Science & Environment

UN climate talks settle Saudi nameplate affair

Oil supertanker
Image caption Saudi Arabia is accused of blocking progress because of its oil interests

The unfortunate affair of the toilet bowl and the Saudi Arabian nameplate that arose during the last round of UN climate talks has been settled.

At June's negotiating session in Bonn, activists broke the nameplate that sits before the Saudi delegation, put the bits in a toilet bowl and took photos.

At the opening of this week's session, the groups responsible apologised and will accept sanctions from the UN body.

Critics say Saudi Arabia often stalls the talks to protect its oil interests.

Last week, WWF and Oxfam, the two organisations involved, issued public apologies. And they apologised again as the current week of talks opened, also in Bonn.

"The act itself was repugnant and antithetical to the values of Oxfam, and we condemn it utterly," Oxfam International's executive director Jeremy Hobbs told delegates.

And WWF president Yolanda Kakabadse said the incident had been gravely offensive "to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to all the Parties and the secretariat".

"These actions by a WWF employee went against the respectful and democratic spirit and values of our organisation, and against 50 years of important conservation work built on trust and co-operation in many nations," she said.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN climate convention (UNFCCC), said that as a result of the incident, one WWF delegate had been barred from UN climate talks permanently. A second WWF delegate and one from Oxfam were banned until the end of the year.

At the next round of talks in October, WWF will be limited to two representatives and Oxfam to three.

"I welcome the responsible, respectful and constructive participation of civil society in the UNFCCC intergovernmental process," said Ms Figueres.

"My experience has been that this is the norm, which is why infrequent and isolated incidents like these have no place here... I trust that such incidents will never be repeated in future sessions."

Image caption Christiana Figueres said campaign groups were usually "respectful and constructive"

Initially, the Saudi Arabian delegation demanded that both groups be banned for five years, with lead negotiator Mohammad Al-Sabban saying such incidents "poison the atmosphere in which we are all working".

But following the apologies and the ensuing discussion, they withdrew the demand.

"Saudi Arabia is a forgiving society, and our culture allows us to forgive whoever commits a wrong against us, as long as he or she admits it and apologises," said Mr Al-Sabban.

Oxfam and WWF had already taken internal sanctions against the activists involved, and had instigated reforms aimed at preventing a repeat.

The week-long negotiating session began with warnings that time is running out if any kind of agreement is to be finalised by the annual UN climate summit, to be held at the end of the year in Cancun, Mexico.

"What is at stake here is none other than the long-term, sustainable future of humanity," said Ms Figueres.

"We know the milestones science has set. We know by when and by how much greenhouse gas emissions must drop to have a chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, devastating for the most vulnerable and the poorest around the world."

The biggest single block to progress is the absence of US legislation on climate change. It appears unlikely that the Senate will pass a bill before the end of the year; and if November's mid-term elections go against the Democrats, it may not happen at all.

"Parties should not allow US domestic politics to lower the overall level of ambition of an international agreement, which is guided by what the science requires," said Manuel Oliva of Conservation International.

However, without a strong, binding commitment to emission cuts by the US, it is unlikely that any other country or bloc will adopt curbs on the scale recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

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