Hold Up!

The stage seemed set for another climate meeting to serve the economic interests of the US better than the threat of global warming

Published: Sunday 31 December 2000

Hold Up!

RUSTAM VANIAFor the first eight days, negotiations went exactly as expected.

After at least two previous climate conferences that followed a predestined script, the outcome of the sixth conference of parties (CoP-6) to the climate change convention, held in The Hague last month, seemed as predictable as a soap opera. The cast had their cues right. The European Union (EU) came with a position that showed some environmental integrity. The US and its allies (a loose grouping of Japan, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, known as the 'umbrella group') came with a list of unreasonable demands and threats to withdraw from negotiations if these were not met. The UK was eager to mediate between the EU and its favourite first cousin, the US. The court jesters, the G77 group of developing countries, were happy to have their attention diverted from serious issues, and to juggle instead with their favourite toys, technology and financial transfer. The stage seemed set for the inevitable disaster in the last act, when the EU would give in to the US. Another climate meeting would end up serving the economic interests of the US more than the threat of global warming and climate change. Many observers cringed at the expectation of yet another climate farce.

Luckily for them, this particular farce had some very interesting twists in the end.

unwilling to give in at the last minute as it has done so often in the past, the eu stood its ground on the crucial last day, refusing to accept a diluted agreement. The chairperson of the meeting, Dutch environment minister Jan Pronk, extended the meeting by one day in the hope of some compromise. The uk , represented by deputy prime minister John Prescott, offered a compromise plan on the last night of the meeting. According to British and us sources, the plan had been hatched in a lengthy telephone call between us president Bill Clinton and uk prime minister Tony Blair. A small group of us and European delegates worked through the night, reaching tentative agreement the next morning. The text addressed the three issues that had proved the most controversial over the previous days -- how to account for "carbon sinks" such as forests and farms; European desires to limit the use of emissions trading; and what to do in cases of non-compliance.

But eu ministers dismissed this last minute deal during the wee hours of the next morning, in a what was allegedly a 14-1 decision, the uk being the only country willing to accept the us offer. Unsurprisingly, French environment minister Dominique Voynet and German minister Jrgen Trittin, both Green Party politicians, were the most vocal in their opposition of a watered-down agreement. Voynet was head of the eu delegation, as the rotating presidency of the eu rested with France during the meeting. The eu dismissal of the deal enraged Prescott, who dramatically stomped out of the conference centre saying he was "gutted", much to the delight of vigilant tv crews in search of action.

A public war of words between Prescott and Voynet followed. Prescott angrily claimed that Voynet was too tired to understand the deal struck with the us . "She got cold feet, felt she could not explain it, said she was exhausted and could not understand the detail and then refused to accept it. That is how the deal fell," he claimed. "Prescott proved that he is a dyed-in-the-wool macho. [In his eyes], a woman is clearly tired, is scared and doesn't understand anything," Voynet retorted. "Prescott's comments are... pathetic and mediocre."

Svend Auken, Danish environment minister, demanded that Prescott apologise for his comments against Voynet. "If ever an apology is called for, now is the case," Auken said. He had played a role in convincing eu ministers that the last minute compromise provided too many concessions to the us . Jos Socrates, Portuguese environment minister, agreed with Auken. He said the compromise Prescott had brokered with the us would have endangered the environmental integrity of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. "I feel it is better not to have an agreement than to have a bad agreement," he said.

Ever the opportunists, us delegates saw their chance to blame the eu for lack of agreement in CoP-6. After two weeks of playing spoilsport at the conference, they now focused attention on the disagreements within the eu . Head of delegation Frank Loy dissociated himself from the failure of the meeting, saying the lack of agreement was due to "a crisis of governance within the European Union". "We showed real willingness to compromise. But too many of our negotiating partners held fast to positions shaped more by political purity than by practicality, more by dogmatism than pragmatism," he said, adding that the European decision-making process in this case had "a disastrous externality".

Willing to jump in and help their retrograde government with damage control, some us ngo s publicly blamed the eu , fuelling arguments in the ngo camp. "This was Europe's best chance to achieve a strong climate treaty, and they decided to pass it up," said Phillip E Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust in Washington, dc . "After January, the Europeans could face a Bush administration that is almost certain to push for bigger loopholes in the treaty." Surprisingly, even some European groups echoed these feelings.

But Voynet put her finger on the root of a much bigger problem that has recently become more and more evident, not just in the climate talks but also in recent trade disputes and negotiations for a biosafety protocol earlier this year. She said the breakdown of the climate talks reflected a significant cultural gap between the us and Europe in how they approach economic and social policies. The us faith in free-market methods, she said, would be deemed "the law of the jungle" in France.

As chairperson Pronk admitted that the meeting would have to be suspended on Saturday, one day after it was officially supposed to end, only one aspect had gone according to script. As in most other climate conferences, but particularly at Kyoto, the G77 was completely sidelined by the eu and the us while they haggled over their final deal. The day before on Friday, Pronk had officially closed the meeting at 6.30 pm, asking delegates to reconvene at 8 am on Saturday. It was at this time that the eu and the us met to discuss the Prescott deal.

"The G77 had their own meeting... actually it was the beginnings of a post-mortem of the failure of CoP-6 as by then no sign of the deal had been communicated to the group," says Farahana Yamin, director of the Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development in the uk . "It was infuriating as just before we broke up at 6.30, we could see various eu and umbrella group ministers looking anxiously at the one pager that obviously had the "deal" written on it -- a page we were never to see."

As this story went to press, it was reported that top government officials from the us and eu met in Ottawa on December 6, 2000, at the prompting of Clinton, who has expressed a desire to see a settlement on the climate issue before he leaves office. Canada and Japan were present at the meeting which failed to result in any consensus because the us felt issues already resolved in The Hague were being raked up again. Had this meeting brought the two sides closer, it would have resulted in ministerial talks in Oslo a week later. Now, negotiations are expected to resume in May 2001.

It remains unclear how the G77 fits into this deal-making process. This kind of arrangement, in which G77 consent is taken for granted without the group's participation in actual negotiations, is the continuation of an extremely dangerous and undemocratic trend in global negotiations. Developing countries protested against it at the World Trade Organisation, where they clearly saw the direct link between the lack of democracy in the proceedings and their economic interests. They will be fools if they take the lack of democracy in the climate negotiations lying down.
EARLY DAYS While the last two days of the conference were by far the most exciting, the earlier days were not without their moments. CoP-6 saw expression of a lot of public anger at the slow pace of the negotiations -- something that has been missing in previous climate meetings. The highlight of the two weeks, quite easily, was the chocolate-strawberry cream pie that landed on Loy's face just as he settled in to address a press conference.

This act of anger by a young girl from the uk , part of a group of 30 activists who entered the premises of the meeting without accreditation, prompted Pronk to call a meeting with ngo s and the media, and plead with them to use only words to register protest, not pies. The 30 activists, escorted to Pronk's meeting by un security, were unrepentant, denouncing the meeting as a complete sham, totally out of touch with the reality of the hundreds of people who had already lost their lives due to climate change. While Pronk has a point in saying that pie-throwing is not the best way to get the us to take its commitments seriously, the incident is certainly an indication of the fact that the world is losing patience with us delay tactics.

Vying closely with the pie-throwing incident was an inspiring speech from unexpected quarters. At the opening session of the ministerial segment during the second week, Jacques Chirac, the French president, called on the us to "cast aside" its doubts and hesitations in tackling global warming and lead the rest of the world by example. He pointed out the climate negotiations would have to address equity between nations. "Do we want to control and regulate the process of globalisation in order to make it fairer and more human?" he asked. "France proposes that we set as our ultimate objective the convergence of per capita emissions." Not amused by his reminder that each us citizen emits three times more greenhouse gases than a French, us senators described Chirac's remarks as "unproductive".

Adding considerably to the anti- us feeling at CoP-6 was a group of 200 us students who came as observers. They hounded us senators, often forming barricades around them and hampering their movement. us allies Canada and Australia also came under ridicule. Proclaiming shame at their country's reluctance to take action against climate change, two Canadian web journalists burned their passports. As Australia unashamedly tried to count in carbon sequestration by every blade of grass in the country, potted plants on the conference premises were marked off as "Australian sinks".

Even delegates did not pass up the opportunity to comment on the retrogressive positions of some countries. More than once, G77 delegates in the plenary made pointed remarks aimed at the us . During a discussion on financial mechanisms, Raul E Estrada-Oyeula, Argentine head of delegation and chairperson of the Kyoto CoP in 1997, said the delegates were "too polite to mention names" but they all knew who was holding up progress at the negotiations.

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