A slow start to a global climate treaty

By Gabriele Messori, Stockholm University (former Imperial PhD student)

The United Nations’ climate negotiations usually gain the press spotlight once a year, when the big Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting takes place. The most recent COP, which took place in Warsaw last November, was discussed on this blog here. However, the efforts to design a global climate treaty under the umbrella of the United Nations are ongoing, and additional negotiations take place throughout the year. These are particularly important in preparing the ground for the COPs, and provide the occasion to iron out the contrasts which might hamper later work.

The most recent of these meetings took place last week in Bonn, Germany. Formally, this was the fourth part of the second session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, or ADP 2-4.The focus was on two distinct topics. Firstly, on the ongoing effort to design a global climate treaty, which should be agreed upon by 2015 and implemented by 2020. Secondly, on the promotion of ambitious mitigation plans for the period before 2020. However, several points of contention emerged in the talks.

Far from reaching a quick consensus on the key topics, the participating countries raised several procedural issues which bogged down the discussions. These ranged from trivial aspects, such as the size of the meeting rooms assigned to the different groups, to more important considerations on the modality of the negotiations.

The crucial point was whether to proceed with informal consultations or establish contact groups. In the jargon of the United Nations, a contact group is an open-ended meeting which provides a more formal setting for the negotiations. A contact group needs to be officially established and its sessions are generally open to observers. The last two years have seen the negotiations carried out as informal consultations. Some countries, among which the EU, opposed the creation of a contact group. Many others, including the least developed countries, argued that a new, formal setting was needed.

The latter proposal was finally adopted, thus establishing a contact group. However, the debate that preceded the decision was lengthy and time consuming. While having an appropriate setting for the negotiations is important, the focus should always remain on climate change, which is the reason for which these meetings exist in the first place!

A second crucial discussion concerned the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). These are national plans for action on climate change, made by all countries participating in the talks, and should form an important part of the 2015 climate treaty. At present, there is still no clarity on fundamental points such as the form the NDCs should take, the topics they should address and the mechanisms for evaluating their progress. There is also a strong disagreement on how the burden of action should be shared between developed, developing and least developed countries. This is just a small selection of the unanswered questions concerning the national contributions; the complete list is much longer. Positions on these key aspects vary greatly. As an example, Brazil explicitly asked for the contributions to encompass the full range of actions needed to tackle climate change, including both mitigation and adaptation. Tuvalu, on the other hand, clearly stated that the NDCs should focus primarily on mitigation. Agreeing on the nature of the NDCs is one of the most challenging aspects of the negotiations.

On a more positive note, the work on pre-2020 action included for the first time technical expert meetings. These are meetings where experts can share best practices on renewable energy and energy efficiency with the country delegates. The meetings were praised by the vast majority of countries, and there were requests by a number of delegates, including those of the EU and the USA, to arrange similar meetings in future negotiations.

The week-long talks in Bonn also addressed many other topics, including transparency and equity in the 2015 climate agreement and climate finance.

Leaving aside the contrasts over specific items of the agenda, and considering the larger picture, the impression in Bonn was of a framework that is still missing some of its essential elements. While the technical expert meetings had a promising start, a lot still needs to be done both in terms of pre-2020 action and the 2015 climate treaty. In Warsaw last year, countries agreed to present their Nationally Determined Contributions “well in advance” of the 2015 COP, which will take place in Paris. In order for this to happen, there needs to be a rapid acceleration of the negotiations, and issues such as procedural aspects need to be dealt with swiftly, so that the discussion may focus on more concrete aspects of action on climate change.

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