Bonn climate talks: The stage is set for accelerating negotiations on the road to Paris

12 June 2015

Damian Ryan, Head of International Policy, gives his thoughts on the outcomes from the recent UN climate change talks in Bonn.

The latest round of UN climate talks, aimed at agreeing a new global climate deal in Paris in December, was concluded in Bonn, Germany yesterday.

The main purpose of the 10 days of meetings was to streamline and shrink a 90-page negotiating text that parties had produced at their last meeting in Geneva in February. Officials also discussed actions that could raise climate action ambition over the next five years before the new climate treaty is meant to come into force in 2020.

On the face of it, negotiators appear to have made only incremental progress during their time in Bonn. The revised negotiating text is now down to 85 pages, with few, if any options, removed compared to the ‘Geneva’ document.

The lack of progress in slimming down the negotiating text has drawn parallels with the negotiating process in the lead up to the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009.

Failure that year to reduce a bloated, 200-page document early enough was a key reason for the near collapse of negotiations at COP15, which was meant to have delivered a new global deal that is now expected in Paris.

The comparison with 2009, however, is almost certainly premature.

While it is true that the process ought to be further advanced than it is, the details of the Bonn outcome and the mood of parties suggest an acceleration in negotiations in coming months is there to be seized with the right diplomatic footwork.

STREAMLINING THE TEXT

Key to this is what happens next with the 85-page negotiating text. The good news – and in a clear shift from previous meetings – is that countries requested that the negotiation co-chairs take the revised text and produce a shorter version for consideration at the next meeting in late August.

This direction reflects the recognition by many parties (both developed and developing economies) that there is neither the time, nor indeed the desire, to attempt to reduce the 85 pages through further line-by-line discussions amongst 190-odd countries.

Support for accelerating the streamlining process was by no means universal, however. It was clear, for example, that the strategy in Bonn of the so-called ‘Like Minded Group’ of countries (compromising around 26 developing parties, including China, India and Saudi Arabia) was to slow the pace of negotiations. This was done through long interventions aimed at using up negotiating time for little purpose.

Given the ambitious domestic action that is taking place in some of these countries, not least China and India, such a strategy of delay may seem odd. But it appears that the intention of the group is to ramp up pressure on developed countries, especially the US and the EU, by taking the negotiations to the wire. By doing so the Like-Mindeds are counting on the strong desire of the US and the EU for a deal in Paris to extract concessions for themselves.

They may also be hoping that other developing countries will place pressure on the US and the EU, but such solidarity may be less forthcoming than in the past given the increasingly progressive actions and positions of many small and medium sized developing nations.

China and India in particular have much to lose from this strategy if they are seen to undermine the ambition of a deal that many of their smaller allies desperately want.

The final agreement in Bonn to allow the co-chairs to develop their own streamlined text does illustrate, however, that the Like Mindeds are pragmatists that recognise both the need and the desire of the majority of parties for a shorter text. This of course does mean they will be any less hard-nosed when negotiations resume in August.

IMPORTANT PROGRESS

The negotiating co-chairs therefore have a challenging month or so ahead of them. They are expected to produce their streamlined text around the end of July, which will need to be both significantly shorter (around 40 pages by one estimate) yet still include all the critical and pet issues of parties. This is no mean task.

In their favor, however, the co-chairs appear to have the wind at their back. The G7 announcements on global decarbonization and climate finance, for example, provided welcome momentum to the final days of talks in Bonn. And the eagerly awaited Papal Encyclical on climate change due out on June 18 is expected to add both encouragement and pressure to international political efforts.

The co-chairs will also have the benefit of two mini-ministerial climate meetings in late July, namely the next meeting of the Major Economies Forum and a gathering organized by the French government. Input from key ministers at this critical stage offers an important opportunity to address the political issues blocking progress that negotiators are unable to resolve.

More generally, Bonn also delivered in other ways that demonstrated a steady growth in momentum and support for a deal in Paris.

Parties, for example, made important progress – somewhat unexpectedly – on how to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Technical expert meetings on how to raise climate action ambition before 2020 showcased efforts already underway by non-state actors, including through the RE100 initiative.

And the We Mean Business coalition, together with sub-national governments at the state and city level were an unmistakeable presence, demonstrating to negotiators the economic opportunities that come from bold climate action.

While there remains much to do before COP21 in Paris, the stage is now set for governments to accelerate their negotiating efforts.

With momentum building and the support of business, sub-national leaders and civil society for ambitious action self-evident, there is no excuse for them not to deliver.

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