State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Learning to Compromise

Make It Work, climate negotiations
Logan Brenner, left, and Kim Stama, a recent Columbia sustainability management alumna, work on how to craft a definition for endangered territories at the “Make It Work” student conference in Paris.

By Logan Brenner

The third day of the Make it Work simulation signaled the beginning of drafting the negotiation text. The goal of the negotiations was to create a document that outlined our visions for approaching climate change in the following years and the pathways, both global and nation-specific, which would describe how we would achieve the declared vision.

The Sessions
The negotiations were broken down into three types of sessions in an effort to combine multiple approaches to draft our visions and pathways.

The first type of session is the plenary meeting during which all delegates discuss and decide the format of negotiations and vote on the presented text after extensive deliberation. During the final plenary meeting after two days and one long night (some students stayed overnight!) we approved the final negotiation text thanks to our willingness to compromise.

The second type of session was called a contact group. These groups were divided to work on the land use, energy consumption, governance and endangered territory sections of the negotiation text. I was a member of the endangered territory group, and we were tasked with addressing the protection and management of the territories, treatment of climate refugees, and outlining how to promote a mutualistic relationship between humans and the territories. We also had to come up with a definition of an endangered territory, which was no small feat. I think that the contact group was much more efficient than the plenary meeting. We were easily able to further break down into smaller groups for informal discussion, whereas during the plenary there were so many people that it was easy to disengage and get lost trying to track the progress.

Make It Work, climate negotiations
David Prieto, a Columbia sustainability management alumnus, explains his article proposal.

The third type of session was the “space of entities,” which provided a time to draft articles based on your specific entity and not solely based on the interests of your delegation. Although sometimes subtle, there may be differences between the goals of your entity and your delegation. For example, representing the Beni Haroun Reservoir in Algeria, my focus is on preserving and updating my infrastructure to improve water distribution efficiency. However, the Algerian minister of energy and mines may prefer to prioritize subsidies for clean energy research and development, which would sap funds from my projects. The space of entities was a new negotiating session meant to provide a time to form alliances or organizations that could formally propose text. I found that while this was a unique way to contribute to the text, different from the actual UN negotiations, it resulted in an exorbitant number of new groups and redundant propositions. During the space of entities meeting, I met with a few members of my contact group and we discussed the articles mentioned earlier that day since it was nearly impossible to come to a consensus previously.

After countless hours of workshopping, brainstorming, writing, and rewriting, I thought that a consensus between parties would not be so far off. However, with 220 opinions boiled down into 42 delegations, it was painfully difficult. Perhaps I was naïve to think that flowing from the small contact groups, ideally with a representative from each delegation, into the plenary for a final vote would be smooth, but that was certainly not the case. I shudder to think that during the real COP21 in Paris this December, it could be, rather it will likely be, more frustrating and difficult to arrive at a universally appealing agreement.

Where Did We Clash?
Algeria was largely on board to cut greenhouse gas emissions and protect endangered territories, but the degree to which we believed that we were able to do so became a point of contention in negotiating with other delegations.

There were many proposals that we considered to be incredibly progressive. I believe that this was due to the presence of the non-state delegations (eg Oceans, Forests, even the Internet) that were not restricted by politics or a responsibility to a national economy or population. Therefore, a compromise was necessary to balance the needs of the state and non-state delegations.

In terms of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) mix, nearly all non-state and even some traditional delegations were pushing for a complete halt to CO2 emissions by 2050.  As a country whose oil and gas production supports its national economy, we asserted that Algeria would not be able to sign on to such an extreme decision.

All of the lunches at the student conference were vegetarian and locally grown with sustainable practices.
All of the lunches at the student conference were vegetarian and locally grown with sustainable practices.

Assessing the impact of GHGs is incredibly complicated, because the nations that emit the most and arguably have caused the most damage are not the ones paying the biggest price. Developed nations are major emitters, but a significant portion of the population is able to deal with the effects of climate change since they have higher GDPs, more technology development and access, and better food and water access.

When the motion to completely cut CO2 emissions was presented, the developing nations had a lot to say. We spoke to the need to preserve the Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities, as outlined by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Simply put, common but differentiated responsibilities means that while we all have the same goal, the way that we get there can and probably should be different between nations. Is it fair to tell a developing nation to stop emitting CO2 to remedy a problem that they did not create? A decision like that would send a country to a dark place if it did not have the financial or technological support to rely solely on alternative energy sources.

Therefore we made the amount of expected CO2 decrease less extreme, encouraged developed nations to substantially decrease their emissions and the developing ones to do so in a fiscally responsible way, and also stressed the need to fund research that would provide low-cost, widely available sustainable and renewable energy technology.

Butting Heads over Ecosystems
I found myself butting heads again during a discussion over a proposal to grant ecosystems a legal status with their own government. The term ecosystem is wonderfully vague and speaks to the interconnectedness of the organic and inorganic, human and non-human, living and non-living. Regardless of your preferred jargon, it is likely that you can make a case for nearly anything, microscopic to massive, to be an ecosystem.

As Algeria we were concerned with this proposal. The first problem was the questionable ability to accurately define the boundaries of an ecosystem; the second was that even if you were able to demarcate an ecosystem, how would its government interact with the national legislators.

As a scientist representing the Beni Haroun Reservoir, I was taken aback by how so many of the delegates acted as if defining a given ecosystem would be a simple task. I explained that their proposal as written was an invitation for conflict between nations. Additionally, it ignored the dynamism of ecosystems, both temporally and spatially. For example, migrating birds occupy different regions during the summer versus the winter, so together do these regions represent one ecosystem united by the birds, or two? Ephemeral (temporary) streams dry up in the summer, so the associated flora and fauna change drastically throughout the year; so is this one ecosystem or two? Would the legal status change depending on whether it was the dry or wet season?

We finally decided that in order to define an ecosystem, multiple scientific and economic viewpoints must be consulted before pursuing legal status. Furthermore, many ecosystems overlap national boundaries. This is relevant to consider for Algeria as it pertains to the Sahara Desert. Intersecting multiple African countries, the Sahara is a vast ecosystem that would benefit by legal representation for preservation efforts, to prevent potential exploitation, and limit further desertification. With extensive scientific consultation to address the boundaries of the Sahara, the next thing to consider is how its representation would balance with the Algerian government, among others.

After a long discussion it was decided that in order for this proposal to pass, national governments would retain superiority over a legally represented ecosystem to allow them to retain sovereignty. A fruitful debate and compromise assuaged my concern about oversimplifying a complex system and led to unanimous support in the plenary meeting.

Logan Brenner, a PhD student in the department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, is reporting from the Paris “Make It Work” student conference, a simulation of the UN’s climate negotiations planned for December 2015. She writes online at “Science of Logan.”

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