Bonn Climate Talks: The State of Play

This is the year the world must agree to one of the most complex and vital treaties ever negotiated: a universal climate policy to replace the Kyoto Protocol. And crunch time has arrived.

The first "real" negotiating session of the year is taking place right now through April 8, in Bonn, Germany. It is a major step on the road to the Copenhagen Climate Summit, the final round of talks that will begin on December 7.

The goal for Bonn? To get a full-fledged negotiating text on the table by June. Consider how big a task that will be.

At this late stage, four essential points still lack any clarity, said Yvo de Boer, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). They are:

  1. Legally binding emission-reduction targets for industrialized countries.
  2. Limits to slow rising emissions for major developing countries (namely China, India and Brazil).
  3. A system for delivering financial resources and clean energy technology to help developing countries with adaptation and mitigation.
  4. A new governance structure that gives an equal voice to developing countries.

The first two are historic sticking points, without which a meaningful deal will be impossible. Mr. de Boer explains in an op-ed in the Gulf Times:

Without such [legally binding emission-reduction] targets, the international community will not take the necessary action to address climate change, and developing countries will not have confidence that industrialised countries are willing to take the lead on solving a problem that they caused.

On the flip side:

For many industrialised countries, particularly the U.S., it will be very difficult to conclude an agreement unless their citizens see that major developing countries are also willing to engage further.

So, target-wise, where exactly do things stand in Bonn?

The EU has agreed to a domestic climate deal to reach its target of a 20 percent emission reduction below 1990 levels by 2020. Leaders have said they'll boost that to 30 percent if other industrialized countries follow suit.

In March, at a meeting of the European Council, the EU upped the ante, proposing a 25 to 40 percent reduction by 2020 compared to 1990 levels for all industrialized countries to be "distributed fairly and in a way which ensures comparability of efforts."

The Obama administration, for its part, has indicated a more modest goal to return U.S. emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 – a roughly 15 percent cut from current levels. Other countries, such as Russia and Japan, are expected to announce their mid-term targets in the course of this year.

China and India adopted their first national plans to tackle climate last year. Brazil has focused its action on reducing deforestation. The developing nations still refuse to accept any binding targets though, insisting that rich nations make the lion's share of the carbon cuts.

In a rare positive sign, China hailed the new U.S. climate pledges today for the first time, thanks to President Obama. 

In fact, the start of the Bonn meeting marked Obama's anticipated entrance into the world of UN climate negotiations. He didn't disappoint. In a rousing speech meant to distance his team from the Bush-Cheney era of climate denial, Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern declared on the world stage:

We want to make up for lost time, and we are seized with the urgency of the task before us.

I look forward to working with all of you and listening to your ideas so that we can chart a new and more effective course forward.

You will not hear anyone on my team cast doubt upon or downplay the threat of global climate change. The science is clear, and the threat is real. The facts on the ground are outstripping the worst case scenarios. The costs of inaction—or inadequate actions—are unacceptable.

But along with this challenge comes a great opportunity. By transforming to a low-carbon economy, we can stimulate global economic growth and put ourselves on a path of sustainable development for the 21st century. I would go so far as to say that those who hang back and cling to a high-carbon path will be economic losers in the end because with the scientific facts of global warming getting worse and worse, high-carbon products and production methods will not be viable for long.

My central belief is this: that to succeed in containing climate change we must be guided by both science and pragmatism.

The full transcript is here.

"Stern was the most popular person in the room — essentially fully booked for every minute of the 24 hours he was in town," said David Turnbull, Director of the Climate Action Network, speaking on behalf of himself, not the organization. He added:

It was actually a proud day to be an American in Bonn. ... For now, it was a day to savor the change in the air.

In the speech, the U.S. proposed five building blocks for a strong Copenhagen deal:

First, we need a long-range vision that is guided by science.

Second, the United States recognizes our unique responsibility both as the largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases and as a country with important human, financial, and technological capabilities and resources. America itself cannot provide the solution, but there is no solution without America.

Third, there must be a global response, with truly significant actions by all major economies.

Fourth, as part of our contribution, we have been working intensively on the question of how to establish a structure to ensure that significant funds flow to developing countries. We want to ensure that this structure is well balanced, providing for a robust amount of resources, transparency, sound governance, and the right incentives to establish policy and regulatory environments that can leverage private investment and unleash innovation both in developing countries and around the world.

Fifth, we need an agreement that is supported not simply by negotiators, but by the people we serve so it will enter into force with all countries participating.

Still, naysayers abound. From Germany:

"Even under Barack Obama, the US has insufficient climate protection goals, at least as far as the international community is concerned," said Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's environment minister.

Hashing out a new global climate deal by year's end promises to be a mind-bogglingly difficult task, clearly. And keep in mind, there is less than six weeks of negotiating time left. And any decisions by the UNFCCC must be taken unanimously. 

Is it even possible? Many experts and lawmakers have said no, but one can always hope.

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