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Syndicated: New Zealand’s Role at COP17: Concluding Unscientific Postscript

In November and December 2011, I attended the United Nations climate change conference (COP17) in Durban, South Africa.  I will be periodically syndicating my blog posts from other websites here on the Solution.  I’m doing this for two reasons.  First, I want an archive of my work here, on my site, under my name.  Second, as I will discuss in a forthcoming post, climate change is an animal rights issue.  I hope that Solution readers will be interested, therefore, in my commentary on the climate talks.

The below post was originally posted on the Adopt a Negotiator Project.  It is therefore intended for overseas readers.

To the NGO community, New Zealand was one of the villains of COP17.  But, I’m not sure if this reputation is wholly deserved.  The trouble is, even if it is not, this reveals a fundamental failure in the New Zealand negotiators’ messaging: if New Zealand was a lamb, it appeared to too many to often as a lamb in wolf’s clothing.

Even a month after the end of COP17, I remain uncertain about the role played by the New Zealand negotiators. Two quite opposite interpretations seem possible. On one hand, New Zealand’s actions could be interpreted as deliberately compromising the integrity of the negotiations for short-sighted national economic interests (Scenario A).  But, on the other, New Zealand’s negotiating stance could be interpreted as pragmatic attempts by a small State to bring about a deal that would bring in more of the key emitters (Scenario B).  In truth, I suspect that New Zealand’s negotiators fell somewhere in the middle, with both good intentions and bad (Scenario C).

Scenario A: New Zealand blocking negotiations for economic interests

The case against New Zealand appears, at first at least, stark and clear.  By the third day of COP17, rumours were spreading through the NGO community.  New Zealand was up to something bad.  Over the next 24 hours, in conversations with a number of negotiators, the New Zealand Youth Delegation learned that this reputation was not limited to the NGO community.  Kyoto Protocol Negotiators called New Zealand “problematic for a thousand reasons”, “pushing negotiations to the lowest level of cooperation and the lowest level of ambition” and “totally ridiculous”.  Further, one stated:

New Zealand is taking deliberately inconsistent stances on a number of issues, which makes it difficult to reach consensus on anything.

A new round of rumours spread fast through the NGO community.  Many other off the record remarks were quoted and requoted (and perhaps misquoted).  For a lot of civil society present, the idea quickly became that New Zealand was doing something very bad, but no one could get truly precise details or confirmation on the record.  On the Friday, the Climate Action Network (CAN) found something specific and on the record, so New Zealand received its first Fossil of the Day placing, for proposing a flexible mechanism for forestry that would allow a State to sell carbon credits for one forest bilaterally over and over again.  Overall, New Zealand came third in the Colossal Fossil, showing that CAN, the largest civil society alliance, saw it extremely critically.  One of the two ministers announced to attend the Conference, Climate Change Minister Nick Smith, did not attend.  The other, International Climate Change Negotiations Minister Tim Groser, did not hold back when interviewed:

I didn’t come here to negotiate with 10 young New Zealanders. What they’ve unfortunately bought without realizing it is the whole drum beat on KP, KP, KP, as if somehow they don’t understand that a deal that locks in only 15% of emissions is actually an insult to New Zealand.

New Zealand’s environmentalist community didn’t pull any punches either, in the aftermath of COP17.  Generation Zero delivered coal to Mr Groser for Christmas.  Peter Hardstaff of the World Wildlife Fund announced that he would write to Tim Groser for an explanation of his actions at the negotiations, and stated:

“…New Zealand wants to change the rules so countries where emissions have gone up over the past decade will benefit, and countries that have managed to reduce their emissions will be penalised”…

“That’s not fair, and if that’s right it’s not making New Zealand look good in these talks.”

“What seems to be happening is our Government is doing all it can to change the rules in a way that will benefit New Zealand now,” …

“What’s good for New Zealand and this current government is not necessarily good for the planet and good for a global deal.”

Greenpeace too had New Zealand in its sights :

Whilst Greenpeace has accused the Government of siding with China, the United States and India instead of joining European and Pacific nations in calling for a stringent, legally binding agreement on greenhouse gas emissions.

“They’re the ones who have actually watered down and resisted any real progress,” spokeswoman Bunny McDiarmid told ONE News.

Kennedy Graham, of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand fired his own salvoes:

The mirror on the wall has myriad images of idiocy.

Are we being catatonic here, stupid, devious, or simply dilatory? Either way, will the outcome be different?


New Zealand has been playing its part in this:

  • We have been holding other Parties to ransom.
  • We have demanded the excessive transfer of emissions units beyond 2012.
  • We have opposed any binding obligations beyond this date.

The message we are sending to the world is this: do not let humanity’s greatest crisis get in the way of national opportunism – of making a quick, unsustainable, income.

This was the loudest narrative about New Zealand. At COP, I heard the same criticisms from people from small islands and people from Ireland.  To the NGO community, and many negotiators, Scenario A was the case: New Zealand put its immediate economic self-interest over the long-term needs of current and future generations.

Scenario B: New Zealand being a pragmatic and realistic player, negotiating in good faith

However, I am not convinced that the story is entirely one-sided.  Scenario B too has its benefits.  In Tim Groser’s words:

“New Zealand will be looking for progress towards a comprehensive global agreement with binding emission-reduction commitments. These commitments need to include all developed countries as well as advanced and major-emitting developing countries.

“Only a comprehensive agreement will make a real difference to climate change,” Mr Groser says.

Perhaps, in pushing down the ambition on both the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) and Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA) tracks, New Zealand was taking a pragmatic stance.  Recognising that it played a small part in global emissions, New Zealand may have considered that the most important thing was to push for a form of second commitment period that could cover more than 15% of emissions.  New Zealand’s third place in the Colossal Fossil, perhaps, was not deserved, because it received repeated daily Fossil awards for very similar conduct in the Kyoto Protocol negotiations.  And New Zealand’s negotiators refuted any suggestion of inconsistency in the AWG-KP strongly.   Perhaps, even, to New Zealand, the AWG-KP was the least important track: nice to have, but insufficient, and not necessary. That analysis would certainly fit with some informal remarks from a few New Zealand negotiators.  Kyoto, thus, became a bargaining chip.  In Tim Groser’s words:

“New Zealand can do a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, but we’re not going to be committed to that position until we can see how the other factors play out.”

A “Kyoto Plus” or KP+ is needed:

For the period 2013 – 2020, this would include Kyoto commitments from those countries willing to sign up for CMP2 (say, the EU, and other Kyoto-friendly countries such as Australia and New Zealand) “plus the mitigation commitments that China, the United States and other countries who stand outside Kyoto said they would do in Cancun, clarified and operationalised.”

And, in the AWG-LCA, New Zealand could have just been being totally pragmatic.  An agreement by 2020, to a diplomat, is a realistic timeframe.  Concerned to avoid a repeat of the failed Bali Road Map, New Zealand may have focused on setting a diplomatically realistic timetable.  The example of the Kyoto Protocol may have been instructive to them: Negotiated in 1997; made workable by the Marrakech Accords in 2001; and triggered into force in 2005, with notable States absent.  What point, it can be asked, in setting an urgent timetable and demanding an ambitious agreement, if it would take years to sort out afterwards anyway and important emitters probably wouldn’t even come on board?  To Tim Groser, a comprehensive deal, perhaps, would be better than a quick deal:

“In addition to that, what we need is … a roadmap, or a process, to negotiate a more coherent long-term deal which ends this mosaic of different bits into a single comprehensive treaty.”

Perhaps some of the NGO criticisms were mistaken, based on false rumours.  For example, I heard a rumour, on the lost Saturday of COP17, 10 December 2011, that Tim Groser had acted totally unreasonably the night before, demanding a comprehensive rewrite of the AWG-KP text.  But Mr Groser was, it transpires, chairing another session for most of that night, so would have had very little realistic chance to do so.  Perhaps I misunderstood the rumour.  Perhaps it was a Chinese whispers scenario.  Or, perhaps, the rumour was simply false, and Groser was doing his level best to hold another track of negotiations together under immense pressure.

Scenario C: Somewhere in the Middle?

The truth, I suspect, falls somewhere between scenarios A and B.  CAN was probably a bit too generous in awarding Fossils to New Zealand, but some of them were deserved.  Using the Kyoto Protocol – the only legally binding agreement we have – as a bargaining chip is problematic at best.  Calling a second commitment period a “joke” for only covering 15% of emissions is overstating the case, given that the Annex 1 countries involved (and the US) bear the greatest historical responsibility for emissions, and arguably have the greatest capacity for mitigation.  Further, when numerous commentators – journalists, activists, and even negotiators – described the international youth climate movement as the hope of the Conference, dismissing our youth delegation abruptly and almost thoughtlessly shows much about Tim Groser’s apparent priorities.    Finally, according to those with much more expertise than I, New Zealand’s agricultural and forestry positions were clearly examples of economic self-interest.

The Subjective Truth in Negotiations

However, whether Scenario A or B is true – or, whether as is more probable, the truth lies with Scenario C, somewhere in the middle – the subjective truth, in the minds of many negotiators and civil society representatives, was Scenario A, and in negotiations, that can be as important as the objective truth.  For any one party or observer in a negotiation, subjectivity is truth.  NGOs and States act on what they perceive, and the perception of New Zealand – justified or not – was far from clean.

Let me take this a step back and break it down with analogies from my professional life as a litigation lawyer.  The ideal settlement negotiation is win-win, where both parties get what they want.  That, however, is not always a possibility.  Take, for example, an insurance settlement.  The insured wants to be paid more.  The insurer wants to pay less.  There are rare chances for a mutual win.  So, as the advocate for one party, the ideal outcome is win-lose in your favour – but you don’t want the other side to know that!  You want them to think they won too, especially if your client and their client have an ongoing business relationship.  You don’t want the other guy to think that you ripped him off.  That will make any future dealings harder.

This is possible, because in a negotiation, parties have imperfect information.  Generally, you want to give the other party false perceptions about your interests and bottom lines.  You want them to think that things that do matter to you don’t, and things that don’t matter, do.  That way, you can trade unimportant bargaining chips for important advances, with the other party thinking that they have won a major concession (when they haven’t).

So, in a commercial negotiation, there are three realities.  There’s the objective reality, that you don’t know.  Then there is the subjective reality that you perceive, based on your knowledge of your position and your interpretation of the signals given by the other party.  And, finally, there is the other party’s subjective reality.  In all probability, of course, you are both trying to distort the other party’s subjective reality.  But, to you, your subjective interpretation is truth.  You may have some doubt, but it is what you know and perceive – and what you act on.

In negotiation, subjectivity is truth.  No party has complete information.  Each party has a different subjective reality that determines what he or she  does. The outcome of a negotiation is determined less by the objective reality of the situation than by the competing subjective realities of the parties.

This, perhaps, explains the vast gap between climate science and climate negotiations.  Climate science is a matter of objective reality.  Climate negotiations are a matter of subjective reality.  The subjective reality experienced by most of the negotiators is not that of the science, or the effects of climate change, but the diplomatic process.  It’s what they know.

Quite simply, though: Whether or not a country objectively does good or bad, in negotiations and diplomacy, the perception is just as important.

Scenarios A, B, and C: Communication Failure Throughout

Whatever the actual fact of the matter, I suggest that New Zealand’s negotiators fundamentally failed in communication at COP.  If scenarios B or C are true, other negotiators weren’t telling that to civil society.  If you look above, you’ll see far more links for Scenario A than Scenario B.  Most of the coverage I’ve seen of New Zealand at COP17 slams us as the bad guy.  If scenario A is true, the negotiators simply failed to hide it.  They played a win-lose game and let people see it, in a forum where a win-win should have been the goal (and the appearance of a win-win was definitely possibly).  If Scenario B or C is true, then New Zealand was doing good stuff – but fundamentally failed to communicate it to a lot of negotiators and civil society representatives present.

This may have consequences for New Zealand in future, diplomatically and otherwise.  New Zealand’s legacy from Cancun, from what I can tell, was not bad (though many in the NGO community do remember the country being on the side of the loopholes for forestry).  To quoteIdealog:

In the closing days of the last UNFCCC Conference in Cancun, Groser played a significant role at the request of the Mexican presidency, working through the night guiding parties to a landing on the contentious matter of measuring and verifying countries’ emissions reductions commitments.There may well be call for Groser’s diplomatic prowess – and multiple cups of Tanzania’s finest – in the final stretch of COP17.

Because of the closed-door nature of the frequent Ministerial Indaba and other meetings over the last days of COP17,  I do not know whether Tim Groser used his diplomatic process similarly at COP17.  But, even if he did, that won’t be how New Zealand is remembered at COP17.  Tim Groser will be remembered by many for calling the Kyoto Protocol an insult – even thought that’s not quite what he said.   That matters.  That will determine how other negotiators deal with New Zealand at the intersessionals and at Qatar.  That will inform NGO messaging and campaigning.  New Zealand can expect more attention from international NGOs at future COPs.  Finally, New Zealand’s image, justified or not, may even affect New Zealand’s tourism, putting another chink in the country’s “100% pure” brand.

New Zealand’s negotiators are very good at their jobs.  They are experienced and skilled.  But, at COP17, they slipped up on their external messaging.  In truth, I suspect that scenario C is true.  New Zealand did some good and some ill.  But the subjective truth that many negotiators will take away COP17 is scenario A.  They will remember New Zealand for playing hard-ball and focusing on its economic interests at the expense of wider interests.

Originally posted by me on Adopt a Negotiator.  All photographs and intellectual property in this post solely mine unless otherwise stated.

About David Tong

Climate campaigner | Cyclist | Photographer | Vegan | Straight Edge || Views my own


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