Bonn climate talks manage slow progress on technical issues, but key political differences loom

Today’s end to the international climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany were marked by two weeks of slow progress and unresolved differences, and seemed sharply disconnected from the realities of natural disasters that have been ravaging the United States in the past few months.

Global surface temperature anomalies in May 2011. (credit: NOAA)

Here in the U.S., we’ve been learning that the erratic weather events and temperature extremes just in the past few months have been breaking records.  Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) this week indicated:

A NOAA spokesperson said climate change is to blame for part of the increase in frequency in the extreme weather events.

“Slow, incremental progress” made

Back in Bonn, negotiations among more than 190 countries were taking place to develop a global agreement to address climate change.

Countries managed to make slow, incremental progress on some technical issues, but the large differences that have been part of U.N. climate negotiations process for more than 20 years remain unresolved.

EDF’s International Counsel Annie Petsonk said in a statement at the conclusion of the negotiations today that it looks like real progress to curb global warming is going to take place outside the U.N. talks:

There is still a potentially useful role for the U.N. talks regarding common rules for measuring and accounting for emissions necessary to create strong markets – but only if countries find ways to negotiate decisions more efficiently.

It looks increasingly likely that the real progress on fighting global warming will take place outside the U.N. process, in national, regional, and state-level carbon markets.

Strong carbon markets have shown they can stimulate large amounts of finance; for example, in the past five years, the EU’s emissions trading system became a $140 billion-per-year market; in contrast, the Kyoto Protocol’s inefficient mechanism, the Clean Development Mechanism, only reached $20 billion total in 2010.

Large-scale capital, Petsonk, said must be mobilized quickly — especially with the intensifying signs of global warming — but:

If the U.N. process can’t get decisions made about the future of the Kyoto Protocol, then the smart money will move into low-carbon development opportunities in those countries and communities that deliver the incentives to go low-carbon.

Many large differences among countries remain unresolved after the two-week session made only incremental progress on some issues. Above: the Maritim Hotel in Bonn, Germany, where the U.N. climate negotiations took place. (photo credit: Gus Silva-Chávez)

One of the biggest shake-ups in the negotiations was a proposal by Mexico and Papua New Guinea to amend the 1992 climate treaty, to let the parties make decisions by majority instead of by the current standard of “consensus.”  This stemmed from a move in December’s Cancun conference in which Mexico, then the conference chair, showed major decisions cannot and should not be blocked by a single party.  Petsonk said:

That proposal has really begun to concentrate the minds of negotiators on improving the way the U.N. climate negotiations are conducted.

Among specific policy issues, once again the most progress was made on policies to reduce emissions from deforestation (REDD+).  Petsonk said

Tropical forest nations made good and steady progress on the key technical issues they need to resolve to be able to offer to carbon markets well-verified reductions in emissions from deforestation.

The meeting also launched a consideration of how agriculture, which has a large potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers around the word, should be included in a global climate treaty.

Many critical issues left unresolved

A few crucial questions loomed large over the talks, and were not resolved in the two weeks.  These include:

  • Will the world’s biggest-emitting countries, including the United States and major emerging economies, join the EU in making significant emission reductions after the current phase of the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012?
  • Where will nations get the financing to stimulate investment in low-carbon development and to fund adaptation?
  • Can countries find a way to extend and improve the Kyoto Protocol, or will they need to move to a bottom-up world based on national and regional carbon markets?
  • With growing concern among countries that the Kyoto Protocol is not the ideal basis for a global agreement, how much of a new framework can be built in Durban?

Countries will have the opportunity to address these issues in the upcoming meetings, announced this afternoon, which will be held in early July in Berlin, late July in Auckland, New Zealand, and in September or October at a location to be determined.

The meetings that ended today are part of the twice-annual meetings for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA) and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) to meet and work out the technical details and make recommendations for draft decisions for review by the larger meeting of the Conference of Parties.  (This year, the June meetings also included groups responsible for the broader aspects of an international climate agreement, the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention [AWG-LCA] and the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol [AWG-KP]).

The largest of the U.N. climate meetings are the ministerial-level Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC, held near the end of every year.  This year’s 17th Conference of Parties (COP-17) begins November 28 in South Africa’s beachside city of Durban.

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