International Climate Negotiations: Cutting the Gordian Knot

05/29/2012 09:07 am ET | Updated Jul 29, 2012

Watching the climate negotiations in Bonn last week, I had an unsettling sense of déjà vu. Large conference room, familiar faces, and the same basic conundrums that derailed Copenhagen, complicated Cancun, and got papered over in Durban. Let's face it, the climate negotiations have become a Gordian knot awaiting the reincarnation of Alexander the Great to cut them free.

The post-Bonn news roundup couldn't have been more depressing: "Bonn climate talks end in discord and disappointment"concluded the Guardian. "Climate talks stall with nations 'wasting time'" reported the BBC. And headline writers had a field day with disaster metaphors: "Climate talks risk sinking 'like Titanic'" (Reuters) and "Governments fiddle while planet heats up" (WWF).

Michael Liebreich, founder & CEO of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, summed it up with a single tweet: "The fight for an unambitious #climate deal by 2015, effective 2020, which won't be ratified or implemented."

It's hard to argue with these gloomy assessments, but they should not be used as an excuse for giving up the fight. At the end of the day, we still need a fair, ambitious and binding climate agreement for the seven reasons I outlined here.

But how long are we going to keep banging our collective heads against the wall before we get on with the task at hand? While the negotiations are complex and divisions are deep, the formula for slicing through the Gordian knot is fairly simple:

2012-05-29-gordianknot.jpgPublic Domain: Matthew Walker Knot

1) Start negotiating in good faith. By that, I mean, all governments must negotiate as if their top priority really is to limit temperature rise to 2° C, or even better, the 1.5° C that more than 100 countries have called for. And because we're already committed to some degree of climate change, an equal priority must be to help the poorest and most vulnerable (in all countries!) to build more resilient communities and to adapt to the inevitable impacts coming their way. In other words, the first thing we need is political will. No one is fooled by delaying tactics whose primary purpose is to avoid having to take action, or by creative accounting aimed at pretending there's new action where none exists.

2) Keep your promises and show us the money. Times are tough, no question, but it's not unreasonable to expect that promises be kept. Developed countries promised to scale up funding for developing countries to address climate change, reaching $100 billion per year by 2020. This is eminently doable. The money freed up by phasing out fossil fuel subsidies would go a long way towards reaching this goal, particularly if we include savings from current needs to defend Middle East oil supplies.

3) Mind the gap. Developed countries need to show they are already cutting emissions at the high end of their pledges, and commit to raising their ambition further to close the gap between what they have pledged to do, and what the science suggests they need to do. At present, they are at risk of failing to meet even the lower ranges of their pledges -- because they are implementing key policies far too slowly, or not at all. This too boils down to keeping promises.

4) Emerging economies need to reaffirm wholeheartedly their commitment to the Durban deal. This means openly embracing their own responsibilities for reducing carbon emissions compared to a business as usual approach, both by pursuing ways to further increase the ambition of their voluntary domestic actions between now and 2020, and by negotiating binding commitments from 2020 onwards, in the context of a fair and equitable global regime. In other words, promising that vital development is done sustainably. This is not only in these countries' own self-interest, it's essential if we're going to have a chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. It's worth remembering the impassioned plea by Karl Hood of Grenada, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, in Durban: "Must we accept our annihilation? While they develop, we die."

None of these suggestions is particularly new; the problem lies in the sequencing. The Gordian knot of climate politics holds that action should be taken in a certain order, while opinions differ on what, exactly, that order should be. As a result, virtually every aspect of the climate negotiations -- even the most basic setting of agendas and election of chairpersons -- becomes a proxy for these more fundamental disputes.

As I sat listening to this play out in Bonn for the umpteenth time, I couldn't help but think governments should stop wasting time with proxy fights, and start dealing with the core issues once and for all. They need to stop worrying about sequence, and start worrying about how to unleash as much action as they can, as fast as they can. It's time to slice through the Gordian knot, with or without Alexander's sword.