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Hope for the Bonn climate summit

Dave Keating
November 2, 2017

A new report on peak emissions indicates that climate action is working. The Bonn summit is an opportunity to build on that momentum, experts say.

Smoke billows from smokestacks and a coal fired generator at a steel factory on November 19, 2015 in the industrial province of Hebei, China
Image: Getty Images/K. Frayer

The COP23 climate conference that will take place in Bonn over the next two weeks doesn't have the sexiness of the COP21 summit in Paris two years ago. It is a "working conference," tasked with clarifying a "rule book" for the headline-grabbing accord agreed in Paris in 2015.

Perhaps because of this, global media have approached the summit with some cynicism. A report released on Tuesday found that existing commitments under the Paris Agreement will not bring countries anywhere near the goal of preventing over 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit) rise in the Earth's temperature by 2050 — which scientists say would lead to catastrophic climate change.

Particularly in the context of Donald Trump's announcement earlier this year that he is pulling the United States out of the Paris accord, to many it appears that delegates in Bonn are wasting their time. After all, what's the point of all this if it appears it's not going to work anyway?

But those involved in the process can confirm that it is actually accomplishing a lot. Indeed, in the over two decades since the UN climate process began at the 1992 Rio Summit in Brazil, the world has made significant strides in reducing its emissions.

A new report published today by the World Resources Institute illustrates that point. It found that by 2000, eight years after the Rio Summit, 33 countries had peaked — meaning they reached an apex in their greenhouse gas emissions, and have declined ever since. That was up from 19 in 1990. 

By 2010 that number grew to 48 countries — including the United States — representing about 36 percent of the world's emissions.

Infografik Percentage of global CO2 ENG

If all countries stick to their emission reduction targets under the Paris accord, that number will increase to 52 by 2030 — including all developed countries plus China and Brazil. That represents 60 percent of the Earth's emissions.

"The timing of when individual countries' emissions peak and then decline, especially those of major emitters like the United States and China, is critically important in determining whether we can avoid the most dangerous climate impacts,” says WRI's Kelly Levin.

Increased business interest

While it might seem that attendance at the Bonn interim summit will be sparse, in fact it is set to be one of the most well-attended "conference of parties" ever. That's due largely to emission reduction efforts from the private sector, and from local and regional governments, which has shot up dramatically. 

"Non-state actors have been galvanized by the US decision, and that has moved things forward," says Jonathan Shopley, who is the managing director of environmental investment firm Natural Capital Partners. "COP23 is probably going to be one of the most-attended events [around climate action]."

In fact, stakeholders outside of the negotiating chamber have emerged as among the most important players at these summits.

Businesses, states, cities and others will be talking about their own initiatives, and new partnerships and initiatives are likely to emerge during the summit.

Peak emissions infographic

The US private sector and regional government delegation is this year expected to wield more influence than the small delegation from Washington, which will continue sitting at the negotiating table until the official withdrawal expected in 2020.

But there is still much to do. The fact remains that even with the increased business interest and positive progress on peaking emissions, the emissions reduction pledges currently on the table are not enough to prevent 2 degrees of warming.

"While this trend is encouraging, it's not enough," says Levin. She says countries must increase their commitments during the Bonn summit.

"Doing so will help ensure that countries' emission reduction commitments bring global emissions to the level needed to meet the Paris Agreement's temperature goals and avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change."