International climate change negotiations are reaching a critical “and potentially quite dangerous moment” ahead of this year’s COP17 summit in Durban, the UK Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative for Climate Change John Ashton has said during his first visit to the Maldives.
With economic meltdowns in Europe, deep internal political debates in the US and the drive in developing economies to create jobs for the increasing number of people migrating to cities, political attention was being distracted from climate change, he observed.
“There are lots of distractions and we need to keep an eye on the ball. The Maldives can help the international community to do that,” he said. “Whenever I get a chance I draw attention to the circumstances of the Maldives, and I encourage people here to use the platform they have because their voices need to be heard more widely.
“The Maldives is extremely important. Because of its vulnerability, particularly to sea level rise, and the skills of President Mohamed Nasheed in communicating the country’s predicament globally, the Maldives has a global influence on perceptions of climate change. I’m here because we need to learn to see this problem though eyes of the Maldives. What is clearer here than in other places is the scale, urgency and existential nature of the problem. In our global response to climate change, we haven’t developed a response commiserate with that urgency.”
Underneath the ongoing climate talks, he said, “is a battle between low and high ambitions. It is partly played out as a battle between those who want to see a legally binding approach and those who want a voluntary approach – which is likely to be as effective as a voluntary approach to speed limits.”
Ashton predicted that climate negotiations in Durban and over the next few years would lead to a “decisive battle between the two models.”
As a country with intense vulnerability to climate change, the Maldives had an opportunity to use its iconic status to frame the debate.
“One goes [to the talks] and feels the tussle between the forces of low ambition and high ambition. The Maldives is very much a force of high ambition, and that is appreciated very much by all of us who identify with the need for a high ambition response, including the UK,’ Ashton said.
Minivan News understands that international delegations expressed surprise and confusion during talks held in Berlin in early July, when the Maldives’ Deputy Environment Minister Mohamed Shareef appeared to entertain support for special response measures proposed by Saudi Arabia – measures which would see the kingdom compensated for lost oil revenues.
A person familiar with the matter voiced frustration at the position and claimed it signalled the Maldives “has gone from being a world leader to a banana republic in international climate policy in the space of little more than a year.”
Speaking to Minivan News today, Dr Shareef said “I don’t believe for one minute that Saudi Arabia’s concerns are genuine, and I don’t like the idea of response measures.”
“This has been taken out of context. Our argument is that the concerns of all parties should be addressed,” he said. “Real concerns should be kept, the others thrown out. My argument is that we can’t just put difficult issues aside – there are very difficult issues in this negotiation we are not considering. Saudi Arabia and OPEC countries are blocking [the negotiations] and we are not addressing their concerns. There should be a mechanism to address the concerns of all parties.”
Ashton today observed that “there is always a danger at these meetings of over-interpreting what other people are saying. People have their antennae finely tuned, and if you are someone who doesn’t go to all of the meetings it’s quite easy to misinterpret something as the opposite of what was meant.”
“I don’t know what was said. But I have in all of my engagement with Maldives seen it as a voice of pragmatic high ambition in the global conversation, and that has been greatly reinforced by all the meetings I’ve had here. I wouldn’t read too much into indirect accounts of what one Maldivian official might have said in Berlin.”
The agreement on climate was, Ashton said, “the most complex piece of diplomacy ever devised. It’s not surprising that it has twists and turns, not the least because the problems involving not just negotiation but the underlying domestic politics of the parties involved in the negotiation. Every negotiation involves compromises, and there are people who want to go faster, and people who want to go slower.”
The Maldives’ hitherto empathetic and uncompromising position on climate change had given it an “ enormous authority as an arbiter as to how fast is fast enough,” he said.
“If I was a representative of the Maldives I would not be willing to compromise on that, because the stakes are so high.”
It was legitimate to raise the subject of response measures, Ashton said, as “this really is about a re-engineering of the global economy. Lowering carbon emissions affect how we produce electricity, use land and conduct industry. It not an environmental negotiation about air or water quality, it’s an economic negotiation. You have to accept this is going to have disruptive consequences, and where you have economic disruption you have politics. Political economy comes into play because you have a distributional problem – how opportunities are shared and how risks allocated. That’s true within economies, and to some extent internationally.”
Questions surrounding response measures and distribution were significant for the Maldives, he said, because it suffered from climate change “in an existential way. If the sea level rise, there are real questions about the viability of a state like the Maldives. In an order of priorities, problems like that should come right at the top.”
Response measures recognised that the process of reengineering the global economy was disruptive, he said, “and that there is time for economies to adapt.”
“But I don’t think it is legitimate for the whole process to be held hostage by an issue like this. Because in the end if this is the approach that everybody adopts, we will get precisely nowhere.”
The Maldives’ had an opportunity to benefit financially from becoming a carbon neutral economy, he predicted, “because all your energy comes from diesel, which you have to import, and over the next 10 years is going to become more expensive. You could probably [adapt] in a way that doesn’t impose additional burdens on the economy, and actually save money while building a more resilient and energy-secure economy.”
The world had confidence, Ashton said, that the Maldives’ ambitions to become carbon neutral by 2020 “is not just cosmetic positioning. I came here partly because I wanted to see what was happening with the carbon neutral plan. I’m hugely impressed.”
“Maldives make a huge difference. Athough people understand carbon neutral economy, a lot of people feel it thwill be a burden – a risk to the economy rather than an opportunity, and perhaps a risk to political stability. People hesitate. What the Maldives can say in pursuing its carbon neutral plan, is that ‘If we are, why can’t you?’. That’s a powerful message.”