Climate Talks, Language, Road to COP21

Semantics, streamlining and a swaggering Russian – A day in the life of the ADP

This article is written by Zacharie Ter-Minassian.

Having always followed the UNFCCC negotiations from afar, entering the charmingly impersonal steel and glass conference center was something of a nightmare come true. Although acquainted for a few years now with the negotiation process, I am still by and large a novice to the physical interactions which occur under –as is customary to say – the “auspices” of the Convention.

Delegates stroll around, grab hasty coffees, pause, vaulted over tables, busying themselves over highlighted strands of paper which are called upon to – one day perhaps – govern the atmospheric concentrations of heat trapping gases that imperil our species’ future. Interns hurry with notes passed around in corridors, while under the tall ceiling stiletto heels clatter alongside the incessant chatter of the climate intelligentsia, reunited with the usual suspects and their best enemies of the negotiations.

source Grönert
Source: Grönert

Departing from the dry, customary proceedings embodied in the interminable paragraphs of PDFs uploaded to a white-and-blue website, faces now frown over obstruction, laughs echo when boisterousness erupts, heads nod and bob as they are placed on the persons which make the negotiation. Subsidiary bodies become actual masses of bodies, plenaries are packed and side-events shuffle alongside.

To streamline or not to streamline?

Red-eyed, underfed and overcoffee’d, my day begins with an opening plenary, expedited with the customary thanks to everyone, and the pats on the back, and the we-have-work-to-do mantras. But the real fun began with the first prolonged usage of a word which was announced since Geneva as the one that would haunt the nights of the delegates and facilitators for many years to come: “streamlining”.

Oh, UN jargon, you will be the end of us. Let us look more closely at this barbaric term. Wiktionary provides us with the technical, literal definition: “To design and construct the contours of a vehicle etc. so as to offer the least resistance to its flow through a fluid”. By extension, in our context of interest, it is to “simplify or organize a process in order to increase its efficiency”.

Geneva left us with a draft text more than 80 pages long, full of options and sub-options and brackets, which indicate that everyone has had his or her view integrated in the negotiating text. Starting this week, there are 20 days of negotiation before Paris for the 196 countries to cut down this draft to a workable –negotiable – size.

But the beauty of the exercise is that to “streamline” – as we have seen, in other words, to increase efficiency – one has to debate and reach consensus on how to streamline. The Co-Chairs of the ADP tried, in the first streamlining exercise of the day, to reach for “low hanging fruits”. In negotiations, these are issues that are seemingly easier to address. Perhaps the idea was to launch a positive momentum. They put forward a method: the secretariat, embodied by the chairs, highlights sections of the draft agreement that seem redundant, or even duplicates, bordering on the copy/paste – and proposes a “streamlined”, consolidated version which attempts not to lose any ideas. Does this satisfy the delegates?

 Some suggest streamlining paragraph by paragraph; others sub-option by sub-option; can one combine two paragraphs? Perhaps sub-option 1 of paragraph x would fit better with sub-option 9 from paragraph 3 rather than with sub-option 2 of aforementioned paragraph x!

One “easy” paragraph with three sub-options ends up being proposed by as the easiest effort to get the ball rolling. A special breakout session is suggested to, in effect, rearrange the words of the three sub-options in one paragraph – but Russia formally objects. They had previous commitments that afternoon and are made quite “uncomfortable” by this arrangement. The chair bypasses this single objection, to the relief of my colleague who seemed to have seen the phantoms of a June 2013 obstruction resurface.

How low does the fruit hang?

Episode 2 in the streamlining saga: despite the small Russian tantrum, the mood is positive overall. Rumors in the hallways gleaned from a notoriously frustrated EU delegate convey the sense that notwithstanding this little “noise”, everybody seems intent on simplifying the text. Comes the streamlining breakout session with “interested parties”. Russia is nowhere to be seen. 45 minutes of debate follow on the secretariat’s proposition for proposed paragraph 14 of the draft, concerning general objectives of the agreement.

zach 2

The main event is the delegation of Tuvalu wanting to add some text: the small, three-letter word “and”, in [brackets], naturally, between essentially, [low-carbon development] and [enhanced action on climate change], arguing that the two concepts are not “mutually exclusive”.

Is this “streamlining”? or this “new language”? Are we negotiating or are we streamlining? Brace yourselves: Tuvalu argues that since the two concepts were in separate sub-options of the paragraph, the consolidated paragraph should reflect the idea that the concepts may or may not be mutually exclusive. Therefore, adding [and] would simply be reflecting this choice, and thus only constitute streamlining, not negotiating.

The secretariat tentatively adds the heated [and] onto the version of the draft screened for all the room to see. But intense salvos fired from China, Saudi Arabia and other nations quickly remove the word – remember, we are simplifying the easiest paragraph presumably chosen to launch a positive dynamic. General and clear agreement from the room: we are not adding or modifying any language today.

Body language

My favorite scene occurs now, and lasts until the end of this session: our Russian delegate from the ADP plenary makes his entrance, late. As if to make everyone note his disapproval of this impromptu session which he formally objected, theatrics now come into play; he nonchalantly strolls all around the long room, slowly, swaggering almost, heels noisily clacking on the floor, and decides to settle for a seat right next to the facilitators.

zach 3

Just as they are trying to conclude on the [and] conflict, the Russian Federation speaks up. Our negotiator asks to come back to the paragraph everyone has been discussing without him for 45 minutes. Polite dismissal from the facilitator, who agrees to come back to the issue at the end of the session. Some fifteen minutes later: “we now come back to paragraph 14 as requested by the Russian Federation”. And the delegate takes the floor, apparently trying to gain time as if he hadn’t really thought about a comment to make, hesitating on a part to modify, finally settling on a word permutation request which blatantly is new language – dismissed moments earlier by the room.

Enamored and dazed by having witnessed first-hand some quality benign obstruction by the Russian Federation, I found myself under the perfect negotiation reality shock minutes later, when my swaggering Russian was patiently standing in (stream?)line behind me for a cup of coffee.


About the author: Zacharie Ter-Minassian holds a Master degree in environmental policy from Sciences Po | Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA). He is currently active in a CliMates research project assessing the influence of the UNFCCC process in driving national and non-state climate policies.

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