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Progress and disappointment: Bonn Conference kicks off new era for global climate talks, but same old stand-offs persist

Progress and disappointment: Bonn Conference kicks off new era for global climate talks, but same old stand-offs persist

Fortnight-long meeting has made progress on a number of technical issues, but disagreements over climate finance are now set to dominate the COP27 Climate Summit

The latest Bonn Climate Conference came to a close yesterday after two weeks of intense talks, simultaneously marking both the end of one era and the beginning of another for the long-running global climate negotiations.

The meeting was the final gathering of executive secretary Patricia Espinosa’s six year stint at the helm of the UN climate secretariat, as she prepares to step down from the role next month. But it also marked the first international climate conference since the signing of Glasgow Climate Pact last year finalized the rulebook for the Paris Agreement following over half a decade of tense negotiations over the fine point legal details underpinning the historic accord.

Accordingly, the last two weeks in Bonn have seen the focus on the deeply technical negotiations relating to carbon markets, emissions reporting, and verification mechanisms that has dominated the talks in recent years shifted slightly towards the critical question of how to deliver on the goals of the goals of the Paris Agreement. The previously sprawling negotiations have boiled down to just two overarching issues: what are countries doing to actually cut emissions and is sufficient funding being provided to help poorer nations adapt to climate impacts, cope with associated losses, and transition to a net zero emission economy?

Officially, the UN yesterday insisted that the latest round of talks had delivered some encouragement for progress on “important technical issues”. “Building on the many mandates that emerged from the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow last year, discussions took place on a range of important topics, including the need for more ambitious climate action, deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, enhanced resilience to adapt to the effects of climate change and financial support for developing countries,” the UNFCCC said in a statement.

Most notably, the conference completed the first technical dialogue of the Global Stocktake, a new process designed to review collective progress towards achieving the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit global warming to 1.5C. “The Global Stocktake and other discussions at the Bonn Climate Conference have demonstrated the many gaps that exist in climate action, but also the opportunities,” said Marianne Karlsen, the Chair of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI). “I am heartened that governments and numerous stakeholders have been showingcasing solutions, opportunities, innovations and best practices from throughout the world. And we have seen engagement on the part of non-Party stakeholders who have a key role to play in helping governments achieve their climate goals.”

Espinosa sought to strike a similarly upbeat tone as she closed her final conference as Executive Secretary and set out the priorities for November’s COP27 Climate Summit in Egypt. “While much work remains, parties have made progress in several technical areas here in Bonn,” she said. “Such steps are a key part of the negotiations and important to achieve our overall goals. The world is moving closer to an overall shift towards implementation of the Paris Agreement. Major political decisions, notably on finance for Loss and Damage, need to be taken at COP27. We now need to ensure that Sharm el-Sheikh will truly be the place where important promises of the Paris Agreement are turned into reality.”

But seasoned observers of the UN talks offered a much less positive assessment of the state of the negotiations, just six months on from the breakthrough achieved in Glasgow.

“It all felt quite depressing, to be honest,” noted one expert, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Governments have to work together to make this happen, but they are simply not working together. There is an increasing and real divide on adaptation and finance in particular.”

Under the Glasgow Climate Pact richer nations agreed to double adaptation funding and discuss proposals for a new mechanism to help vulnerable countries cope with climate-related loss and damage. But while the German government is talking about coming forward with new plans for boosting climate finance further, there has been scant progress and little indication that industrialized nations are willing to temper their long-standing opposition to Loss and Damage proposals that they fear will be characterized as an admission of liability for all future climate-related losses.

“The G7 have to explain how they are going to double climate adaptation funding and they have to explain how they are going to do Loss and Damage,” said one observer. “They also have to provide a big signal that they are really committed to phasing out fossil fuels and building carbon free power systems by the 2030s. If the G7 doesn’t do that, we’re not going to get anywhere this year.”

The problem is that despite plenty of warm words, there is little evidence G7 nations are planning a big bold offer to build on the Glasgow Climate Pact. “There is not one world leader who has got themselves together on this, with the exception of Guterres who is genuinely angry at the continued inaction,” said our source. “Instead, they are off doing new gas deals, there’s a real gap between what they are saying and doing.”

Meanwhile, anger and resentment among poorer nations is ratcheting up. Climate vulnerable nations have quietly noted how much Western funding has been found to support Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s invasion – funding which followed quickly on the heels of governments mobilizing billions of dollars of spending for domestic recovery plans. At a time when climate vulnerable nations are already seeing their GDP hit by escalating climate impacts, developing world governments are reflecting on how the ‘magic money tree’ they have been repeatedly told is not available to help them respond to worsening climate risks can be accessed for other purposes.

The most vulnerable nations have said they want a new agreement on Loss and Damage to be finalized at COP27, but richer nations have only agreed to a ‘dialogue’ that is scheduled to run until 2024. The potential for a major row this autumn is obvious .

Meanwhile, age-old dividing lines were also in evidence as the US and China reportedly clashed, with China rejecting plans for a new work program over references to “major emitters”.

According to reports from Climate Home News, the US proposed a new work program to deliver “concrete actions by major emitters with capabilities”. But a group of ‘like-minded’ countries, including China and India, rejected the language over long-standing concerns that characterizing a large emerging historic as “major emitters” could result in them taking on similar obligations to those industrialized nations with much higher emissions.

However, for all the challenges, some sources of optimism remain. The new Australian government chose this week to formally submit a new national climate action plan – or nationally determined contribution (NDC) in the UN jargon – to the UNFCCC, confirming plans to up its emission reduction goal for 2030 from a 28 per cent cut against 2005 levels to a 43 per cent cut. The new Labor-led government also annual reaffirmed Australia’s commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and pledged to provide an statement to Parliament reporting on progress against its climate goals.

Environmental campaigners argued the new target was still not ambitious enough and warned the new administration is continuing to back plans for new fossil fuel infrastructure, but the defeat of former Scott Morrison has served to highlight how countries can quickly strengthen their climate strategies when governments and political priority shift.

As such, a major diplomatic push is underway to convince governments that have introduced new clean-tech focused energy security strategies in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – such as the EU, UK, and US – to formally strengthen their NDCs before the COP27 Climate Summit kicks off in November.

There is also a growing recognition that rich nations will need to come to Egypt with some sort of fresh offer on climate finance or risk the talks grinding to a halt. “Perhaps the most decisive outcome from these talks that developed countries now realise that the chorus calling for solutions to Loss and Damage is only getting louder and addressing this issue is a central measure of success for the UN Climate Summit in Egypt,” said David Waskow, international climate director at the World Resources Institute. “Now the pressure is on for leaders to pick up the slack and use upcoming diplomatic gatherings to deliver the political momentum that is needed ahead of COP27.” All eyes will now be on imminent Commonwealth and G7 Summits for signs that world leaders have heard the alarm bells being rung in Bonn.

Moreover, in the wake of the Kremlin’s aggression there is a renewed understanding that tackling geopolitical climate and energy security risks is in everyone’s long term interests, as well as a growing awareness of how an ambitious new climate finance settlement could provide a counterpoint to China’s Belt and Road initiative and growing influence in developing.

However, the past two weeks in Bonn have provided little firm evidence, governments are preparing to translate their understanding of the escalating geopolitical risks into tangible action. As one observer concluded, “this meeting delivered very little envoy – on all the big issues thes turning up at these talks are being given no political space to find ways to co-operate”.

This lack of political prioritisation was further underscored today when it emerged that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had skipped a virtual meeting of world leaders convened by US President Joe Biden to discuss how to build on the Glasgow Climate Pact.

Politico reported that Biden was set to be joined by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. European Council President Charles Michel was scheduled to speak, as well as leaders from Chile, Mexico, Indonesia, and Nigeria. COP26 President Alok Sharma was expected to represent the UK in place of the Prime Minister. Admittedly, China, France, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam were also expected to be represented by Ministers, but as one observer noted, “last year, in the run up to COP26, Johnson would have turned up”.

The question for those attending Biden’s virtual meeting is what happens next? COP26 was one of the finest achievements in years and a genuine success for the UK hosts – a success that has only come to look more impressive given the geopolitical turmoil unleashed in the months immediately after the Glasgow Summit. There is now a clear framework for accelerating decarbonization efforts and establishing more generous and effective climate finance mechanisms. Moreover, the fact such moves are in everyone’s self-interest has become ever more painfully apparent. Governments may be ramping up domestic fossil fuel production in response to soaring energy prices, but growing numbers of businesses are stepping up calls for an accelerated green industrial revolution that would turn investment in polluting infrastructure into stranded assets.

COP27 has the potential to further hammer home these stark realities. It will be hosted in North Africa in one of the hottest places on Earth in a region with a long history of food-insecurity induced political turmoil. Egypt itself recognizes the need to make a clean energy transition, but faces huge economic pressures and is sitting on sizeable gas reserves. It is almost the perfect crucible for the historic challenges the UN climate talks are trying to overcome. If governments turn up in Sharm el Sheikh without a credible and ambitious plan and still refusing to co-operate, then the new era of climate diplomacy could quickly end up being derailed by the same tensions that have marred the past decade.

One thing is certain. Whoever replaces Patricia Espinosa will be taking on one of the most important, and most difficult, jobs in the world.

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