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Climate change negotiator

A Thai team works behind the scenes to draft a workable climate change policy

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After long hours in a closed meeting room at climate change negotiations in Bonn earlier this month, Dr Surachai Sathikunarat, a young Thai climate change negotiator, should have had peaceful coffee breaks. 

As the world becomes warmer, delegates from 180 countries are trying to roll out a new climate change treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. PHOTOS: PIYAPORN WONGRUANG

But he couldn't enjoy the smell of brewing coffee and pastry, not even once. At climate change summits, it is a given that coffee breaks are another form of informal lobby - even more effective than formal conference rooms. Thus every time the 35-year-old civil servant went to the espresso bar to enjoy a cup of coffee, he could be sure that there would be some negotiators - usually from other developing countries - following him, and the purpose was definitely not a cup of coffee.

Dr Surachai is one of Thailand's climate change negotiating team - comprising 20 members - most of them young and energetic civil servants from various government agencies.

These negotiators are recruited from the cream of the crop of various state agencies responsible for climate change policy and international treaty drafting. In 2007, the Thai government sent these young negotiators to attend a climate change meeting in Bali, Indonesia. This meeting was a formative experience for these young negotiators, as it was where the new climate change negotiation framework, known as Bali Action Plan 2007, was initiated to pave the way for negotiations for new agreements to strengthen climate actions of the outgoing Kyoto Protocol.

Set to expire in 2012, the historic Kyoto Protocol committed developed nations to reducing emissions along preset targets. The drafting of a new treaty, under the Bali framework, is tougher and conflict-ridden, as developed nations want developing nations to formulate emission reduction plans that can be monitored and measured. Meanwhile, these industrialised countries do not want to make new commitments and see the new treaty become law, so they will not be forced by international law to reduce emissions.

The new climate treaty will be more action-oriented. It will comprise action plans for emission reduction, adaptation funds (financial help for countries affected by climate change) and the transfer of finance and climate-friendly production technology, for example.

"It's like formulating new legislation in Parliament. Every word counts," said Dr Surachai, a political researcher at the National Science Technology and Innovation Policy Office under the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Solving climate change problems involves hours in meeting rooms tediously grinding out draft treaties. ‘We can argue for hours over choice of words ... should we use ‘shall’ or ‘should’, ‘will’ or ‘would’. Besides the debate over words, there has always been a high stakes game of national benefits. Thus, it is our ardent task to be able to keep up with this game,’ said Dr Surachai Sathikunarat, climate change negotiator.

"We can argue for hours over the choice of words ... should we use 'shall' or 'should', 'will' or 'would'. Besides the debate over words, there has always been a high stakes game of national benefits. Thus, it is our ardent task to be able to keep up with this game," said Dr Surachai, who has been appointed to oversee the negotiations on technology transfer.

In the new treaty, developing nations have demanded rich countries waive intellectual property rights for technology - such as renewable energy production, environmentally friendly industrial machines or seeds that can withstand climate-change-caused drought, for example.

During negotiations, Dr Surachai had to decide whether or not Thailand should lend its support to wording that will affect the enforcement of intellectual property rights.

Some other countries in the group of G77 - a bloc of developing countries to which Thailand also belongs - want free technology. But Dr Surachai feels that overriding intellectual property rights may be too extreme, and goes against Thailand's intellectual property law.

"So silence became the best option at the time when contradicting ideas were aired in the room.

"I had to keep to an intervention statement calling for a middle path of creating a resource pool where people can take technology and learn from it. Speaking out could mean breaking rank and being isolated from the group," said Dr Surachai. "In the meeting, new issues are often raised immediately and you have no one to consult with. That's why it's tough, and calmness is what is really needed to keep your head clear."

The challenge for the Thai team is not only with negotiation tactics; it also arises from staff shortfall. Other countries such as Japan have 70 negotiators.

The team realises it is time to recruit more people as the negotiations become more complicated and diversified with many stances and fractions.

Without enough staff, Team Thailand will have to rely on friends from the G77 group, according to Aranya Nuntapotidech, deputy secretary-general of the Office of National Natural Resources and Environmental Policy Planning, who headed the team.

The young negotiators will have to have another round of meetings in August.

By the end of the year, they have to prove their negotiating skills in Mexico, where the draft of a new climate change treaty will be finalised.

For Dr Surachai and young members of Team Thailand, the meetings mean long hours of argument, late night talks and countless cups of coffee.

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