COP18 actors rehearse their lines

I rarely choose to share the memory of how I dozed off during my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to listen to music inside one of the wonders of the modern world, the Sydney Opera House.

At the time I attributed the aberration to Australia’s challenging time zone but even that feeble excuse acquired added shame last week.

Throughout October I’ve been following the tireless globetrotting of Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). From Washington DC to Barbados, Bonn, London, Singapore and South Korea, she’s been on a mission to communicate her warm-up messages for next month’s Conference of the Parties in Doha (COP18).

Each venue called for an exhausting agenda of formal speeches, lectures, interviews and meetings. By Wednesday, I was taken aback to see this:

Until that point I’d been concentrating on what Ms Figueres has had to say in the formal business of the circumnavigation, knowing her style to be admirably forthright. The first of the events, the IETA Carbon Forum in Washington, proved to be a gem of her genre.

I only hope that the grasping hordes of carbon market-makers and traders turned up at the appointed early hour of 8.30 to hear the opening words:

Let me start with a fact that is not very popular among market participants: the carbon market is not an end in itself.  It is a tool to solve a global problem in a cost-effective manner

Then the American audience received a message that most certainly will not be articulated during the presidential campaign:

Let’s look at what’s happening in Asia, which is the new center of the universe in regards to emission reduction efforts….You are better off if you get involved in the design and the construction of the rules with which you will have to comply, rather than letting others write them for you

Safely on European soil, Ms Figueres reverted to her familiar brand of positive thinking, spiced up with a joke or two about local custom. Each speech starts with a roll-call of recent extreme weather events in the locality, then a summary of the progress made in climate change negotiations, followed by expectations of COP18 and an exhortation to her hosts to crank up their action on climate change.

“I use every speaking opportunity I get to challenge my audience to do more,” Ms Figueres said in Singapore. Here she is in London talking about progress to date:

Occasionally, this irrepressible optimism encroaches on the willing suspension of disbelief. I found myself drawn more to the down-to-earth business of the Second Conference on Climate Change and Development in Africa held in Ethiopia last weekend.

Judging by the slide presentations, there was real depth of material in this joint initiative by the African Union Commission, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the African Development Bank.

It’s the little differences in emphasis that offer tantalising hints of what’s to come in Doha. For example, while this month has seen the high-level Global Green Growth Forum in Copenhagen and the inauguration of the Global Green Growth Institute in Seoul, the African conference referred to the topic as Inclusive Green Growth.

Speakers in Addis Ababa were sceptical about Christiana Figueres’ impassioned belief that western governments and corporations have been converted to the promised land of triple win action. In Barbados she told her government hosts:

you are lowering disaster risk; you are preparing for the onslaught of climate change; and you are doing it in a way that brings economic prosperity today. It really is an example that other countries should be looking at to see how you do integrate those three.

Whereas Ms Figueres skates over references to the limit of two degrees of warming contained in COP agreements, the Africans speak with feeling about the imminent failure to achieve this goal. Whereas the Executive Secretary is an enthusiastic but vague advocate of private sector finance for climate change, the African conference discussed specific estimates of costs of mitigation and adaptation, with demands for clarity on how the promise of climate finance of $100 billion per annum by 2020 is going to be delivered.

A whole section of the conference agenda was devoted to the subject of sustainable energy for all. There were discussions about the impact of climate change on health and on agriculture. The title of the conference – Climate Change and Development indicates the looming problem for the UNFCCC – that the fight against climate change increasingly demands integration with issues beyond its mandate. We already see this in the protracted struggle for momentum on REDD+, the scheme to reduce deforestation.

The big unknown factor for COP18 is how this African Group of Negotiators will blend with the larger group of over 130 developing countries known as G77/China. What was once a homogenous group, lined up against the richer “Annex 1” countries, now includes some of the world’s major emitters, led by China.

Just before the start of the Africa conference came the announcement of the first meeting of the “Like Minded Developing Countries on Climate Change,” held in Beijing. This new alliance is comprised largely of middle income countries and includes members of the “awkward squad” – Bolivia, Ecuador, India, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and China itself – countries renowned for slowing progress of UNFCCC negotiations.

Its press release calls for all governments to proceed “on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” It rightly observes that the Rio+20 summit in June reiterated these 1992 principles.

The African Group would strongly endorse this sentiment but there are hints of fatigue at the impasse that its blanket application brings. Has “CBDR” become a figleaf for India and China to continue to grow their economies by burning coal whilst Africa is discouraged from exploiting its own ample resources? Likewise, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela are oil-based economies in no hurry to reinvent themselves.

Talking of oil, I do hope that the UNFCCC secretariat will be a little more discriminating in organising the 2013 speaking itinerary for their boss.  Both the Washington and London events were sponsored by a selection of the world’s largest oil companies. The Chatham House event in London thoroughly deserved its disruption by tar sands protesters. The UNFCCC owes no favours of association.

I appreciate the difficulty of circumventing this banana skin. Even as the rising waters lap at the foundations of the Sydney Opera House, I read that Opera Australia seeks “investment in our creative future” through partnership with ….Exxon Mobil.


Presentations at the Second Conference on Climate Change and Development in Africa