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Opinion: Why the Bonn climate talks mattered

November 18, 2017

Two weeks, 25,000 people, late-night compromise: This year's UN climate talks were more process than results. But important threads emerged — at official negotiations as well as on the sidelines. And, there's still hope!

A globe among trees with ferris wheel in the background at the COP23 climate conference
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Jensen

In DW's coverage of COP23 in Bonn, we asked whether the conference was worth the effort. We looked behind the scenes, among other things at lobbying. And we even called it a circus.

This year's United Nations climate summit — which took place literally in our backyard here in Bonn, Germany — was sprawling physically, far-ranging topically, and, especially for the public, hard to get a handle on.

Technically, these two weeks were all about the "rule book": if the Paris Agreement is the climate constitution, then the rule book represents the laws and regulations that will implement it.

But the end result, the goal of the Paris Agreement, is to limit the Earth's temperature rise to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). So, will we make it?

Significant steps were made toward this end — in the official talks, as much as on the sidelines. Discussion, both in the negotiating rooms and outside, kept returning to a few key points.

Preventing 2 degrees

Sonya Angelica Diehn, DW's Environment Team Leader
Sonya Angelica Diehn is DW's Environment Team LeaderImage: DW/M. Müller

One is ambition — that is, how greenhouse gas emission cuts can be made more deeply and more quickly.

Climate experts keep reminding us: There's only a window of about a decade left for the world's nations to decarbonize their economies, before we've blown our carbon budget and the limit of a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature increase — or even 2 degrees — will no longer be possible.

For island-state host Fiji and many developing nations hard-hit by climate change, the lower limit of 1.5 degrees Celcius remained the main goal.

Discussion centered particularly on how to increase ambition before 2020, when the Kyoto Protocol expires and the Paris Agreement is set to be implemented.

Key to this was the so-called Talanoa Dialogue. And a significant step here is that United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was tasked with bringing ambition forward before COP24 in Poland next year.

Before COP21 in Paris, Ban Ki-Moon similarly achieved success — so signs are good.

Data visualization: Emissions gap
The hole in committed greenhouse gas reductions is also known as the emissions gap

Rounding up the money

The second keyword is finance. If the world's nations need to quickly decarbonize, who will pay for this?

There's broad consensus that since the wealth of industrialized countries is based on the historical burning of fossil fuels, they're responsible for not only decarbonizing their own economies but also for helping out the rest of the world.

Before COP23, only $10 billion had been pledged to the Green Climate Fund, which is used for "adaptation and mitigation" — to pay for both managing the impacts of climate change, and for transforming energy systems and otherwise reducing emissions.

Starting in 2020, industrial nations aim to spend $100 billion (€85 billion) a year for climate action in poorer countries.

But the "finance gap" is a looming threat to implementing the Paris Agreement. At COP23, developing nations sought commitments on climate finance

So it is a significant development that in Bonn, financiers have now named a sum of $60 billion. (Although nongovernmental groups remain skeptical of that figure, and say that really, only $20 billion have been committed.)

In an eleventh-hour compromise, industrialized countries conceded that the Adaptation Fund from the Kyoto Protocol, worth about $330 million, could become a part of the Paris Agreement.

This came, however, in exchange for not including contentious "loss and damage" as part of the agreement. That's compensation for the irreparable, most destructive impacts of climate change, which developing countries had sought. 

A South African woman installs a solar water heating unit on the roof of a home in Kuyasa outside Cape Town, South Africa
Climate finance: It's about the money needed to prevent global warming of more than two degreesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/N. Bothma

Sending a signal on fossil fuels

Coal was in special focus at the 23rd climate summit in Bonn.

On the Saturday before the summit started, up to 25,000 people marched in Bonn, demanding an end to the use of coal — particularly in Germany, where it makes up almost half of the energy mix.

Activists also briefly shut down the Hambach coal mine, only 50 kilometers (31 miles) away from Bonn, to send a signal. Brown coal from Hambach makes up the single largest CO2 emissions source in Europe.

In her speech at COP23, German Chancellor Angela Merkel  acknowledged the need for a coal exit — even though Germany is in a tricky situation on that since there's still no government. Coalition talks following the federal elections in September have been going on for weeks.

At the climate conference, I kept hearing people say: Enough vague goals, we need concrete steps.

One such concrete step is the pledge of 20 nations toward a phase-out of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Even though most of these countries have low coal use, this is the correct signal: Coal is the fuel of the past, renewables are the future. 

Open-pit brown coal mine in Niederlausitz in Germany
Coal: dirty, unhealthy — and hopefully a thing of the past soonImage: Imago/W.Cezanne

Climate action

Last but not least, this climate summit saw an unprecedented upswelling on the part of local and regional governments, along with businesses, to bring climate action forward.

Although the official United States delegation was minimal — and clung to coal — the unofficial US delegation came through with a resounding "we are still in."

Around the world, mayors, governors and businesses are responding to pressure from civil society to do their part in keeping the world habitable.

The hope is that 2018 can be the year of climate action; the year we turn off the path of climate catastrophe.

For this, we're being reminded that we can only tackle climate change by working as communities — and by changing our own behavior.

Although we're edging closer to the cliff, the good news is: It's still not too late.

Are you also in?