Berlin to Paris: Learning from 20 years of climate talks

20 years of climate talks have delivered victories and blows, says Sweden’s Bo Kjellén, and their history has a lot to offer December’s climate conference in Paris.

Kjellén (Stockholm Environment Institute) chaired the negotiation group on the Berlin Mandate in 1995. It was the first Conference of Parties (COP) and successfully paved the way for the Kyoto Protocol that followed. Now, 20 years on, Kjellén’s reflections help foresee what lies ahead in Paris (Nov 30 – Dec 11).

ResearchGate: How do you feel about the upcoming talks in Paris? 

Kjellén: The Paris conference offers a new landscape and I prefer to look at it with a relatively optimistic mind. It is clear, however, that many challenges need to be overcome. For example, it was determined in Kyoto that only developed countries have quantitative climate commitments. The language around this has since changed. It was decided at the Durban conference (COP17) that an agreed outcome should be applicable to all countries. This weakened what’s known as the firewall between developed and developing countries. I think this will continue to challenge the negotiations in Paris.

RG: Why was the first Conference of Parties in Berlin (COP1) so important, and how does it compare with the upcoming conference in Paris?

Kjellén: I think the situation now has changed a lot since the Berlin conference. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change entered into force a year before we gathered in Berlin, so that conference in 1995 was about making the whole thing work. We needed to strengthen and define the Convention's vaguely formulated commitments to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions for Annex I Parties. At that stage, we didn’t have much beyond principles, the overall objective, and the institution itself. The COP had also noted that commitments were not adequate to prevent dangerous manmade interference with the climate system (Article 2).That’s why the mandate, and the decision to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, were two very important things to come out of Berlin.

RG: What lessons were learned from negotiating the Berlin Mandate, and how will they drive forward post-2020 climate negotiations? 

Kjellén: I definitely think some of the lessons we learned from the Berlin Mandate and later negotiations help to drive the post 2020 climate talks. Preparation time is a good example. The Germans held a number of smaller representative meetings before the Berlin conference. They decided a protocol could not be negotiated in Berlin, but that a mandate was within reach. The 2009 conference in Copenhagen was the opposite. It suffered a lot because the preparation time that went into it didn't match the expectations. The main purpose of this conference was to agree on the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. But even one year before the conference it felt like no real negotiations had started and it lacked a sense of direction. Paris is different, I think. Preparation for the 2015 Conference started in fact already in 2010.

RG: What were the main negotiation challenges in Berlin and how were they overcome?

Kjellén: Berlin was a difficult negotiation but also an extremely interesting one. There were two main issues that we couldn’t settle at the level of high officials. Those were ‘targets and timetables’, and developing countries’ exemption of new commitments. Convoluted wording on the first issue in the Convention's Act didn't help the matter. This referred to returning greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000 (Articles 4.2 a and b). German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was then the Minister for the Environment, took over negotiations on the final night, and in a very skillful way resolved the remaining issues. They agreed that if developing countries were to take part, financial and technological contributions were needed by developed countries.

You mentioned this challenge still exists for the Paris conference: how might it be overcome?

As for Paris, I think the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) made by each country will make a big difference. These are the publicly outlined, post-2020 climate actions that countries intend to take under a new international agreement. It’s not a second rate solution. The INDC decision was taken well in advance, and 160 countries have already tabled their planned contributions. This in itself indicates a stronger drive in the negotiations than ever before.

RG: The 1987 Montreal protocol was successful in tackling ozone depletion. How do you compare this with the Kyoto Protocol?  

Kjellén: I don't think that at the time we quite understood the tremendous difference between the Montreal Protocol’s ozone issue and the Kyoto Protocol’s climate issue. As important and successful as the Montreal Protocol is, it deals with more of a closed problem than climate change. Climate change is an environmental issue that relies on societal organization. How do you transform societies deeply dependent on fossil fuels into something different? Again, this is where I think the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) will play a key role. If we are agreed that we’re talking about a very deep societal change then the INDCs are the only way one can negotiate climate change.

RG: How did you feel in the years that followed the Kyoto negotiations?

Kjellén: We were all taken aback by the change in the United States position. Sweden at the time held the EU Presidency, and when the incoming George W. Bush administration decided not to commit to the Protocol, using rather brutal terms, we and the whole EU felt that we needed to take a very clear stand. "Kyoto is dead", said National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. The EU reacted strongly, but in measured terms. On the one hand we could not accept that the US would withdraw like this. The EU intended to stick to the Protocol and advised other countries to do the same. But on the other hand, we had to find a way to agree to disagree - we didn't want the US to negatively affect or obstruct the Kyoto efforts. And a deal to this effect was achieved at the EU-US summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, in June 2001.

RG: Do you think public confidence in climate negotiations and self-regulation has changed over the past 20 years?

Kjellén: I think the public is much better informed today – and so are we, the negotiators and politicians. The United Nations scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released their first report in 1990. I don’t hesitate to say that when we started the negotiations in 1991, most of us were still rather ignorant of the issues we would eventually face. It has been a question of learning by doing for many of us. The shift came towards the end of the 1990s when the IPCC took more assertive role. They helped define the human impact on the climate system, and this was relayed to the public.

RG: German Chancellor Angela Merkel chaired Berlin’s 1995 COP1 and is still leading climate negotiations today. What are your memories of working alongside her at the first Conference of Parties?

Kjellén: I participated in many meetings with Angela Merkel as I chaired the negotiations on the Berlin Mandate and I was very impressed. We did not know much about her; it was only her second ministerial post in Germany. We were unsure how she would deal with all the problems we were facing but she did it very, very well. She showed us that she was a top politician and negotiator. I was impressed not only by the sharpness of her comments, but also that she was a very kind, easy going person.

Featured image courtesy of Sébastien Duyck.