A record breaking European heatwave provided a fitting backdrop to the latest round of UN climate change talks, in which delegates from around the world descended on Bonn for a two-week diplomatic effort.
The “intersessional” meeting takes place every year in the German city, midway between the annual conferences of the parties (COPs) which fall towards the end of the year. This year, with a “rulebook” for the Paris Agreement largely settled at the December COP24 meeting in Katowice, Poland, the focus was primarily on hammering out a handful of contentious issues and laying the groundwork for the upcoming COP25 in the Chilean capital of Santiago.
In her opening speech, UN climate change executive secretary Patricia Espinosa sent a clear message about the “climate emergency” the world faces, and emphasised the importance of nations dramatically increasing their efforts to cut emissions. But as temperatures soared to 37C outside the conference centre, the atmosphere inside also became heated as a group of nations sought to discredit a major report undertaken by the world’s leading climate scientists.
Meanwhile, over the course of the meeting, progress was slow in devising a system for trading carbon credits internationally, and many observers expressed concerns that the wealthiest nations were not taking their responsibilities to set more ambitious targets and provide climate finance seriously.
Going into the conference, the most high-profile issue up for discussion was Article 6, the only aspect of the Paris “rulebook” that remained incomplete at the end of COP24. This focuses on rules for voluntary international trading of “mitigation outcomes” such as emissions reductions. This section is seen as a critical part of the agreement as if it is handled badly, experts are concerned poor accounting could result in large amounts of extra emissions being produced, with ambition weakened as a result.
The goal at Bonn was to prepare a text for ministers to sign off at COP25, on a new trading system that would kick in beyond 2020 when the current one comes to an end, and as the Paris Agreement comes into force. This means replacing the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which was established by the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Under the CDM, richer nations could meet some of their climate targets by paying for emissions-cutting projects in developing nations, but there have been suggestions that many of the carbon credits generated by this scheme are effectively worthless. One EU report concluded that most clean energy projects paid for by the scheme would likely have happened anyway. It estimated that only 2% of CDM projects had a high likelihood of ensuring emissions reductions were “additional” to other measures.
There are three key sections of Article 6 that formed the basis of discussions at Bonn, the first being Article 6.2, which covers country-to-country trading of overachievements on national climate pledges. In contrast to this direct bilateral trading, Article 6.4 – which is intended to replace the CDM – involves a mechanism which will be governed by a new, separate body. Finally there is Article 6.8, which covers non-market mechanisms that must be determined in the coming few years.
Speaking at a side event, Costa Rica negotiator Felipe de León summarised the importance of getting this process right:
Article 6 is one of those rare birds that within our system could actually do proactive harm – if those rules are not good enough they are basically giving us licence to print fake money, and if you allow people to print fake money they start paying their bills with fake money. And in this case, because geophysics doesn’t care about how clever our accounting mechanisms are, it will come back to haunt us.
However, the technical and political complexity of the topic, and the breadth of opinion among different nations, mean progress has been slow in agreeing the Article 6 rules. […]
Ahead of the meeting, it was generally agreed that by the end of the session in Bonn, parties needed to leave with a clear draft text concerning the future of carbon markets. This would have been put in front of ministers to consider ahead of the next COP so that the summit in Chile could sign off the final Article 6 rules. Instead, delegates in Bonn were only able to agree that were still littered with square-bracketed – in other words unresolved – sections.
Discussions around how to respond to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on 1.5C were perhaps the most controversial to emerge in Bonn. Additional meetings had to be scheduled as proceedings drew to a close, amid concerns that no satisfactory conclusion would be reached before the closing plenary.
The issues arose after a handful of nations led by Saudi Arabia raised concerns about the fundamental science underlying the report, which was commissioned by the UN to explore the differences between 1.5C and 2C of warming. Other countries, particularly developing nations and small island states who say 1.5C threatens their very existence, refused to accept these apparent attempts to undermine the IPCC’s conclusions. […]
While the IPCC’s report itself did not suggest policy changes, it made clear that to keep global warming below 1.5C – a target necessary to avoid many of its worst impacts – emissions would have to be cut by 45% by 2030. Such a global effort would require an unprecedented transition away from fossil fuels.
As part of the discussions, the small island states, as well as Latin American nations and the Least Developed Countries group proposed two workshops to guide nations’ responses to the 1.5C target, to be held in December and next summer in Bonn. According to Fuller, these sessions would have consisted of one to understand the mitigation and adaptation measures required by nations, and also the funding required to achieve them. Given its issues with the underlying science, Saudi Arabia also rejected this proposal.
An extra negotiating session on Wednesday failed to reach an agreement. As a result, the French chief negotiator Paul Watkinson, who chairs the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) that oversees this area, took the text to a closed meeting that evening. By the time of the closing plenary, an “agreement” had been finalised, although not a popular one. A "watered-down" five paragraph version of the document was produced that included a reference to the IPCC report being “the best available science”, and no longer emphasised “uncertainties”, but also removed any formal inclusion of its findings in future UN negotiations.
Many nations made their displeasure felt at the closing plenary. The Environmental Integrity Group of delegates arrived in T-shirts saying “science is not negotiable”, and Ian Fry, the lead negotiator from Tuvalu, took the floor to state the “existential threat” facing his country and say the report should be “welcomed, accepted and not negotiated”. Despite making protestations about the number of delegates taking the floor, Watkinson too emphasised the importance of science to the UN climate process after announcing the agreement.
With the years of negotiations that have followed the 2015 Paris Agreement coming to a close, next year will be the start of the vital next stage: implementation. Countries are due to update their NDCs in 2020, and it is widely accepted they must significantly ramp up their ambition, particularly if there is any hope of hitting the 1.5C target discussed in the IPCC’s report.
The need for developed nations in particular to take this mission seriously was emphasised by Fuller, in his capacity as a representative of small island states. He tells Carbon Brief:
Based on the IPCC report, we only have 11 years to cut emissions by 50% if we are going to achieve that 1.5C target. We only have that window of opportunity to revise the NDCs.
[...] The German conference was therefore seen as an opportunity to discuss these efforts, and issues relating to climate pledges and finance were a key topic of discussion in the corridors. The UN has already reported that it expects 80 countries, including big-hitters such as China, to signal an increase in ambition in New York. Such progress will be necessary because existing NDCs are insufficient to meet the Paris limit of “well below 2C”, and nations are not even on track to meet them. Over the course of the conference, 28 countries including the UK, Nigeria and Brazil presented their current efforts to their peers, providing an arena for scrutiny. Meanwhile a booth run by the World Resources Institute (WRI) recorded pledges from nearly 30 developing nations to strengthen their NDCs next year. Notable by their absence from this booth were representatives from the industrialised nations who account for the vast majority of global emissions.
While talks were underway in Bonn, hopes for renewed ambition suffered several blows from beyond the walls of the conference centre. After initial optimism that EU leaders would agree to target net-zero emissions by 2050, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary and Poland blocked the deal - though though the EU could still agree to raise its ambition later in the year. […]
Overall, the hoped-for choreography towards a successful round of ambition-raising next year has only partially fallen into place. […]
Climate finance – a topic that tends to receive a lot of attention in UN negotiations – was not a key part of the formal discussions at Bonn. […]
Another key focus at the event was "loss and damage" - how to deal with the impacts of climate change that can neither be avoided by cutting emissions, nor defended against by investing in adaptation measures. This is a sensitive topic, particularly for developing nations that stand to lose the most as a result of sea level rise, desertification and other threats. In Bonn, parties were expected to reach agreement on the "tems of reference", including scope and expected outputs, for a review of the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) This was first established six years ago at COP19 in Poland as a means of dealing with the impact of climate change in vulnerable developing countries, including both extreme and slow-onset events.
Loss and damage is a highly politicised issue that has hampered UN negotiations in the past. Though the formal review of the WIM is set to take place at COP25, a major division has emerged between developed and developing nations over what it will cover. Developed nations only want to consider past events, while developing nations want it to also look forward and identify ways to mobilise more support for loss and damage in the future.
Parties came to an agreement on how they planned to undertake the review, but Meyer says this will still be “a big issue in Santiago”, given the significant differences of opinion that remain.
Several technical issues remain unresolved following the conference in Bonn, which will have to be picked up at the COP in Santiago. Besides aiming for agreement around challenges such as Article 6 market mechanisms and loss and damage, these will include devising common timeframes so so that nations’ climate pledges cover the same lengths of time from 2031 onwards. Parties also decided to postpone discussions about the second periodic review of the long-term goal of the UNFCCC, amid reports of divisions between developed and developing parties on the topic. [...]
Success in these complex areas at the COP will partly be dependent on the ability of the Chilean presidency to set out a clear vision for COP25. With two more IPCC reports – on land use and the cryosphere - expected in the coming months, there will also be pressure on supportive nations and the presidency to give them a better welcome than the 1.5C report and provide space for their inclusion in formal UN climate processes. […]
One key announcement that never materialised at Bonn was the location of next year’s COP26. The event will be a critical moment in the climate calendar, coming as the Paris Agreement finally takes hold and nations must confirm their strengthened NDCs.
The UK, in partnership with Italy, is thought to be the favourite to host the event, with confirmation initially expected towards the end of the Bonn summit. However, with Turkey still in the running, the decision was delayed and is now expected to be resolved around the time of the New York event.
[This article originally appeared on carbonbrief.org.]