Pressure mounting on UN as Bonn climate talks stutter

Seven days of negotiations remain before Paris summit to finalise global pact, but what leaders will sign is unclear

(Photo: UN)

(Photo: UN)

By Ed King in Bonn

“The glass is half empty but it is also half full.”

The words there of Ahmed Djoghlaf, one of two officials trying to guide over 190 countries towards a global climate change deal, set to be signed off in Paris this December.

The veteran Algerian diplomat was concluding a stormy stocktaking meeting of climate envoys midway through a week of negotiations in Bonn, where many hope the basis for this agreement will come clear.

But all that was clear from the 90 minutes of interventions and statements from countries on Wednesday evening was that the foundations for this deal are at present looking shallow and frail.

“We must have clarity on the way forward before we leave Bonn,” urged Amjad Abdulla, chief negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States.

Progress on slimming a set of proposals numbering more than 80 pages into a manageable document fit for a UN treaty was far too slow, he insisted.

Pete Betts, a UK official speaking for the EU, struck a similar note of alarm. “We are running out of time. After today we will have 7 days [before Paris],” he said, referring to a penultimate Bonn meeting next month.

A Saudi Arabian envoy called for a “quantum leap” in progress by Friday, when these talks are set to close.

Negotiators will then have five more days at an October Bonn session before the 2015 Paris summit opens at the end of November.

He added: “We need a skeleton we can build an agreement on by end of the week.”

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The UN’s climate science panel has long warned that greenhouse gas emissions need to be radically cut to avoid dangerous levels of warming, leading to more droughts, flooding and sea level rise.

Some estimate the planet has under 30 years at current levels of GHG emissions before heating 2C above pre industrial levels is guaranteed.

That, say experts, could lead to catastrophic levels of climate change, accelerating ice melt at both polar regions and causing significant crop failures in Africa and Asia.

But while the warnings are appearing to get louder, progress on developing a pact that will encourage all countries to invest in greener forms of energy and reduce their pollution levels has not followed.

“If we are listening to discussions, everyone is frustrated but nobody is saying ‘I propose, I suggest’, nothing like that is coming out,” Botswana negotiator Elias Magosi told RTCC.

“It’s not the facilitators or the co-chairs it’s us, the parties who are shaping the discussions. But we don’t look at ourselves.”

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Some elements of a global climate pact are coming together.

So far 56 countries representing over 60% of global emissions have submitted plans detailing how they will cut carbon pollution and adapt to future weather extremes.

Growing numbers of business leaders – including those from the oil and gas industry – have made pledges to adopt more climate friendly practices, as have regional an city leaders.

Joint statements between the US and China, Germany and Brazil and moves by the G7 to support a long term emissions goal have been cited as proof Paris will succeed where a 2009 attempt in Copenhagen failed.

Warnings that UN climate talks are on the brink of failure are now familiar to those who follow the process, a regular feature at most conferences.

But negotiators and veteran observers of the process RTCC spoke to on Wednesday evening sounded genuine concern about the lack of progress so far, and the lack of time left before Paris.

One envoy from a developed country wore a baffled look when asked what had been achieved so far.

Speaking off the record, they said it was as yet unclear how UN officials planned to distill the huge set of ideas and concepts on the table, but stressed it was vital this was achieved by Friday.

Jake Schmidt from the Washington DC-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) offered this blunter assessment: “I have no idea how you get from here to Paris – I guess they have a plan but I just don’t see it.”

Clock ticking

To speed work towards an effective agreement text far shorter than 80 pages, talks on climate finance, carbon cuts, adaptation and climate compensation are taking place among smaller groups of countries.

“All the groups I have been in are right on the point of producing a new text,” Michael Jacobs, advisor to former UK prime minister Gordon Brown at the 2009 Copenhagen summit, told RTCC.

A proposal by the Marshall Islands and other Pacific nations on how a long term climate goal and regular assessments of carbon cuts every five years could work as part of a Paris deal has, for instance, met widespread support.

But divisions remain. “Areas of convergence differ. People need to articulate these,” said Botswana’s Magosi.

Parallel talks on finance remain deadlocked, as richer nations have yet to work out how they can meet a 2010 promise to deliver $100 billion a year in climate funds to the developing world by 2020.

“There has been uneven progress across the different facilitated groups, which may have resulted from the different working methods used,” added the Maldives’ Abdulla. “Some groups are moving much too slowly.”

Discussions resume on Thursday morning. Djoghlaf promised he and his co-chair Dan Reifsnyder, a veteran State Department official, are open to suggestions from countries as to the way forward.

Still, judging by Wednesday’s final session, few negotiators are ready to stick their necks out with proposals, preferring to warn others that time is running out.

Some are now speculating that the French hosts of the 2015 summit will have to step in and take control, although Paris’ chief climate diplomat Laurence Tubiana tweeted her support for the Bonn talks late on Wednesday.

“The fear is that the co-chairs develop their own text,” said Jacobs, suggesting it would lead to comparisons to Copenhagen in 2009, when control of the talks was wrested away by major economies.

“The key question is do we let them [the chairs] produce a new one or do they try and get the parties to try and do that? I think that’s what will now happen.”

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