Bonn alert : Climate change talks – what’s next?

Romano Prodi (second from the right) at the He...
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Delegates from 183 countries began negotiations at the UN preparatory climate change conference in Bonn this week and will spend the next 11 days working towards a draft text they hope will serve as the basis for negotiations at the annual UN Climate Summit in Durban later this year.

BusinessGreen offers an overview of the long-running talks and highlights the few remaining causes for optimism, as well as the rather more compelling reasons to be pessimistic about the prospects of a deal.

Spirit of co-operation

Talks in Cancun last year were considered a relative success by many of those involved – all 192 nations signed up to the agreement at the end of the talks, and important progress was made on preventing deforestation. Some progress was also made on emissions. If negotiators can recapture the momentum and spirit of constructive engagement that characterised the Cancun talks, then there is hope they can make progress on key issues such as climate funding, carbon trading, forest protection and how to measure emissions reductions.

Critical action

Recent estimates from the International Energy Agency (IEA) show that emissions from energy generation in 2010 were the highest in history. Meanwhile, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide reached record levels during May. Although this may sound like scant cause for optimism, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres urged negotiators to be spurred on by the news. “Now, more than ever, it is critical that all efforts are mobilised towards living up to this commitment,” she said in her press conference opening the talks.

Small island states

Small island states such as the Maldives have become major players at the UN talks. Images of whole nations being swallowed by rising seas have lodged in the public consciousness and given them an increasingly powerful negotiating platform. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which represents 43 countries, told Reuters it could consider pledges on emissions cuts made voluntarily by rich nations if they were made into legally binding targets. The move is significant because until now AOSIS and other developing nations have been steadfast in their demands for greater cuts in emissions by richer nations.

UK sets example to other nations

The UK recently announced an ambitious target that would bring its greenhouse gas emissions to 50 per cent below 1990 levels by 2025. The move, coupled with similarly ambitious decarbonisation plans from industrialised nations such as Germany, Norway and Japan, could help set an example to other rich nations and break the deadlock on climate action caused by fears of hampering economies still recovering from the global financial crisis.

Renewables’ potential

It has long been presumed by many world leaders that, without nuclear power, renewables have no hope of meeting global energy demand. But a report from the IPCC in May found that renewables could meet nearly 80 per cent of the world’s energy demands by 2050. Meanwhile, Germany has become the largest nation to date to pledge itself to a nuclear-free future in the wake of the Fukushima crisis in Japan.

Saying ‘no’ to Kyoto

It seems unlikely the United States, Canada, Russia and Japan will sign up to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol. All have made it clear in the run-up to the Durban negotiations that they will not endorse a second commitment period for the oft-criticised treaty. UN climate chief Christiana Figueres admitted on 6 June that negotiations have run out of time to deliver a binding successor to Kyoto before the present treaty ends in 2012. With developing nations insisting Kyoto must be extended, the talks are at a deadlock and work to agree a replacement to Kyoto that is acceptable to all sides is struggling to move forward.

EU support for Kyoto wanes

The EU delegation at Bonn has long been a cheerleader for Kyoto, and EU support for a follow-on agreement was considered a given by some developing countries. But on 6 June, EU chief negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger said the region would not unconditionally support an extension of Kyoto without legally binding emissions goals on all major emitters, including emerging economies such as India and China.

Climate aid commitments in doubt

During the Copenhagen conference, rich countries agreed to provide $30bn of ‘fast-start’ financing during 2010-2012 and $100bn a year by 2020 to help developing countries fight climate change. Industrialised nations insist they are making good progress on both these fronts. Butresearch by the World Resources Institute shows that only around $12bn of the fast-start money has actually been budgeted for by countries, and in some cases as little as 30 per cent has been delivered. A transitional committee working on the design of the promised $100bn a year Green Climate Fund met in April with the aim of extracting the money, but action needs to happen faster if developing nations are to trust funding commitments.

World events hamper progress

The political situation in major economies is not conducive to significant progress on climate negotiations because of elections and possible leadership changes in the next two years in Germany, the US and France, among others. Climate action is rarely a vote winner in times of economic hardship, and Barack Obama in particular has toned down his green rhetoric in the run-up to a re-election bid. Global reaction to the Fukushima crisis, and in particular Germany’s decision to halt its nuclear power programme, threatens to derail emissions reduction plans, as many claim even the most ambitious renewable plans will struggle to meet short-term demand for power.

‘Process’ threatens to dominate talks

Reports have again emerged that meetings are being postponed in Bonn as negotiators try, and fail, to agree on agendas. The news will prompt memories of Copenhagen, where a lack of organisation meant valuable negotiating time was swallowed up with disagreements over processes. This resulted in mutual recriminations by developed and developing countries, a series of negative briefings to the press, and a resulting breakdown in trust. Cancun was hailed as having overcome many of the process issues, but with reports emerging of grumbling among some delegates about the failure of the South African government to organise meetings ahead of Durban, there are concerns about the organisation of the negotiations.


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