Why the Climate Talks in Bonn Ended in Failure

At the beginning of the climate conference in Bonn, Germany, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres called on delegates to do what was “politically possible” and make “incremental” progress. By most accounts, the Bonn talks fell short of even these modest goals. Rifts between poor countries and rich nations that were papered over in Copenhagen reopened leaving delegates with more to debate at the final climate conference in Tianjin, China before the year-end Cancun summit and less common ground from which to begin discussions.

Contentious topics grew more heated and previously settled issues were reconsidered. China continued to claim that international monitoring of its emissions would interfere with its sovereignty. Developing countries sought to make the emissions targets they’d agreed to in Copenhagen voluntary, while insisting that rich countries’ reductions remain mandatory. Some poor nations also sought to increase the amounts of money pledged for climate change mitigation from the long-term goal of $100 billion a year by 2020 and short-term goal of $10 billion a year by 2012. (Although US deputy special climate envoy Jonathan Pershing said they were seeking “staggering sums out of line with reality,” the pledged figures now seem less substantial when compared with China’s plan to spend some $70 billion a year for a decade on renewable energy investments and the costs of rebuilding after climate-related disasters in Pakistan and Russia.)

Each dispute added contentious pages to the climate text under discussion, which must now be whittled back down in the Tianjin talks in October. This “tit for tat” diplomacy, as the European Union’s co-lead negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger described it, caused the working draft to double in size from 17 to 34 pages.

The only thing all negotiators seemed to agree upon was that their efforts in Bonn had been unsuccessful. “These negotiations have if anything gone backwards,” said the EU’s climate action commissioner Connie Hedegaard. “All parties seem to be having a difficult time coming to convergence and the text is larger than it has to be,” America’s Pershing told the press. He claimed that during the talks some countries had been “walking back from progress made in Copenhagen.” Dessima Williams of Grenada, who served as the spokeswoman for the 43-nation Association of Small Island States, concurred: “There seems to be some backsliding. This is very lamentable and very unhealthy.”

The Guardian’s John Vidal tried to find the thinnest sliver lining in the very dark clouds over Bonn. Referring to the controversial Danish text, which would have sidelined the UN and abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, and the nonbinding Copenhagen Accords that President Obama helped cobble together at the last minute of the previous climate summit, Vidal suggests that perhaps “what we are seeing is the welcome, overdue correction to last year’s kamikaze global diplomacy which fatally destabilised the global talks and ended in the Copenhagen fiasco. This analysis would say the negotiations are back on track, the majority of world countries are involved as opposed to just a few, and, with a fair wind and a raised level of ambition by everyone, it could lead to a much more balanced agreement.”

But neither he–nor I–are much swayed by this rose tinted view: “More likely is that the level of ambition for Cancun will be reduced further with no more than a package of agreements negotiated and all the tough stuff put back until next year. Or 2013. Or 2014,” Vidals concludes. That, he says, would be “the nightmare scenario”–an outcome that the squabbling in Bonn has made all the more likely.

While Figures and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon both attempted to put a brave face on the Bonn talks, they could not succeed in securing more emission reduction pledges. Worse, many existing commitments were thrown into question. The most recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that developed nations must make 25-40 percent reductions below the 1990 benchmark by 2020 to stave off the worst effects of climate change. The now-weakened pledges made after Copenhagen were estimated to only amount to a cut of 12 to 19 percent, well short of the safe reduction range. Any climate meeting that does not bring the political promises closer to the scientifically requisite reductions can only be viewed as a failure.

UPDATE: A reader writes in:

Corbin- welcome to my world : ). I’m impressed at the few people who can glue the pieces together from afar. One thing- “Developing countries sought to make the emissions targets they’d agreed to in Copenhagen voluntary, while insisting that rich countries’ reductions remain mandatory.” I’d be careful here. A lot of the press from Bonn read perhaps too much like a press release from the US State Department. A more balanced approach would include looking at bullying in Copenhagen and who all really had a say in the Accord/what these countries really had or had not agreed to in the first place. “You’re backing away from your commitments!” may make tactical sense to the US team as a message, but I don’t think it’s necessarily an accurate assessment of how things are playing out. Vidal is right- we shouldn’t forget the “agreement” in Copenhagen was never really agreement, no matter how much a few countries want to package it that way to distract attention from their own shortcomings.