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COP23: Climate negotiators agree on way forward

Dave Keating Bonn, Germany
November 18, 2017

The Paris Agreement remains on track. Talks in Bonn went 12 hours into overtime as participants reached an agreement on climate finance. But now comes the tough part.

Bonn COP23 Klimakonferenz 2017
Image: DW/Maximiliano Monti

The bar was low for this year's United Nations climate summit in Bonn — anything keeping the momentum of the Paris process going was to be deemed a success. And after two weeks of steady progress, participants can leave Bonn pleased with the results.

Delegates did wrestle with a few sticking points late into the night on the final day of the climate talks. Early morning Saturday, a compromise was reached: Industrialized nations conceded to developing countries that the Adaptation Fund from the Kyoto Protocol would indeed become a part of the Paris Agreement - this in exchange for not including "loss and damage," or compensation for the worst impacts of climate change, formally into the accord.

"Tackling climate change also requires support for adaptation and loss and damage action in poor and particularly vulnerable countries," commented Gebru Jember Endalew, chair of the Least Developed Countries group.

Transparency and reporting, or how to measure the greenhouse gas emissions of member states to the Paris Agreement, was also a point of discussion.

A member of a delegation from Indonesia rests at the start of the final session of the COP23
Participants had problems keeping their eyes open as final talks ran into Friday night and Saturday morningImage: Reuters/W. Rattay

"The Bonn climate talks put substance over style," said Paula Caballero, global climate director at the World Resources Institute. "Negotiators made steady progress on important details of the Paris Agreement, and laid the groundwork for greater acceleration next year," she continued, calling the Bonn talks "a success."

"We've done the work we came here to do," German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks told DW.

Though the Paris Agreement was signed two years ago, rules for this new global energy framework have not yet been set. That climate treaty rulebook is due to be adopted at next year's UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland. The main focus for this year's summit was to set pen to paper and create a starting draft for the rule book.

COP23 Impressionen
Delegates sip coffee at the French pavilionImage: DW/R. Bosen

A long process

There will be many more drafts to come, as working-level negotiations take place over the coming year.

But as Alden Meyer from the Union of Concerned Scientists put it, "at this year's climate talks, the Fijian presidency helped us build the vessels needed to carry us towards a clean energy future. Now, it's up to ministers and heads of state to fill these vessels with increased ambition on climate action."

Delegates also signed off on the "Talanoa Dialogue," a roadmap to accelerate climate action at regular intervals. This roadmap, which will be in process over the next year, "should help countries bridge the gap between what they have committed to do and what is needed to keep temperature rise to safe levels," said Wendel Trio, Director of Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe.

Still, there is concern that Bonn only accomplished the bare minimum of what was necessary to keep the Paris process going, but did not accelerate progress. "Right now we're moving at a brisk walk, so all countries will need to really pick up the pace from here," said Brazil's environment minister Sarney Filho as he left the summit. Brazil was selected this week as the host for the UN climate summit in 2019.

Demonstration gegen Klimaerwärmung in Bonn COP23
Activists accused co-host Germany of being hypocritical, championing climate action while still burning coalImage: Getty Images/AFP/S. Schuermann


One of the most contentious issues that bogged talks down in Bonn was the debate over whether efforts to cut emissions and come up with financial support before 2020, when the Paris Agreement terms start, should be included as part of the legal text.

Developing countries had pushed for this inclusion, but developed countries had been resisting. In the end, developing countries led by Brazil and China won the day, and some pre-2020 actions were included in the text.

"Efforts by developed countries in Bonn to sideline the issue of pre-2020 was a major concern for Brazil," said Filho. "We're pleased that issue is now back on center stage, but now we will need to see words turned into action."

Climate campaigners were also concerned about the resistance being shown by developed countries, and the reemergence of the "common but differentiated responsibilities" debate, which many thought had been settled.

That issue is over the degree to which developing countries should have less of a responsibility to fight climate change, particularly financially, because they contributed to it less historically. Industrialized nations resisted this concept.

COP23 | Kaliforniens Governeur Jerry Brown
California Governor Jerry Brown led a rival US delegation in Bonn opposing TrumpImage: Getty Images/Lukas Schulze

Behind the scenes

What was perhaps most important at this year's summit was what happened behind the scenes — or what didn't happen.

No other country joined the US in threatening to walk out of the agreement. In fact, news that the last straggler,  Syria, agreed to join the Paris accord was one big surprise.

The United States delegation was quiet — its sole official side event promoted fossil fuels, and ended up getting crashed by activists. And the biggest US presence at the summit was the We Are Still In coalition of American political, business and religious leaders, who vowed to stay loyal to the Paris goals and are working hard on local climate action that can help make up the difference for US emission reductions President Trump will presumably never fulfill.

 "Outside the negotiating rooms, a broad range of voices continue to show strong support for climate action," said Caballero. More than 320 major companies, including HP, Mars, and Wal-Mart, will set science-based emissions targets.

And the Global Covenant of Mayors has brought together 7,500 cities and local governments, which can potentially reduce the equivalent of 1.7 billion tons of emissions.

COP23 in Bonn: A success?

"While the US official presence was subdued in the negotiations, the country’s subnational climate action was on full display," Caballero added.

A recent report found that a coalition of US states, cities and businesses — equivalent to more than half of the U.S. economy and population — can meet America's Paris pledge without federal action.

Coming up on the climate action agenda is the One Planet summit, including participation from the UN, European Commission, C40 Cities and OECD, among others, in Paris starting December 12.

The next "intersessional" negotiations at working level are scheduled to take place in May of next year.

Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU's climate chief, said he thinks another intersessional will have to be scheduled in order to be ready to adopt a rulebook in one year's time. "It will be a challenge for the Polish COP," he said.