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Bonn: visible progress, but legal issues continue to confound

Written by Merylyn Hedger

Ever since Germany secured the transfer of the climate change secretariat from the UN Geneva buildings some 16 years ago, mid-year negotiations have been held in Bonn. Another set has just drawn to a close, so what is there to show for this effort?

Negotiations in Bonn are still overflowing into tents, as whilst the new conference HQ complex is nearly ready, legal and contractual issues have caused delays for the German Government. These problems are a powerful metaphor for the negotiations overall – whilst large parts of the structure are visible, there is still a long way to go to resolve ongoing legal issues.

There has been solid progress over the past two weeks on important building blocks for a post-Kyoto, legally binding global deal that will fill the gigatonne gap and hopefully avert dangerous climate change. But there is little confidence that this is likely to happen before 2015.

The crux issue for developing countries is compliance around targets: the powerful BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), the Least Developed Countries, and the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) all want developed countries, including the US, to deliver on their historic responsibilities and sign up to stronger targets. Meanwhile the US, having never been a signatory to the Kyoto agreement, shows little sign or inclination of being able to commit to legally binding cuts in the near future especially when its global economic competitor China shows no sign of going down this route. Other developed countries such as Japan see little point in continuing the current Kyoto path which covers less and less global emissions and cannot protect the planet. The European Union and those who still have not ruled out another round all agree that rules must change, particularly around land-use reporting issues.

So where do we go from here?

Switching to default mode this means more calls to the EU to step in and maintain momentum by ensuring a second Kyoto Protocol commitment period. This might at least secure the necessary compliance regime and legal architecture, whilst the geopolitics change. Many delegations steadily increase in size, but attendance by the carbon business community is beginning to tail off at UNFCCC meetings. After five consecutive years of robust growth, the total value of the global carbon market has now stalled at $142 billion, according to the World Bank’s annual review, with the market primarily driven by the European Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) (97%).  There is always a chance that another meeting might fix this, however, so there will be yet another UNFCCC meeting in the autumn as well as other high level consultations. 

In Bonn, issues around monitoring and reporting of actions, greenhouse gas cuts, as well as commitment on finance attracted a great deal of attention in and out of the formal negotiations. Some of the negotiation delays were about mobilising the Cancun decisions, including reporting within the formal bodies of the Convention by moving them to the formal Subsidiary Bodies from the Ad-Hoc groups, so endless discussions about agendas were not all pointless. In the UNFCCC world, this is considered progress (at least by the South African delegation as they face the challenge of delivering an eagerly awaited successful African Climate Conference).

New problems emerged in Bonn as well though. Whilst the Fast Start Funds (loans and grants) are being delivered, attention is now switching to the medium term – nothing is in place for 2013.  Also, as an ODI side event revealed, there is a massive gap between the global rhetoric on finance and what should be happening in reality at national level.

Negotiations at global level give weight to and generate momentum around particular issues. As such, the international agriculture and water communities have been arguing for nearly five years for recognition of their sector issues within these global climate talks, which they regard as highly powerful. This time water people went home happy, having seemingly secured coverage for water in the Nairobi Work Programme (NWP) (in actual fact I worked with the UNFCCC secretariat on a report before Bonn on water in the NWP, so in many ways this issue was already on the table). Agriculture’s work programme remains stalled, as it has been linked with international trade issues, but the food security issue is getting more coverage in other arenas in the run-up to Rio+20. Ultimately, in my view, precious negotiating effort should focus on ensuring that the UNFCCC is about cuts in greenhouse gases, otherwise water supplies and food security will be threatened.

Despite these new issues and following agenda problems in Bangkok in April, I think Bonn has put the show on the road again. For me, the key evidence of progress is that the International Energy Agency is now providing the evidence to drive effort – in its latest analysis for the World Energy Outlook, the IEA stated that the significant increase in CO2 emissions in 2010 and the locking in of future emissions due to infrastructure investments represent a serious setback for limiting the global rise in temperature to no more than 2ºC, which was quoted extensively by negotiators in Bonn. In 1996 the IEA regarded climate change as an insignificant concern of the peripheral green fringe, so attitudes are clearly changing after 16 years of negotiations. The question is, have they changed enough to achieve a useful global deal in the near future?