“Conference of Parties” sounds like a contradiction in terms: conferences are dull talkfests punctuated by free booze, and parties are free boozefests punctuated by dull moments of trying to talk over loud music. More of the former than the latter is likely to go on later this month in Montreal, during the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

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The event is a typical U.N. phenomenon — a regular meeting of signatory countries to an international agreement, meant to chart progress and hammer out further commitments. But this year’s UNFCCC COP is special, because it is also the occasion of the first Meeting of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol — which, despite being short of loud music and booze, and lacking peyote entirely, will be a veritable Burning Man for the climate-policy set.

Since agreement of detailed rules for the Kyoto Protocol four years ago in Morocco, most time at COPs has been spent twiddling thumbs, waiting for Kyoto to enter into force. It hardly made sense to tackle any new issues while the protocol, the main event, languished. Now, however, the meeting takes on fresh significance. Thus we get the first-ever MOP, concurrent with the COP, between Nov. 28 and Dec. 9.

Officially they are separate meetings, but with significant overlap, since almost all countries (the U.S. and Australia being glaring exceptions) are party to both agreements. We can expect some pomp and circumstance to mark the protocol finally coming into force and the continuation of some long-running detailed discussions interesting to few. And then there will be some new items of real importance — including the first stabs at what will happen when Kyoto ends in 2012.

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MOPping Up the Pieces

The 156 countries at the MOP face an agenda containing some substantial issues. First among them is that all of the “decisions” taken until now that substantively affect the protocol — from rules of procedure to the design of emissions-trading schemes — are only drafts, and must be confirmed by the first MOP. This primarily means approving the Marrakech Accords, hammered out four years ago, which filled in the details of the protocol and gave countries the confidence to ratify it. While no glitches are anticipated (barring the now traditional Saudi attempt at sabotage), approving these decisions is vital.

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The Saudis may keep their powder dry for another agenda item, however — settling on the compliance regime. Or, in other words, how to enforce the agreement. The protocol is legally binding, but there have been attempts to make it more hard-hitting with things like penalties for failing to meet reduction targets. This regime can be decided either by a decision of the MOP or by amendment of the protocol — the Saudis have proposed the latter, which would mean another round of national deliberations that could take years. A decision, on the other hand, would take minutes. The UNFCCC Secretariat’s agenda is a bit transparent regarding their view of how this will play out: it says (paraphrasing): “A: Take into account Saudi proposal for an amendment. B: Adopt the decision anyway.”

Another important discussion, which basically all parties agree needs to be tackled, is about how to make the clean-development mechanism (CDM) work better. This is the system whereby developed countries with reduction targets can buy “credit” from emission-reduction projects in developing countries. The process is currently filled with expensive hoops; many criticize the executive board of the CDM for working too slowly, and say there are too many rules that, while designed to ensure only real reductions earn credit, make the process almost not worth pursuing. There are ideas afoot ranging from increasing board funding to dispensing with many of the rules, with possibly negative environmental repercussions.

What also needs to be addressed at the political level is what happens to the CDM after Kyoto’s first commitment period ends in 2012 — if some other system takes its place, investors need to know that the stream of future credits coming from their current investments won’t go lost. A guarantee that the CDM will continue in the future is needed to make it work now.

Which brings us to the most significant item on the agenda, dictated by Article 3 Paragraph 9 of the Kyoto Protocol. This states that the discussion of future, post-2012 targets needs to begin seven years before the end of the first commitment period — in other words, this year.

But Hey, No Pressure

With the U.S. and Australia out of Kyoto and debate raging in Europe and Japan about how to reach an agreeable deal next time around, there’s no telling what the future of the protocol will be. With the system’s entire design in question, the process of deciding targets won’t be the orderly task the drafters imagined.

So what will the future hold? The E.U. tends to favor the approach of continuing Kyoto-type targets and inviting the more-developed of developing countries (like South Korea or Mexico) to accept them, while coming up with transitional commitments for other countries. This could pull China and India into a step-wise process of making more specific commitments, for example. However, the U.S. seems intent on rejecting any agreement with fixed targets and timetables, in keeping with President Bush’s general rejection of international agreements that put external pressure on internal policy and economic decisions. Developing countries, meanwhile, are generally wary of taking on anything smelling of a fixed target, given that they have pressing development needs and low emissions compared to developed countries.

While the U.S. claims to offer an alternative in the form of technology development and bilateral or regional agreements (such as the Asia-Pacific Partnership), it is hard to take this seriously with no concurrent vision of how it will lead to real emissions reductions. However, as the world’s biggest emitter, the U.S. needs to do little to make other countries rethink their approaches — the U.K., for example, is bending over backwards trying to find a way to reconcile the E.U. and U.S.

We can’t expect Montreal to hammer out any clear pathway to Kyoto or non-Kyoto futures. The fact is that international negotiation is slow business. But we can expect Montreal to adopt some principles, probably short of an actual action plan — and then subsequent COP/MOPs will have the unenviable task of working out some kind of compromise.

It is always possible, of course, that while paying lip service to the U.N. process, bodies like the G8 and the sorts of regional and bilateral agreements the U.S. is engaged in will slowly chip away at the content of the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol, to the point where it faces a crisis. If no real progress is made in the next couple of years, it will be time to reassess. Meanwhile, the usual diplomatic give-and-take will grind slowly along. One thing’s for sure: it’s no party.