By Ed King
As another barge gorged with coal drifted past down the Rhine, France’s lead climate negotiator Paul Watkinson tweeted: “one day the barges will be filled with wind and sun:-)”.
It was a comment that summed up last week’s meeting of UN climate change negotiators in Bonn – optimism tinged with realism.
This gathering was never intended to herald a major breakthrough. Instead think of it as a pre-season football training session, with new faces and a fresh atmosphere.
Like Barcelona before Pep Guardiola, there is talent, multiple nationalities and an impetuous streak, but there now appears to be a common desire to focus on the main cup final in 2015.
Building the foundations is crucial, and the message emerging from delegates was that the talks developed as well as could have been expected. No more, no less.
A relieved UN climate chief Christiana Figueres told me the absence of an ‘agenda fight’ at the start of the week had given all negotiators a boost. There was no early poison to block progress.
What I found fascinating was the sense of flexibility and openness in discussions. Officials who stuck to the party line in public were more flexible in private. Meetings between delegates representing rich and poor regions were taking place everywhere.
Experienced observers said there appeared to be a new desire to engage, debate and importantly, listen.
Bonn established that the outline of a global climate deal acceptable to all parties is faint, but gradually appearing.
The USA has historically pushed for a bottom-up ‘pledge and review’ process, which is effectively what we have now, and evidently not enough.
Others, notably the EU and smaller developing nations at acute risk from climate change, want a legally binding ‘top down’ agreement.
What emerged in Bonn was a willingness to explore the middle ground and discuss an EU proposal known as the ‘Spectrum of Commitments’.
This could allow all countries to contribute towards global efforts to reduce emission levels within a range of varying commitments.
It’s a loose concept that could move negotiations away from a binary rich/poor split, and engage those emerging economies that have the potential to blow climate targets sky high.
This suggests any agreement in 2015 will not be one ‘deal’ in the purest sense, but a flexible collection of tools, levers and indicators that could allow nations to choose tailor-made solutions to their own problems.
How these national targets are determined is still an open debate, and revolves around the theme of ‘equity’ or fairness within the negotiations.
This was discussed, but no-one seems entirely sure how equity or the concept of climate justice can be translated into results.
The US has proposed a peer-review format of assessing emission cuts, Brazil suggested a complex formula from 2006 while the EU appears keen to use a variety of indicators such as GDP, Human Development Index and per capita emissions.
EU – Durban Platform submission
USA – Durban Platform submission
China – Durban Platform submission
Alliance of Small Island States – Workstream 2 Non Paper
Like-Minded Developing Countries – submission
Least Developed Countries – submission
China appears open to these discussions. It accepts that as the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases it has to be part of the solution, but still resists caps on rising emissions, arguing it must focus on “economic growth”.
Equity also relates to finance, which was not officially on the agenda last week. Developing countries outlined their frustration with the lack of concrete funding pledges and uncertainty over the future of the Green Climate Fund (GCF).
Together with leading donor nations, the EU has to get its act together and develop a narrative of how it can ramp up to the US$100 billion the GCF needs by 2020.
Short term ambition
Existential questions such as “how do we avoid 2 degrees”, or if you’re Kiribati “how do we avoid disappearing” were postponed until June’s round of UN talks.
Reports that global carbon dioxide levels could hit the 400 parts per million mark provided a backdrop to the meeting, but did not influence discussions.
“It’s like the calm before the storm, people jockeying for position,” Seychelles negotiator Ronny Jumeau told RTCC. “I don’t think anyone has put their cards on the table yet. I think the fangs and the claws will come out in June, when the pressure starts on ambition.”
The remaining signatories to the Kyoto Protocol will review their own ambition next year, although it only covers 14% of global emissions.
A bigger question surrounds what the USA and China can do about their emissions in the short-term. Beijing wants developed nations to make greenhouse gas cuts of 25-40% on 1990 levels by 2020; the reality is far less ambitious.
Much may depend on how effective the two countries’ climate working-group is at raising their collective contribution. As Figueres never tires of warning: “No-one is doing enough”.
This may explain why there is a steady push by climate vulnerable countries like Bangladesh to raise the profile of adaptation within the talks, and why strategies to cope with rising temperatures are likely to dominate talks in June.
A heavy weight rests on Poland and its feisty Environment Minister Marcin Korolec.
A clear pathway needs to be inked out at the main climate summit in Warsaw this November, enabling the 195 parties taking part in negotiations to steadily converge on a position they can all agree on.
Ban Ki Moon’s world leaders’ climate summit will take place on the sidelines of the 2014 General Assembly. This will provide high-level political input into an official text that needs to be on the table by March 2015. By then the major details need to be agreed.
Seasoned observers of the Israel-Palestine peace warn against relying too heavily on a ‘roadmap’, but this one is at least backed by a burgeoning clean energy sector, the engine driving this process forward.
Business confidence in this transformation is critical, which is why renewed efforts to reform the EU emissions trading scheme and news of pilot carbon markets in China have been welcomed by the UNFCCC.
This year’s climate science review by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is likely to contain bad news, but there are positives to be drawn from a week in Bonn.
The foundations are in place. The overall strategy is clear. The venue for the final has been chosen. But a key ingredient is missing.
Germany’s Angela Merkel did her best this week to rouse spirits during the Petersberg Climate Dialogue. She needs more political support.
‘Team Climate’ is crying out for a crafty and inspirational national leader in the mould of Guardiola to drive it forward. As of yet, it’s unclear who that will be.