Russia and its allies halted negotiations last week in a key advisory body for the annual U.N. climate change conference, forcing the body to lose precious planning time to guide this year's summit in Warsaw, Poland.
Negotiators from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus blocked the Subsidiary Body for Implementation agenda to force debate on grievances left over from the meeting in Doha, Qatar, last year.
The SBI will need to scramble to provide its recommendations in the week before the 19th Conference of Parties meeting of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in November, said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"You basically lost two weeks," Meyer said. "Now it has to be done in one week."
Nations have a year and a half to create a new agreement to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol after 2020, one that would require emissions reductions from all members of the UNFCCC. The United States and China, the two biggest carbon emitters in the world, never signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, making efforts to cut global emissions largely ineffective.
Since 1997, carbon emissions have continued to rise. The International Energy Agency said the world is on track to warm by more than 5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by the end of the century (ClimateWire, June 10).
No discussion on loss and damage
Russia, Ukraine and Belarus protested the decision made in Doha to prevent Russia from selling 5.8 billion metric tons of CO2 credits in the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, which began this year. Russia did not sign on to the second commitment period.
The negotiators refused to accept the agenda unless the SBI included an item to reform the procedure of the climate talks, which allowed the Qatari chairman of the conference to gavel through Russia's opposition in Doha.
As a result, negotiators could not discuss a loss and damage mechanism that would provide assistance to developing countries hit by violent storms, flooding and other consequences of climate change, Meyer said. The loss and damage mechanism, which would help developing countries beyond adaptation funding, was never formally negotiated in Doha because the United States would not agree to an open-ended compensation mechanism (ClimateWire, Dec. 5, 2012).
Most parties in the SBI agreed with Russia on the substance of the country's concern: that after 20 years of climate negotiations, there is little clarity on the rules of procedure. But Russia wanted to make a political point, rather than address the need for change in procedure, Meyer said.
Other items on the SBI agenda that were not addressed included discussing the mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, the once-every-four-year reports from developed countries and the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions of developing countries.
Although Russia, Ukraine and Belarus' actions did stall the negotiation process, they are raising a legitimate concern on the transparency of the decisionmaking process in the UNFCCC, said Anna Korppoo, a senior research fellow at Fridtjof Nansen Institute. "Consensus" is a vague concept in the rules of procedure.
"The concern on the vagueness of the procedural rules is sympathized by many other parties, although all this sympathy may not always be spelled out in the negotiation room. Various practical as well as political tensions work against accepting the request to add a separate agenda item on the topic," Korppoo said. Instead of considering the event as a political move, the question is whether the request by these three countries is unreasonable.
Advances in Durban platform, forests
But what was lost in the SBI did not totally stymie preparations for Warsaw. The Ad-hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) continued talks on the concept of equity, a term that has been used since the very beginning of the negotiations, but with a variable definition.
Equity is the idea that countries should contribute to slowing climate change each according to their needs and financial means. It would drive decisions on which nations cut the most emissions, which receive the funding and how the consequences will affect vulnerable populations.
In order to craft a new deal in 2015, countries will need to decide how far they must go to define equity, said David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative for the World Resources Institute.
"The agreement will be applicable to all parties, but the role they play, their commitments on emissions, and the adaptation and finance elements will vary," he said. "The discussion has become more alive and deeper than has been the case for a while."
The ADP also discussed how to better account for greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forests, changes in land use and other land-based sources and sinks of carbon.
With extra time freed from the canceled SBI meeting, negotiators were able to make significant progress in the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice, the advisory body that guides the UNFCCC ministerial meeting on scientific issues. The SBSTA was able to move forward on crafting a strategy to reduce emissions and protect forests in a post-Kyoto world, said observers of the negotiations.
"It has been said that the lack of activity gave rise to the ability to do more work in the SBSTA," said Stephen Leonard, president of the Climate Justice Program. Negotiators were able to find compromise on the contentious issue of verifying carbon emissions from forests preserved through Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), a program that pays countries to keep forests standing.
REDD+ talks in Doha broke down on wealth lines: Rich countries wanted a rigorous verification in exchange for finance, and poor countries refused to submit to tough standards without the money to back it (ClimateWire, Dec. 3, 2012).
Safeguards cause a stir
Last week, the negotiators agreed they would use international consultation and analysis (ICA) to verify emissions. ICA is a system that is being developed to assess developing countries' efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The SBSTA also agreed on controversial text on reporting safeguards for biodiversity and indigenous people living in forests, a topic that stirred objections at the climate summit in Durban, South Africa, in 2011 and was not addressed in Doha. In Durban, countries agreed to report on safeguards to the UNFCCC every four years but didn't specify a date for the first reports or whether more frequent reporting would be necessary.
The text out of SBSTA does not mandate a specific timing for the first reports and suggests that countries could voluntarily submit information to the UNFCCC website as REDD+ is implemented.
"The current requirement to report safeguard efforts every four years is simply not often enough, and leaving the first reports to a time frame that is ambiguous at best sets a bad precedent," said Niranjali Amerasinghe, director of the climate and energy program at the Center for International Environmental Law.
SBSTA wrote some of the first definitions for the drivers of deforestation, or the factors that encourage clear-cutting, such as cattle ranching.
But the advisory body also passed unclear text that named "livelihoods" as a driver of deforestation, which could be interpreted to mean the communities who live in forests, Amerasinghe said. Further discussion and clarification are expected in Warsaw.
Negotiators also made significant progress on agriculture. In the first big step since Durban, member countries agreed to submit proposals on adapting agriculture to climate change, including adaptation co-benefits. Members also agreed to hold a workshop during the COP 19 meeting in Warsaw, said Geoffrey Orme-Evans, environment and climate change specialist with the Humane Society International.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Geoffrey Orme-Evans' title at the Humane Society International.