“We almost had it, we were close but there is no deal,” said British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott as he left a last-ditch effort among European Union countries to agree on a deal with the United States that would salvage the Kyoto Protocol climate-change negotiations. The U.S. proposal had major sticking points for the 15-member EU. Disagreement remained on emissions reductions that developed countries could claim through offshore-market mechanisms and the degree to which countries could receive emissions credits for forests that soak up carbon.

For many EU countries, the U.S. proposal simply wasn’t palatable, and they preferred no deal to a meaningless one. Yet the collapse left many wondering why some deal wasn’t achieved. Climate negotiators have always seemed able to work through difficulties before. Even in 1997, when critics predicted that there would never be a binding cap on global carbon emissions, negotiators agreed at the eleventh hour on the Kyoto Protocol.

There is no question that the complexity of the issues played a role: The Hague talks were perhaps the most technical negotiations ever attempted at the multilateral level. The complexity was not something new to these negotiators. Leadership was critical, however.

Jan Pronk, the Dutch environment minister, described by many delegates as an activist Conference president, was someone everyone wanted to love. He had the right qualities. He was energetic, dedicated and transparent. Pronk’s commitment was beyond question.

But at several key points during the negotiations, Pronk’s guidance was disappointing. In an effort to keep the negotiating process open to the over 35 ministers in attendance — in particular, those from the Group of 77 who had raised concerns about transparency and inclusion (after Seattle) — Pronk created large negotiating groups. While these groups were more inclusive, they distracted the key players who would ultimately be required to make the deals.

Pronk also lost valuable time at key moments in the negotiations. With less than 48 hours to go, Pronk allowed senior officials to continue technical deliberations instead of engaging ministers at the political level; they were the ones with the power to negotiate a compromise.

With only 36 hours to go, Pronk made another critical error in judgment. Since no substantial advances had been made in the technical negotiations, Pronk introduced a chairman’s text that he said would be painful to all parties, but which he felt was balanced and “equally distributed the pain.” Instead of giving each delegation a few hours to react to the statement, Pronk allowed them to sleep on the text, which not only wasted more precious time, but gave them too much time to consider and then reject the proposal. Pronk also relied on his own small team of officials instead of the talented U.N. Secretariat staff who are thoroughly experienced in these negotiations.

Blame, however, is not Pronk’s alone. The EU, under French leadership, was heavily criticized for stagnation and a lack of creativity. Instead of trying to create effective solutions and constructive compromises, the EU took the moral high ground. The French leadership was often sanctimonious, even Gaullist, in its treatment of the Americans. This was not constructive.

Elections in the U.S. and Canada were also important factors. With the outcome of the U.S. presidential vote still unknown and the possibility of a Republican win looming ever larger, the U.S. delegation did not have the flexibility it might have had. This was also true for the Canadians, whose environment minister was embroiled in a hard-fought fight for his own political survival, and whose prime minister had other things on his mind with an election only days after the conclusion of the meeting. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, the Canadian delegation, under the guidance of former Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, had repeatedly asked for flexibility, but to no avail.

The failure should not be seen as a complete loss for the climate negotiations. Progress was made on several fronts. This recent failure, the first major setback in the last eight years, will give parties time to reflect and to search for a feasible way forward. It will also allow nongovernmental organizations to increase political pressure on leaders. Nonetheless, given Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s ardent opposition to U.S. ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, his victory in the U.S. presidential race would certainly have a negative effect on future negotiations.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.