Scientific advice improved outcome of UN climate talks

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  • Some negotiators have no technical background and are underprepared
  • Expert advice on carbon capture and storage aided debates between UN talks at Cancun and Durban
  • But it is hard to conclusively link the improved debate to the input of experts

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UN climate change policy negotiators need more access to expert advice on new technologies such as carbon storage and geoengineering, according to an expert whose study found that providing scientific information to negotiators before debates resulted in more productive discussions.
The paper, published in Energy Procedia last month (5 August), says that the annual Conferences of the Parties (COPs) held in relation to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have limited and imperfect routes for providing scientific information to negotiators.
"Some negotiators have no technical background. Many work from their country's briefs and don't get a chance to get organised beforehand," says Tim Dixon, one of the paper's authors and manager of carbon capture and storage (CCS) and regulation at the International Energy Agency Greenhouse Gas R&D Programme (IEAGHG), an international research initiative that evaluates technologies that can cut emissions from fossil fuel use.

"And for many developing countries, there are so many issues in these meetings, they struggle to keep up with everything they might want to comment on. Negotiations can therefore involve a fairly low level of technical knowledge and lead to misunderstandings," he tells SciDev.Net.
The paper discusses improving the dissemination of scientific advice to negotiators in the context of CCS, the underground storage of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel power stations.
Developing nations that are currently considering CCS projects to minimise their greenhouse gas emissions include Botswana, Brazil, China, Indonesia, Mexico and South Africa, according to Dixon.
However, previous UNFCCC negotiations have raised concerns with the technology, such as the potential accidental escape of carbon dioxide from underground storage, and that it may encourage increased fossil fuel use.
To assist, IEAGHG provided experts to talk with negotiators at an extra UNFCCC technical workshop in Abu Dhabi in September 2011. According to the paper, the workshop enabled good, open discussion and helped to successfully convey technical points about CCS to negotiators including those on environmental impacts and monitoring solutions.
"This meant that most of the main negotiators went into the following COP in Durban far better informed about the issues, and they also felt more confident in themselves," says Dixon.
According to the paper, the negotiators who attended the Abu Dhabi workshop raised the quality of the 2011 Durban negotiations on potential rules and procedures for governing CCS use.
After these debates, CCS was successfully included in the UNFCCC's Clean Development Mechanism, the main policy tool for implementing low-carbon projects in developing countries. The rules now define who is responsible for underground carbon dioxide, which Dixon says provides environmental protection and helps legitimise CCS in developing countries.
He says that technical workshops could become increasingly important for negotiations on future climate change mitigation technologies.
According to Dixon, although emissions reductions should be the priority for tackling climate change, the hypothetical engineering of the Earth's climate is another technology that needs proper consideration.
"Geoengineering will face even more challenges than CCS in getting through negotiations," he tells SciDev.Net. "And so the scientific advice on those issues will become even more essential."
David Reiner, senior lecturer in technology policy at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, says that, while various IEAGHG mechanisms may have affected some detailed aspects of the outcome at Durban, "it is inherently difficult to demonstrate a causal linkage between activities and outcomes since there are a number of reasons for a particular outcome of a negotiation".
Link to paper


Energy Procedia doi: 10.1016/j.egypro.2013.06.703 (2013)