UN climate talks: one month, three knotty problems

The UN faces a complex challenge with a tight deadline. IDDRI’s climate analysts looks at the road ahead

By Teresa Ribera and Thomas Spencer

Negotiators reconvened in Bonn last month for the last session of negotiations before COP20 in Lima.

COP20 is a crucial springboard to Paris COP21, where a new global agreement should be agreed. The week of discussions in Bonn brought some further clarity, but also anxiety about the pace and complexity of negotiations.

The week was also marked by political agreement in the EU to its 2030 climate and energy package. This package has strong domestic motivations, notably energy security in the face of on-going instability in Ukraine, through which much of EU gas transits.

It is also, however, the EU’s “contribution” to the international negotiations. The EU agreement represents the first major player to come forward with its contribution.  The US and probably China are expected to come forward around March 2015.


The EU agreement has thus set in motion the key process, which will form the foundation of the agreement. It marks the culmination of several years of internal technical and political preparations inside the EU.

This process would not have been brought to a successful close without the added pressure of an international deadline. A 40% reduction in emissions from 1990 is a significant effort. To achieve it, annual investment will have to increase by about €38 billion. This will be, however, partly compensated by a significant projected decrease in fuel imports.

Some NGOs have criticised the package as insufficient.

But more important than the level of emissions reductions is their implementation. To decarbonize in the long-term, the EU needs to significantly ramp up its efforts in the transport and buildings sector.

Here the EU package sends conflicting signals. On the one hand, it mandates the Commission to come forward with ambitious new measures on the transport sector post-2020 (new vehicle standards, for example).

On the other hand, the ambition for the target for energy efficiency, a key measure in the buildings sector, was reduced at the insistence of the UK.

There are places where the package reads as a patchwork of concessions to different national interests, rather than a coherent European vision. How it is implemented will really matter.

Good faith

EU leaders pledged to revisit the package in light of the Paris negotiations and their results. This leaves the door open for more ambition.

However, some industry actors have been quick to jump on what they see as an opportunity for downward revision if Paris is unsatisfactory. This highlights the importance of international cooperation and a sound regime, even for a traditional ‘leader’ like the EU.

In this regard, Bonn showed that negotiators are continuing to engage in good faith, and with increasing urgency. The talks also showed, however, the great complexity of issues and interests at hand.

It is important to underscore that this complexity is legitimate, not contrived. It is a mark of the diversity of countries, the importance with which they invest the international climate talks, and of the multifaceted nature of the task at hand.

The road ahead

The talks for Lima have three main challenges, and the difficult task is finding a balance between them.

Firstly, they must deliver a more streamlined and consensual draft outline for the new agreement. A full draft of this new agreement needs to be communicated to countries by the end of May 2015, in order to respect the procedural rules of the UN and leave enough time for countries to consider it.

With currently one session planned between January 2015 and May 2015, this leaves a lot of pressure on Lima to clarify the content and status of the text.

In Bonn many countries expressed their desire to move into more formal textual negotiations.

A key question remains, however, about how to manage this shift into operational drafting. There is a need to balance all countries views, while retaining the overall scope for synthesis that drives negotiations towards an outcome.

The trust that parties repose in the co-chairs will be a crucial test of their willingness to reach agreement. Here Bonn started to move into a more operational setting for closer discussions on adaptation, which is encouraging.

Some difficult substantive issues were discussed more operationally than before, such as differentiation between developed and developing countries, the issue of climate finance and legal form. These discussions showed a willingness to compromise on ideas, but still rather considerable distance between countries.


The second issue is to deliver a decision on the framework for the submission of ‘contributions’.

The big point of contention here is the scope of contributions. Are they limited to mitigation, or should they include mitigation, adaptation and potentially finance?

All parties agree to the importance of adaptation, and the need to orient global efforts and capture national objectives and policies.

It should be possible to solve this question of scope, by emphasizing the importance of strong mitigation contributions from major emitters and opening the opportunity to anchor adaptation targets and policies for the most vulnerable countries.

Movement in the draft text on the agreement on adaptation and finance would also help.

Immediate action

The final issue is the continuation of pre-2020 action on climate change. which is intended as a framework to increase ambition and engagement with ‘real world’ initiatives, including for non-state actors.

Many countries expressed the value of this work stream, and a few concrete proposals have been put forward for how it can continue.

A key issue remains how to ensure the transparency of action and coherence of objective (such as working towards the 2C target) for the kind of ‘outside’ initiatives that have emerged.

Overall, Bonn highlighted the need for acceleration and the good faith with which parties continue to engage.

The key constraint is time.

Discipline, focus and trust will be the keywords for Lima and 2015.

Teresa Ribera is director of Paris based think tank, the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI). Thomas Spencer heads IDDRI’s climate programme.

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