UN Climate Talks: Slow Progress on the Inside, Transformative Thinking at the Margins
Opinion & Analysis
The second week of this year’s United Nations climate change conference kicked off Monday morning with a duality—or a disconnect—that goes right to the heart of the COP process. While negotiators largely did their job in Week One, making solid progress on the technical and methodological work to clear a path to implementing the Paris Agreement, the richest material on the global effort to build the post-carbon transition was presented and discussed elsewhere, pretty much completely divorced from the official process.
In the negotiating rooms, discussion focused on a few key topics, all of which hinged on national representatives harmonizing divergent agendas, building common ground and, ultimately, finding ways to trust each other to keep promises made during the negotiating process. Key issues include the urgent need for deeper, faster carbon cuts before 2020, design of the 2018 Talanoa Dialogue to set the stage for future reductions, a “transparency mechanism” aimed at giving countries a clear, accurate view of each other’s Paris implementation efforts, funding for climate change adaptation, and progress on loss and damage in vulnerable developing countries facing climate impacts to which it’s impossible to adapt.
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The hundreds of side events captured a dizzying array of issues and topics, opportunities and challenges, on the road to a post-carbon future—from the stunning potential of renewable energy and energy storage technologies, to the need for a just transition that is fair to workers and communities; from new funding for the global campaign to phase out coal, to the powerful role of cities and sub-national governments as catalysts for climate action; from climate impacts on agriculture, forestry, and oceans, to the human impact of racism and gender bias as barriers to effective climate solutions.
Some of those issues make cameo appearances in the text of the Paris Agreement, but few if any of them have received more than passing attention in the line-by-line drafting and redrafting, horse-trading and political positioning that have taken up the last week of official sessions.
Getting On with the Job
The issue of pre-2020 ambition—the additional, essential efforts countries can make this decade to reduce their climate impact—was contentious at different points in the first week. The outcome on this issue is fundamentally important, with climate scientists warning that the window will close on the hope of keeping average global warming to 1.5°C if action is delayed.
“We already have a very important and a very, very busy schedule at this meeting,” a United States representative said earlier in the week, on behalf of an Umbrella Group of emitters that includes Canada, Russia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Australia, Norway, New Zealand, and Ukraine. “Anyone who’s been in one of these negotiation rooms knows that one of the most common complaints is the lack of time and the overlapping of sessions. There has to be a point where we stop adding agenda items, especially ones that have already been dealt with, and just get to work.”
But Brazilian chief negotiator J Antonio Marcondes warned that “if we are to reach the goals set out in Paris, we cannot delay action until 2020. Ambition and actions should not be postponed.” He charged that “not all countries here in Bonn, as it has been clear, appreciate the need to tackle actions before 2020.”
Late Friday, Climate Home News had that warning coming from a bloc of 134 countries, including China and India. “We’re not asking for unrealistic commitment from developed countries, we simply [want them] to fulfill pledges that have already been made,” said senior Chinese negotiator Gu Zihua. “Pre-2020 is really a trust-building issue for developing countries,” and “if they just turn down all proposals, then how could developing countries have trust for future discussions?”
On Friday, Climate Action Network-International’s daily COP newsletter, ECO, explained the importance of the otherwise arcane concept of “transparency” in delivering on the promise of the Paris Agreement. “Delays and incomplete information not only impact understanding, but also hold up critical review efforts to identify capacity-building gaps and needs,” the newsletter noted, referring to the resources to be provided to help developing countries fund their work on climate.
ECO called for an approach to transparency that promotes domestic, regional, and international cooperation, helps countries share experiences and best practices in meeting their carbon reduction targets, strengthens countries’ domestic capacity for policy action, identifies areas where countries need to build capacity, and supports information-sharing on implementation of national carbon reduction targets.
Driving for 1.5°C
Discussion in Bonn is also focusing on the long-term target of a 1.5°C limit on average global warming that the Paris Agreement cast as an aspiration goal, but Loren Logarda, chair of the Philippines Finance and Climate Change Committee, recently called an “existential limit”. In a Saturday blog post, CARE International Climate Advocacy Coordinator Sven Harmeling notes that Paris “has triggered the science policy community to have a much closer look at the 1.5°C limit,” perhaps most notably through an upcoming report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Harmeling inventories an initial flurry of emissions pathways analysis, socio-economic assessments, and country scenarios that take the lower long-term limit into account. But the more optimistic assessments often rely on worrying, unproven technological solutions and “there are, unfortunately, too few examples of countries who have recognized that the 1.5°C limit requires additional efforts,” he writes.
“The basic message is already clear: countries’ plans do not add up to what is needed and more ambition is required!” he concludes. “There must be a rapid shift to 100% sustainable renewable energies, and other known solutions, instead of shifting the focus to unproven and high-risk negative emissions technologies.”