No consensus at U.N. on consensus


A debilitating row with Russia at U.N. climate talks last week exposed a fundamental flaw in how decisions are taken — the entire system balanced precariously on an ill-defined notion of consensus, observers say.

While furious with Russia for allowing the issue to stop important work at their meeting in Bonn, negotiators agreed that the decision-making procedure must be clarified before any long-term damage is caused.

By tradition, decisions in the U.N. Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCC) are made on the basis of “consensus” — a term that implies common resolve by its 195 parties. The principle is conceptually fuzzy and remains undefined in the organization’s rule book, yet it was the tool that created the Kyoto Protocol and binds the community of nations to signing an ambitious new pact on carbon emissions in 2015.

“Consensus is considered important, since this makes the likelihood of implementation or compliance with what has been agreed larger, and demonstrates respect for the principle of state sovereignty,” said Louise van Schaik of the Clingendael Institute of International Relations in the Netherlands.

But the bust-up at the low-key meeting in Germany last week raised stark questions as to whether the practice — at least in its current form — can endure as the bill for climate change mounts and countries fight harder over how to apportion it.

What currently passes for consensus is traditionally achieved through frantic, late-night haggling. Conference presidents often have to “gavel through” major deals — declaring a decision adopted even if a country is howling dissent.

What has brought matters to a head on this occasion is Russia, which is incensed at the way the Qatari president of last December’s meeting in Doha gavelled through a decision to extend the Kyoto Protocol on curbing Earth-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Its approval hamstrung Russia’s planned sale of 5.8 billion tons of carbon credits amassed under the protocol’s first round, which expired at the end of last year. Outraged — according to a well-placed source, Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote a furious letter to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon — the Kremlin is playing tough.

In the 12-day talks that finished in Bonn on Friday, Russia, backed by Ukraine and Belarus, blocked work in one of three negotiating groups, demanding a debate on how consensus is reached. “We have serious reasons to be concerned,” Russian negotiator Oleg Shamanov said. “If we fail to hold such a discussion on the procedural aspects of preparing and taking decisions, we may see in 2015 a situation where all efforts that have been made would be a failure.”

Negotiators from other countries said Russia had a point and welcomed a debate on procedure. “Our system is sick,” agreed one European negotiator. “Maybe something good can come of this — a review of how the system works, and how it doesn’t.”

Veterans of the climate process say the problem has deep roots. At their very first executive meeting in 1995, parties failed to adopt the UNFCCC’s rules of procedure because they disagreed over Rule 42, which would allow for a vote when consensus fails. By mutual agreement, the parties have been applying the rules ever since — except Rule 42.

Some delegates felt there was no time to wrangle over sovereign principles with just over two years left to finalize a deal that must save Earth from calamitous global warming-induced climate change. But most agreed that, ultimately, procedural clarity would help the process as a whole. U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres described the issue as a “challenge” but also “a fantastic opportunity to be creative and to increase the efficiency of the system.”