Why the Bonn Climate Talks Matter

Another round of UN climate change negotiations are taking place this week in Bonn. This is the third time countries are meeting in Germany this year to create a legally enforceable mechanism they all agreed was necessary following the 2011 summit in Durban, South Africa. The outcome of this week will be a draft text that countries will work to ratify at the major summit this December in Lima, Peru. What comes out of Lima will in turn set the stage for the final, binding agreement on climate change next year in Paris. In other words, the Bonn talks kick off a year of intense diplomacy on climate change–and there is a great deal at stake.

One of the biggest complaints about UN negotiations, and the climate change negotiations in particular, is a lack of accountability. Countries can agree to any measures in the presence of other UN members at a conference, but can easily claim politics and economic problems for not implementing any of those measures if there is no legal requirement to do so. The Bonn talks are intended to correct that problem.

In Bonn, national governments will agree to a draft text that contains the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), or the voluntary funds and actions, to which each country can commit by March 2015. Especially important are terms of emissions reductions and other chances to mitigate the effects of climate change like improving energy efficiency, increased use of renewable energy, efficient and resilient urban environment design, and land use improvement. These INDCs will be the basis of the decision on pre-2020 goals that will be ratified at the in Lima this December.

There is consensus among countries in Bonn that first drafts of INDCs will not be sufficient to keep global warming below 2º C — but that is where agreement ends.  Determinations of which countries can and should contribute what are the heart of the whole climate negotiations. Developing countries argue that developed countries need to make amends on the latter’s disproportionate lifestyles and manufacturing. Developed countries say they should not have to foot the bill for outsized populations or closed off economies not open to investment in innovation and technology.

Using 2020 as a marker is critical because whatever agreement text is worked on and ratified in Lima serves as the basis for the ultimate agreement to be ratified at in Paris next year, which — according to the plan — would becomes binding in 2020.  This doesn’t leave much time for countries to come together on two specific issues in Bonn this year: carbon capture and slightly raising emission reduction goals.

Carbon capture technology and storage (CCS) is often touted as a solution to the climate problem.  The technology allows emitters to catch and secure nearly 90% of their carbon emissions from fossil fuel use.  The carbon does not enter the environment as a result.  The issue is that, within the UN climate negotiations, many see the use of the technology as a stall tactic. Developed countries like the U.S., Canada, and Australia are able to keep using fossil fuels and could possibly divert mitigation or adaptation funds towards developing more advanced carbon capture and storage technology. Some feel it is used as a political crutch to avoid a real move towards fossil fuel independence and away from polluting fracking and oil sands projects.  Still, CCS technology development will likely lead to an overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and is probably more politically viable in developed countries given the power of oil and gas companies and manufacturers.  The companies will not have to drastically change their operations and governments can say they are reducing emissions.

Another issue that is critical in Bonn and will lead to progress in Peru and ratification in Paris in 2015 is ratifying the second commitment to the Kyoto Protocol.  The first round ended in 2012 and required a pledge to reduce emissions to 15% of 1990 levels.  The second round, which runs from 2013 to 2020, would require a reduction of emissions to 18% of greenhouse gas levels present in 1990. Really, all it would take are a few of the developed countries to sign on.  However, countries like the U.S. have a stance, the Byrd-Hagel resolution, that no international agreement would be agreed to that excludes large population centers like India and China from emissions reductions. Canada withdrew from the first round commitment citing the heavy burden of financial penalties should they stay committed.  It may not be a coincidence that tar sands and fracking projects went into full swing after their 2011 withdrawal.

A draft decision will be issued on October 25, from the Bonn talks. Then negotiators move to Lima in December, leaving about one year for intense and complex diplomacy before the Paris talks in November 2015. There is no option for negotiators but to make progress in each round at this point.