Shall, may, must: Text and frame and the linguistic landmines of climate negotiations​

Negotiations are now coursing the homestretch at the COP28 climate talks in Dubai. During this critical stage, battle lines are drawn, nerves frayed and tension on overdrive. The mental and physical fatigue of the two-week process is visible on the faces of the negotiators, and language and how it is deployed in official documents is complicating matters.

“I am hearing (the) GST text is being watered down,” a negotiator raises the alarm in one of the many WhatsApp groups at COP28. ‘‘The draft text has been watered down substantially,’’ she adds, obviously exasperated.

For those attending the climate talks in Dubai, and those following the proceedings from elsewhere, the word ‘‘text’’ is familiar. In these negotiations, text is a landmine. It could potentially make or break negotiations between countries, also called parties in the context of the COP summits.

Whether consensus is built on an issue or not depends on how the literature is worded. This literature is what constitutes text, and the boxing ring for text is the Conference of Parties, or COP, the biggest United Nations platform for climate talks, hosted by the UNFCCC.

At COP, negotiations are typically drawn out, often spilling into the night, sometimes to dawn, as parties go for each other’s jugular to obtain text that is not just right, but convenient for them as well.

Negotiations are now coursing the homestretch. During this critical stage, battle lines are drawn, nerves frayed and tension goes on overdrive. The mental and physical fatigue of the two-week process is visible on the faces of the negotiators.

In the coming hours, climate observers will closely be watching the text that emerges, its framing and the implications. For others, it is a time for vigilance.

‘‘What words mean and how they can be interpreted in national, regional and global climate policies is important. This is why they are sensitive,’’ explains Janet Milongo, a climate policy expert working with Climate Action Network International (CAN).

She adds: ‘‘Negotiators play around with the language and interpret it in a way that avoids too much responsibility for their countries.’’

More than anything, climate negotiations are as much about the lingo as they are about country interests -- about what one gains out of the discourse and what they are likely to lose in the process. Ordinarily, some parties will be accused of failing to set ambitious targets for either finance or the phase-out of fossil fuels.

In the first week of the negotiations, Nigeria, Senegal and Mauritania ‘‘vehemently opposed’’ any text on the phase-out of fossil fuels, arguing that their economies are dependent on the commodity. And at one point negotiations on the Global Goal on Adaptation (GGA) appeared to stall. The dispute? Developed countries felt that having already committed to the Loss and Damage Fund earlier in the negotiations, agreeing to the GGA would be too much to ask of them.

Milongo observes: ‘‘Everyone wants to get the most favorable text for them. Each country and region has different priorities. So, it is always about getting the best compromise possible.’’

Closely related to text is language. For players within climate negotiations, ‘‘strong language’’ is a buzzword. The stronger the language the more commitment it comes with. Mild language often implies half-heartedness.

‘‘I would like to see strong language on a fossil fuel phase-out. Not in the next year, but the next week at COP28,” tweeted Jessica Beagly this week. Beagly is a policy lead at the Global Climate and Health Alliance and a campaigner for community representation in UNFCCC negotiations.

If the wording of climate text is sensitive, the substance is divisive. And even radioactive. Tracy Carty, a climate politics expert at Greenpeace International, says climate agreements are nothing without deadlines. ‘‘When we talk about a phase-out of fossil fuels, we must know when this will be done. It cannot be an open-ended commitment.’’

To understand the full extent of contention around climate negotiations text, none comes out at once. Instead, it comes in stages, usually in drafts. Each draft contains only items agreed upon. The final text is not until all issues raised in the drafts are ironed out and parties are content.

‘‘It looks like we might get new text tonight (Friday evening),’’ Cristina Rhumbaitis reveals as negotiations on the Global Goal on Adaptation go down to the wire. Rhumbaitis is a veteran adaptation and resilience expert with the UN Foundation. The Argentinian has been part of these processes for more than 20 years and is familiar with their strenuous nature.

‘‘We are still pushing for a text that has clear thematic sectoral targets and means of implementation for the GGA in the framework,’’ says Rhumbaitis. Such a framework, she insists, goes beyond the policy cycle and process targets.

As the GGA negotiations were ongoing last week, Australia and Japan were uncomfortable with the draft text, arguing it was not workable for them. The duo was said to be pushing for statements that many feared would water down the final text. At the same time, the United States was pushing for a simple statement that would ‘‘increase resilience of water, food, health,

ecosystems”. Analysts feared such a statement would be not only ‘‘hard to measure’’ but also less likely to trigger new commitments and actions in adaptation.

In these kinds of dispute, simple words such as ‘‘may’’ and ‘‘shall’’ bear monumental significance that could wreck the process. Those putting their weight behind GGA argue for the use of the words ‘‘eliminate’’ and ‘‘end’’ in place of ‘‘reduce’’ for climate change-driven fatalities.

But is text the bible of climate negotiations? It turns out not.

‘‘Any text is guiding. Not binding. But diplomatic pressure always compels countries to do what the text says,’’ Milongo notes.

How others in the climate arena view this, though, is different. For the civil society movement, for instance, the text is the leash on which to hold countries to account.

‘‘Persuading parties to develop and agree on strong text means we can use it to push countries to act on what they have agreed to,’’ Milongo explains.

At this COP, no battlefront has been fiercer than the Global Stocktake conversation, whose text came out on Friday evening. Some argued that the text on fossil fuel phase-out, for instance, failed to include ‘‘language on the need for equity by requiring developed countries to phase out first.’’ The Global Stocktake, popularly known as GST in climate change parlance, reviews global action after every five years while setting new goals for national adaptation plans (NAPs).

They also noted that the GST text failed to acknowledge that developing nations require financial support to undertake a clean energy transition. For them, the use of the term ‘‘unabated’’ weakens commitments to eliminate fossil fuels and promotes what they call distractions, including carbon markets.

When it comes to energy conversations, few words have been as contentious as ‘‘abate’’ and ‘‘unabated”. The derivative ‘‘abatement’’ has also recently made its way into the climate lingo at this COP, with a fair share of controversy.

But what does this word even mean? In law, to ‘‘abate’’ means to reduce or to remove a nuisance. Meanwhile, ‘‘unabated’’, when used in the context of fossil fuels, means the burning of fossil fuels where the carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gas emissions produced are released directly into the atmosphere in a manner that increases global warming.

But what happens when negotiators cannot strike a consensus on the text? And how likely is such a scenario?

Failure to strike a consensus is not uncommon in climate talks. It is the norm rather than the exception, Milongo says. Parties, invariably, must cede ground, close ranks and push for a common interest. The result of such a move is a compromise text, and the alternative is an endless tug of war.

So, what is a compromise text?

This text emerges after lengthy talks where parties and the different negotiation blocs each give up some of the positions they have been pushing for so that they can accommodate some propositions of the other blocs. In the end, each side takes something from the negotiation such that all on board are satisfied with the process.

Several UN climate talks before have ended in a compromise statement from country delegates from around the world. In Bonn in 2019, for instance, parties endorsed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on global warming of 1.5ºC as “the best available science”. Coming in June every year, the Bonn climate conference acts as a precursor to the COP later in the year.

In this agreement, the parties omitted reference to a ‘‘target maximum average global temperature rise”. That year, Small Island States had argued strongly in favour of including a target of 1.5ºC in the text.

Small Island States include countries such as Mauritius, Solomon Islands, Cook Islands and St Kitts and Nevis. These island nations are at the highest risk of climate change, owing to their location.

Meanwhile, major fossil fuel producers, led by Saudi Arabia, wanted to poke holes in the IPCC report by referring to ‘‘uncertainties’’ in its findings that linked fossil fuels to the climate crisis.

As one African negotiator remarked in Dubai: ‘‘Every decision we make at this COP will affect us not just now but for generations to come. What we decide at COP28 will be stuck with us forever.’’