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Progress for Climate Negotiations - in the UNFCCC and beyond

Written by Mairi Dupar


What did – or didn’t – happen in Bonn?

Every June, Parties to the UNFCCC gather in Bonn to advance understanding on technical issues and monitor the implementation of the Convention. These intersessional meetings are important milestones, halfway between Conferences of the Parties (CoPs) which happen every November-December. They provide an opportunity for negotiators and technical experts to build momentum on issues before government ministers become involved for higher-level political discussions at the year’s end.

As usual, this June’s gathering saw the regular meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Implementation (SBI). Its tasks include looking at governments’ reports on their national greenhouse gas emissions – and the status of funding flows to developing countries for climate action. Unfortunately, this month’s SBI meeting fell apart over procedural matters.

Russia felt it had been forced into surrendering its carbon allowances or ‘right to pollute’ during the previous UNFCCC talks in Doha, Qatar, and raised objections to the Convention’s decision-making process. Ukraine and Belarus joined the protest. After days without even agreeing to an agenda for talks, the SBI adjourned empty-handed, and is due to re-open at CoP19 in Warsaw.

The setback in the SBI talks can’t be ignored – and it will take resourcefulness from facilitators and the CoP19 president (and some grace from the aggrieved parties) to re-start discussions. However, other negotiating tracks at the Bonn intersessionals achieved progress, nonetheless. What’s more, some eyebrow-raising announcements by world leaders since Bonn show that ‘climate diplomacy’ channels outside of (and alongside) the UNFCCC may be gaining significance.

Preparations for a new global deal move forward

Discussions at the roundtables, workshops and informal sessions of the UNFCCC’s Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA), the body charged with ‘advice on scientific, technological and methodological matters’, were encouraging in Bonn.  The SBSTA made slow, workmanlike progress on an international regime to give developing countries funding for conserving their forest carbon (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation – known as ‘REDD+’), and on energy policies and technology to reduce and cut emissions.

Negotiators made progress on agriculture issues. They showed willingness to talk about substance (for example whether the UNFCCC should address  co-benefits such as mitigation). This was in contrast to previous talks which have dwelled on process.

Governments highlighted the opportunity for two major scientific assessments to inform the anticipated global climate deal in 2015. A scientific review commissioned by the UNFCCC is assessing whether the political commitment to a 2 degrees Celsius warming limit is feasible.  In a separate process, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC), the body of climate scientists that reports periodically on the scientific consensus around  climate science and human responses, is preparing its Fifth Assessment Report. Brazil proposed that the UNFCCC should invite the IPCC to form an expert group to measure developed countries’ contributions to the global temperature increase. With both assessments due to report in the coming two years, a 2015 political deal should build on this scientific evidence base and form the culmination of international cooperative efforts on climate change.

Durban, South Africa played host to the Conference of Parties (2011) where governments committed to agreeing a deal in 2015 and implementing it by 2020. Now the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) is pursuing talks towards these goals. This month, Least Developed Countries called for recognition of historical emissions and vulnerabilities, and for greater ambition ‘on all fronts’ in the new agreement.  The European Union emphasised the importance of fairness and capacity to deliver on shared goals to limit global temperature rise.

Talks on increasing ambitions on climate change mitigation before 2020 focussed on the so-called ‘emissions gap’. That’s a term coined by the United Nations Environment Programme among others, who have calculated that there will be an excess of 8-12 gigatons of carbon in the atmosphere above safe levels by 2020, if society pursues its current way of doing business. This working group also examined ways of enhancing finance for low carbon development, technology and capacity building, and steps needed to prepare for COP 19 in Poland.

Climate consensus isn’t dead…just emerging in new places

Although movement on these many, complex agendas was arguably modest, we were among the CDKN staff who were (pleasantly) surprised to hear seasoned UNFCCC negotiators set so much store by the consensus-building process. As days passed  in Bonn and the SBI track stalled, negotiators spoke of the importance of building common understanding and agreement among national delegates and of respecting cultural differences. This need to keep talking, they said,  increased the chances that negotiators would not only seal a deal, but that they and their associates would go on to support ratification and implementation at home. At the CDKN and Meridian Institute side event on consensus-building, speakers described how facilitators try to act as ‘honest brokers’ among sparring delegations and how there’s a vital role for delegates to peel off into smaller bilateral or multilateral groups to explore solutions.

Since UNFCCC Secretary General Christiana Figueres called time on the Bonn talks on 14 June, something more momentous has happened. The meeting of G8 Heads of State in Northern Ireland produced a communique that emphasised the urgent need for G8 members to lead in tackling climate change.  “Climate change is one of the foremost challenges for our future economic growth and well-being” said these leaders, noting that their eight countries combined represented one half of the global economy. Their statement went on to reiterate the importance of achieving progress within the UNFCCC but pledged their commitment to pursue emissions reductions in complementary international fora such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation and International Maritime Organisation.

Even as the UNFCCC’s second week of meetings was underway, American President Barack Obama and Chinese premier Xi Jinping emerged from a bilateral retreat to announce a shared commitment to combat emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), potent greenhouse gases with many thousands of times the radiative forcing (warming) effect of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. President Obama has since launched a flagship Climate Change Plan committing to domestic action and cooperation with countries such as India and China on climate change.

The UNFCCC in perspective

CDKN co-sponsored a research report investigating the development impacts of a 2 degree and 4 degree Celsius average global warming on Southeast Asia, South Asia and Southern Africa, Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts and the Case for Resilience, which was released by the World Bank and Potsdam Institute shortly following the G8 Summit. The report creates reverbations for policy in its stark portrait of the impacts of projected climate extremes and disasters on human settlements, food security and water systems, lives and livelihoods in the coming decades.

This month’s international climate talks could have provided a bleak backdrop for the report’s findings indeed. But if you look at the UNFCCC process together with complementary green shoots of climate diplomacy that are emerging from some of the world’s biggest emitting countries – then the outlook for ambitious climate action is far brighter. It will take courage, persistence, imagination and compromise from political leaders to bridge the science-policy gap and consequently the emissions gap, but now we see new, vital signs of climate leadership where it is most needed.

For news of CDKN’s work to support climate diplomacy alongside the UNFCCC, as well as ambition and consensus-building within the UNFCCC itself, read our latest Climate and Development Outlook or visit our Negotiations Support theme pages.