. It all moves rather fast after that. South Africa welcomes the new United States position.

But South Africa is not done yet. The delegate ‘interprets' the text that applies to developing countries and shows that it can be interpreted as meeting the needs of the poorest people.

This has been teed up with Costa Rica, it seems, which now withdraws its proposal. It will accept South Africa's mediation.

With that a final denouement is only a few minutes away. The Indian proposal is read out and the President asks whether there are any objections.

The applause starts slowly, but turns into cheers. Agreement has been finally been reached, but only after it seemed almost to have slipped out of reach.


Update 7: De Boer returns

Yvo de Boer, last seen rushing from the stage in tears, slipped back onto the platform fifteen minutes or so later.

Costa Rica speaks of its confidence in him and its huge appreciation of his work. Enormous applause. More tears on the stage. The Bali deal is done and Yvo de Boer is back in his seat.
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