Slow pace of UN climate talks raises Paris stakes

Smaller and clearer plans for global deal expected this week, but doubts over progress linger among participants

UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres address the media in Geneva (Pic: UNFCCC/Flickr)

UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres addresses the media (Pic: UNFCCC/Flickr)

By Megan Darby in Bonn

In a stocktaking note on Monday, Ahmed Djoghlaf boasted of his “excellent chemistry” with Dan Reifsnyder.

For the sake of a safe future climate, you’d better hope they’ve got a little history, too.

These two men are marshalling nearly 200 countries towards a pact in Paris this December to curb the damage wreaked by greenhouse gases.

They won’t want to repeat the experience of Copenhagen in 2009, when similar efforts collapsed under the weight of conflicting national interests.

On Thursday, as two weeks of talks in Bonn conclude, they are due to present a slimmed down version of the 80+ page negotiating text.

It should reduce the myriad proposals by country representatives to a manageable set of options, without alienating anyone by killing off their pet issue.

“People like to be the author; they don’t like to be edited.” So observed Jake Schmidt, director at US green group NRDC.

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Negotiators will be alive to any whiff of bias or favouritism in the way the document is pared down.

All the same, Schmidt expressed confidence at a press briefing on Wednesday morning that the desired result will be achieved.

“We fully expect that by the end of this meeting, a text will emerge that has a lot more consolidation,” he said.

“It may seem daunting to go from here, where we are at in Bonn, and get a strong outcome in Paris, but we know it can be done.”

Cribbing the page count, to perhaps 30-40, is just the start. Then the battle lines will be drawn.

There are fierce debates to settle over the speed and allocation of emissions cuts, measures to protect people from the impacts of climate change and support for poorer countries.

On a technical note, not everything will make it into the core legal agreement, which is expected to set out an enduring framework for action. Some issues are likely to be addressed in a separate – less binding – decision paper.

Are fossils history?

One element of a deal gaining traction is a long term emissions target, consistent with the internationally agreed 2C warming limit.

That’s the line countries say cannot be passed if dangerous levels of climate change are to be avoided.

The G7 on Monday endorsed that idea, calling for “decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of this century”.

Advocates say it sends a clearer signal to investors. 2100 might seem far off, but power plants and factories are built with 30-50 year lifespans – an emissions phase-out curtails that.

At a side event on the G7 pledge, WRI’s Jennifer Morgan brandished a copy of the Financial Times, its cover declaring a phase-out of fossil fuels.

“How often do you see a headline like that?” she asked approvingly. Green groups mostly joined in the outpouring of praise.

Alden Meyer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, hailed the decarbonisation aim as “a breakthrough that has the potential to transform this debate”.

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Critics mutter that it’s easy enough to make promises to be fulfilled after you are dead and gone. What’s more, the G7 statement is at the weaker end of what the science dictates.

Jorgen Henningson, a former director of climate change at the European Commission, said as much in a letter to the FT.

“It is difficult to see the idea of a fossil fuel phase-out by the end of the century as anything but an effort to try to direct attention away from the essential short to medium-term challenge,” he wrote.

And Meyer noted that the G8 (as it was before Russia was booted out) signalled its support for a strong deal in 2009. That didn’t stop Copenhagen breaking down.

France’s chief climate diplomat, Laurence Tubiana, helped prepare the G7 statement.

“We had a very clear view from the start of where we wanted the communique to land,” she said. But “it wasn’t easy”.

Tubiana intimated it was lack of familiarity with the issues, rather than active resistance, climate champions in the group of rich countries had to contend with.

“One country – I won’t say who – said very frankly: ‘we were not prepared’.”

Long road

Canada and Japan, who have been criticised for weak national climate commitments, would be the obvious suspects.

And Tubiana insisted the long-term vision was not a substitute for immediate action: “This is a pathway and we will demonstrate how we get there.”

At a separate press briefing on Wednesday morning, WWF’s Tasneem Essop said there were promising signs for the next five years.

An oft-neglected strand of climate negotiations, to strengthen pre-2020 commitments, she said was making progress despite “a huge political reluctance to engage” at first.

Citing the fossil fuel divestment movement and growth of clean technology, she added: “What is happening here is starting to reflect what is going on in the outside world. We are at the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era.”

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