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INTERNATIONAL POLICY
11 June 2015 20:00

In depth: Trust high but progress slow at UN climate talks in Bonn

A medieval castle and an urban view behind, Bonn Germany
Danor Aharon/Shutterstock
Carbon Brief Staff

Carbon Brief Staff

11.06.2015 | 8:00pm
International policyIn depth: Trust high but progress slow at UN climate talks in Bonn

Diplomats have completed the latest round of UN talks on climate change, intended to whittle down a draft text into something that could form the basis of a UN climate agreement this December.

Negotiators managed to cut down the sprawling  text, which they agreed in Geneva earlier this year – a 90-page document containing all the views of all countries.

After two weeks of negotiations, the text now stands at  85 pages, or 2,730 words shorter than before. The final deal signed in Paris is expected to come in at around 15 pages, which gives some indication of the scale of work needed over the next six months, if the summit is to be a success.

This deal will define how the world plans to cut its emissions over the course of the century, as well as putting countries on track to achieve reductions in the short term.

The shorter version of the text is substantively no different to what countries had when they started the negotiations two weeks ago. It is cleaner, less repetitious and easier to understand, but still lacks a structure appropriate for the anticipated legal agreement.

Some pointed to the slow pace of work in Bonn as evidence of a faltering UN process. Others offered a more upbeat interpretation, highlighting the trust that was apparent in a frequently acrimonious process.

The stage has also been set for future sessions, with the co-chairs, who are responsible for shepherding countries through the negotiations, promising to deliver a newer, even clearer text on 24 July, which will be the basis of further negotiations ahead of the final summit in Paris in December.

Streamlining

Ilze Pruse, head of the Latvian delegation to the EU, speaking on behalf of the bloc, said the session had been constructive and had increased trust between parties.

But the EU had hoped for a more concise negotiating text at this stage, she said, as well as more progress on defining and separating the different elements that would be agreed collectively in Paris. She said:

“Unfortunately, we are still a long long way from where we hoped to be. What we have achieved [with the text] has been largely a mechanical streamlining exercise. The Paris conference is less than six months away. We must go faster.”

The fact that a fully streamlined text is now not due to be released until July is a “missed opportunity”, Mohamed Adow, senior climate change adviser to Christian Aid, told Carbon Brief. If the more substantively reorganised text had been available this week, the co-chairs could have more easily gathered feedback from parties, he said.

Jennifer Morgan, climate director at the World Resources Institute, told Carbon Brief the pace of talks was a concern. She said there wasn’t enough time to proceed in the same way: “So I hope over coming months with ministers getting involved that the pace can pick up.”

Elina Bardram, head of the EU delegation to the talks, said the revised text due to be produced by the co-chairs in July would be “really, really critical”. She said:

“I think it’s fair to say we can only assess the full result of this session once that tool, once that working document is available, as it is on the basis of that document that the engagement we want to see in August can and must happen.”

Behind-the-scenes

The co-chairs of the talks, Dan Reifsnyder from the US and Ahmed Djoghlaf from Algeria, resisted the idea that the pace had been too slow. In a briefing with the media, Reifsnyder said that there had been “enormous progress” in creating a workable text for Paris, while Djoghlaf added that it is normal that the complex process should “take time”.

While there was little development in hammering out the substance of the future deal, the success of the negotiating session lay in more nuanced elements, explained the co-chairs.

Reifsynder pointed to subtle shifts in how the conference was conducted. For instance, 11 break-out groups to discuss individual elements of the new deal constituted a “very significant step” as it illustrated a new level of trust between parties. He said:

“We think we’ve done a lot. We think it’s going actually very well, and there have been a number of key things we’ve been able to introduce, key ways that we’ve been able to make this process go forward that weren’t obvious when we came in.”

Parties also demonstrated that they were ready to trust the co-chairs. This was encapsulated at the end by countries giving them permission to go away and draft a new version of the text, as well as enabling them to conduct breakaway sessions separately.

The animosity faced by their predecessors, Kishan Kumarsingh from Trinidad and Tobago and Artur Runge-Metzger from Germany, grew so intense that it disrupted the progress of the previous round of UN climate talks in Lima in 2014.

Behind the scenes, there were more successes taking place, invisible to the watchful eyes of outsiders. These were in the one-on-one discussions taking place between individual countries, said Djoghlaf:

“I think Dan and I had more than 80 bilateral meetings. In the last two days, we had 23 bilateral meetings. There are things going on, but they are things that you cannot know.”

The sentiment was echoed by a senior official from the US delegation at the talks in Bonn. He said:

“What we do in the official talks, of course, is only one dimension of things… We do have an opportunity to see many parties at these meetings and a big part of what we do is to engage them on issues that matter to us and to them, hear their positions, explain ours and actually identify some areas of convergence.”

For Djoghlaf, these were subtleties not picked up in the media – a grievance he expressed directly to journalists at a briefing. He said:

“Dan and I are a little bit disappointed with the way this meeting has been covered so far. Saying that the process is going nowhere, I don’t think it is a responsible statement.”

Other progress

Work on the core climate deal itself was complemented by a plethora of activity in other arenas that will be part of the ultimate package to emerge from Paris in December.

The EU’s Bardram celebrated the opportunity that countries had to present their plans to tackle emissions, both before and after 2020, when the Paris agreement is due to come into force. Detailed question-and-answer sessions, in which countries were allowed to quiz each other about the details underpinning their national targets, were “very useful” for transparency and “really well received”, she said.

Nonetheless, the rush of nationally determined pledges that many expected would be offered in Bonn failed to emerge, with just Morocco and Ethiopia coming forward with new targets to cut their emissions after 2020.

Bonn also finalised rules on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), preparing the way for progress on the ground. The conclusion was one of the few landmark moments to emerge during the session: discussions on deforestation have stretched on for the past ten years.

Parties also discussed a report by the UN on the adequacy of the long-term temperature target that guides the negotiations. The message of the report was clear: the current 2C goal will not protect the world from the impacts of climate change.

Many parties had hoped that this idea could be formally included in the talks in Paris, but opposition led by Saudi Arabia meant the discussions were inconclusive, although they have agreed to pick the topic up again in December. A US delegate said it was “far from our desired outcome”.

Countries also discussed how to address climate change in the five years before the Paris deal comes into force in 2020. Currently, countries are effectively unburdened by any international emissions targets, and there is a strand of the negotiations, known as “Workstream 2”, dedicated to ensuring that the climate is not forgotten during this period. Ahmed Sareer, chair of the small island states negotiating bloc known as AOSIS, said:

“We welcome the productive discussions about near-term emissions reductions…and there is wide agreement by parties that Paris should deliver a strong decision that advances the technical process.”

Road to Paris

A packed schedule over the next six months will see diplomats attempting to lick the current draft into shape so that it can be easily adopted come Paris.

Countries are keenly aware of the dangers of leaving too many contentious issues to the last minute – a mistake which saw UN climate negotiations fail in Copenhagen in 2009, the last time the world came together to try to sign a climate treaty.

Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, has also scotched reports that the French hosts of the Paris COP might present their own draft text in the summer, if progress remains sluggish. She told Carbon Brief:

“This is not a Copenhagen 2.0. They are not going to come with their own text.”

The text that the co-chairs have promised to release will be cleaner and more comprehensible. It will also divide up the issues that will be part of the Paris package.

Some parts of the text currently on the table will naturally form part of the durable centre of the Paris deal, while other parts of it are more likely to be included as the more detailed “rule book” that will set out how the agreement functions. In some cases, it is less clear cut, and this will also be indicated, the chairs explain in a note.

Their text will still not erase any of the ideas and views put forward by parties. But a ministerial meeting in Paris on 20 July will give high-level politicians the opportunity to engage on the substance of the text, which will guide parties as they engage on the actual content of the final deal.

Janos Pasztor, climate assistant to the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, told Carbon Brief:

“It’s fairly clear what some of the difficult issues are, and I’m sure the French hosts will be able to work out an agenda for those ministerial discussions…and not solve them, perhaps, but have an exchange on them – that’s what informal sessions are for.”

Country delegates will meet again in August and October for further negotiating sessions, where they hope to produce a document closely resembling the one that will be signed in Paris.

For that to happen, talks need to move from procedure to substance – and fast.

Main image: A medieval castle and an urban view behind, Bonn Germany.
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