Bonn Wrap-Up: Global Climate Treaty This Year Looks Increasingly “Impossible”

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As climate change talks in Bonn, Germany, began wrapping up yesterday without any signs of real progress, Yvo de Boer, head of the UN Climate Change Secretariat, let the truth slip out to reporters: It will be "physically impossible" to have a detailed global warming deal by the December Copenhagen summit, he said.

Today, on the final day of the two-week negotiations, de Boer changed his tune, claiming he is now confident of reaching an ambitious agreement in Copenhagen.

But let’s be real — how will that happen?

Just look at the last two weeks. Negotiations began on June 1, with 53 pages of draft negotiating text on the table for the first time. That document brought new optimism. But over the course of the summit, delegates from 192 nations piled on 200 pages of particulars, injecting more complexity into what is already a complex process. 

The talks reinforced the gridlock between rich and poor nations, offered little in the way of political ambition and political will from the world’s major polluters and ended without agreement. 

The notable high- and lowlights follow:

Industrialized nations once again failed to take strong leadership on short-term reduction targets for CO2.

Hopes were high that Japan would help raise the level of ambition for the world with its long-awaited announcement of a domestic target. But those dreams were dashed on June 10, when the nation declared an emissions reduction goal of just 8 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. That’s two percent deeper than the cuts the nation is currently responsible for under the Kyoto protocol.

WWF described the target as "appalling" and a "trust killer." Point Carbon, an Oslo-based research and consulting company called it "the weakest target any country has pledged so far." China’s climate ambassador Yu Qingtai said: "I do not believe it is a number that is close to what Japan needs to do, should do."

But Japan was not without its supporters. Jonathan Pershing, the U.S. deputy climate envoy, told Spiegel Online that "one should not underestimate Japan’s efforts." And here’s why:

Japan’s target only includes reductions in domestic industrial emissions. It does not yet account for additional reductions from domestic forestry and agriculture, as well as international "offsets" from financing projects in developing nations.

The EU has pledged a 20 percent reduction, which could increase to 30 percent if other rich nations sign on. President Obama has said he wants to return US emissions to 1990 levels. The U.S. Congress is now debating the ACES climate bill, which could lead to a 4 percent cut below the 1990 baseline. Australia has declared a 5 percent cut below 1990 levels. That could go as high as 25 percent if a meaningful climate treaty is achieved. Russia has remained silent.

In total, the proposals from representatives of more than 30 of the world’s richest nations amount to a reduction in the range of 17 percent to 26 percent of 1990 levels, de Boer has said. WWF claims that figure is actually closer to 10 percent.

Either way:

"This is not enough to address climate change," said de Boer.

So what is enough? Developing nations must cut emissions 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels to prevent catastrophic climate change. So says the climate science.

Prior to the Bonn talks, a group of Nobel Prize Laureates made a strong case for that level of action. This week, another group of top scientists delivered a similar plea. One of the signatories, Dr. Myles Allen, a physicist at the University of Oxford, went even further:

"In addition to setting targets for emissions in 2020 and 2050, we feel the UNFCCC process should acknowledge that avoiding dangerous climate change will require emissions of the longest-lived greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide eventually to cease altogether."

China remains a serious challenge. The world’s number one carbon polluter announced that it will not make a binding commitment to slash its global warming emissions. That declaration followed two days of bilateral talks between the U.S. and China.

How those vital discussions fared is still fuzzy, as SolveClimate detailed here, but as in Bonn, it appears they produced little of substance. Pershing’s public position is that the U.S. and China are "finding common ground."

The question is, has the U.S. abandoned all hopes of China taking up greenhouse gas limits? In Pershing’s interview with Spiegel Online, he said that America is "still asking [China] to commit to legally binding CO2 reductions as part of a Copenhagen agreement."

And yet, in the AP he was quoted as saying that Beijing "should have" binding actions, but "not binding outcomes." And just days before, Obama’s top climate negotiator Todd D. Stern announced: "We don’t expect China to take a national cap at this stage."

What’s perfectly clear at this stage is this. China is attempting to avoid being seen as the world’s top climate criminal. In fact, as Beijing brushed off criticism of its intransigence on hard targets, media reports surfaced that the nation is planning a staggering clean energy investment of between $200-$600 billion, and may be increasing its renewable energy target from 15 to 20 percent.

India, for its part, continued its "my way or the highway" message at Bonn. The nation insisted that rich countries deepen their emissions cuts to a total of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, while at the same time rejecting emissions targets for developing countries. To its credit, India did declare that "within weeks" it will submit plans to generate 20,000 MW of solar power, among other low-carbon proposals.

"We are by no means going to go on as business as usual," said Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh. 

As SolveClimate reported, there was little movement on how the world will finance climate mitigation and adaptation for the poorest nations.

Yvo de Boer has long said that financing is one of the four tough nuts to crack on the way to Copenhagen. The other three are binding mid-term targets from rich nations, commitments from poor nations, and a new governance regime. None has been resolved.

What’s ahead?

The next round of talks will take place in Bonn from August 10-14, followed by a series of meetings in Bangkok from September 28-October 9 and one in Barcelona from November 2-6. Then comes Copenhagen from December 7-18, where the world’s governments are supposed to agree on a post-Kyoto climate deal, the most important treaty ever negotiated.

At this point, though, it seems the best we can hope for is that the world is able to agree in principle to an agreement in Copenhagen, and allow the detailed negotiations to continue into 2010.

There’s no way around it, said de Boer,

"We’re still a long way from the ambitious emission reduction scenarios that are a beacon for the world."

See also:

Bonn Talks Produce Ideas for Financing Climate Adaptation but No Agreements

Bonn Watch: Crunch Time Looms for Vital Post-Kyoto Climate Treaty

Beyond Bonn: America Must Get Its Own House in Order, Say Green Groups

Bonn Climate Talks: The State of Play

The Road to Copenhagen Goes Through Middle America

Steps Obama Must Take on the Path to Copenhagen

China’s Climate Accounting Would Set Limits Based on Historical Emissions