The future of a global climate agreement may rely on a French minister wielding a gavel.
That’s because the annual talks aimed at limiting temperature increases never agreed on voting rules. Every move requires consensus, and it’s up to the chair to decide what that means.
The result is negotiations that often seem to go nowhere and at times descend into farce. When last year’s conference ran overtime in Doha, the Qatari statesman presiding gaveled through a series of decisions as Russian envoy Oleg Shamanov frantically banged his nameplate on the desk.
“Hearing no objections, it is so decided,” Abdullah Bin Hamad Al Attiyah, Qatar’s former deputy prime minister, said with each verdict. Environmental groups cheered and circulated a photo of a grinning Al Attiyah captioned “Hammer time.” Shamanov wasn’t smiling.
“That was outrageous: I was clearly trying to object but I was not given the floor,” Shamanov said Oct. 18 by phone from Moscow. “There is something really bad with our house and we have to bring it back to order.”
Russia, Belarus and Ukraine blocked progress at interim talks in June, demanding a review of the rules. The matter will resurface today in Warsaw when envoys from 195 nations convene for a two-week meeting. The fracas highlights a risk that the talks will fizzle between now and 2015, when Paris hosts a meeting aiming for a global deal limiting greenhouse gases, replacing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
The risk to humans of climate changed has been emphasized in the runup to this year’s talks by the devastation wrought in the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan last week. The storm, the strongest tropical cyclone on record to hit land, may have killed 10,000 people, according to the Red Cross. Climate scientists warn that global warming will intensify storms.
An unraveling of the talks may undermine the $82 billion carbon market and signal fewer curbs on coal mined by the likes of Peabody Energy Corp. and Coal India Ltd. It could soften the push for clean energy projects that aid manufacturers from First Solar Inc. to Vestas Wind Systems A/S.
When a yet-to-be-named French official takes charge of finding common ground in 2015, it could end with a fragile agreement, like in Kyoto, or with discord, as in Copenhagen in 2009, which dissolved into finger-pointing. That would leave the world without a global effort to rein in fossil fuel emissions. UN scientists said Sept. 27 that record levels of greenhouse gases threaten to push warming beyond the global goal to cap it at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
“The need for consensus certainly could hamper something major, like a Paris protocol,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who has attended all except one of the climate conferences. “Everyone wants to remove the Damocles sword of requiring consensus. But they also realize that if you start going to even super-majority voting, it becomes a different atmosphere.”
Opening the talks today, Polish Environment Minister Marcin Korolec, who will wield the gavel in Warsaw, promised transparency and inclusiveness.
The requirement for consensus grew from the origin of the talks, which began with a 1992 UN treaty, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC. Diplomats couldn’t agree on rules of procedure. After deadlocking on the issue in 1995 and 1996, they decided to operate without voting rules.
“Not having a real decision-making process is immature and speaks to the lack of sincerity people have to make tough decisions,” said Kevin Conrad, a delegate from Papua New Guinea, which along with Mexico is pushing for a voting rule. “The current system doesn’t work.”
Achieving consensus isn’t easy. Envoys must match the interests of rich nations such as the U.S., Japan and Germany with those of developing ones led by China and India. They also must appease those resisting market structures, such as Cuba and Bolivia, and island nations from the Maldives to Tuvalu, which risk disappearing as warmer temperatures raise seas.
“Consensus is something the chair has to feel in his guts,” said Raul Estrada Oyuela, the Argentinean diplomat who chaired the 1997 discussions in Kyoto, Japan, that produced the only treaty limiting carbon. “Consensus is not unanimity because rule of unanimity implies veto power.”
Past presidents of the conference include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who as environment minister in 1995 set the stage for the Kyoto Protocol, and the then Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen, who in 2009 failed to broker a global deal in Copenhagen.
“A lot depends on the skill behind the hand holding the gavel,” said Michael Zammit Cutajar, UNFCCC executive secretary from 1991 to 2002. “It’s been handled well by Ripert and Merkel, and badly by Rasmussen. The fact that there is no accepted rule is a blemish.”
French diplomat Jean Ripert overrode Saudi and Kuwaiti opposition to adopt the 1992 UNFCCC treaty. Zammit Cutajar said the rulebook was later rejected because oil-producing nations were concerned about harming their economies, and the U.S. didn’t want to be bound by a majority vote on financial matters.
The Saudis resisted because it would have been a contradiction to accept that “writing a cheque requires consensus whereas the total threat to an economy was simply adopted by majority,” said Mohammad Al Sabban, who negotiated for the desert kingdom until 2011.
Merkel vs Saudis
The decisions in Doha had precedents. Merkel overlooked Al Sabban’s objections in 1995. In 2010, Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa bypassed Bolivia’s concerns. Copenhagen hosted the most famous failure.
The Danes convened a small group of nations to draft an agreement for all countries to take greenhouse gas commitments. Rasmussen’s mistake was then not to give the wider group of all nations more time to consider that text, said Yvo de Boer, then the UNFCCC executive secretary.
“Copenhagen was a perfect example of gross mismanagement of the process,” de Boer, now an adviser on climate change at KPMG LLP, said by phone. “If a different procedure had been followed, history could have been written in a different way.”
Tuvalu, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Cuba were among nations that objected in Denmark. Venezuelan envoy Claudia Salerno held up a bloody hand and said “Do you think a sovereign country should have to make its hand bleed to raise the right to speak?”
Russia’s Shamanov said there’s a risk of repeating that experience without more clarity on how consensus is determined.
“Can you imagine the situation when we have the draft new agreement in Paris in 2015 if it is the same as in Copenhagen?,” Shamanov said. “We lost three years after Copenhagen fixing problems. We were just one step away from a very balanced solution, and it was ruined.”
Russia’s desire for a review of the rules is on the agenda in Warsaw, and the UN “should be able to accommodate their concerns,” said Christiana Figueres, the current UNFCCC executive secretary.
“The difficulty will come in 2015,” said Al Sabban of Saudi Arabia. He said a treaty formed without consensus would be “not workable. You need Russia, and you need all countries.”