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Rocky road from Bonn to Paris

Irene Quaile-KerskenOctober 23, 2015

Negotiators struggled in Bonn at the last meeting to prepare a text for the key Paris climate conference in November. Meanwhile, scientists confirmed 2015 has so far been the warmest year on record.

Drought Philippines
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Malasig

The final official week of negotiating before the key UN Paris meeting to create a new world climate agreement was fraught with haggling between developed and developing nations.

The negotiators and observers assembled in Bonn, the west German city that hosts the UN climate secretariat UNFCCC. They had the task of shaping a workable blueprint, which ministers and heads of state are to turn into a formal agreement in Paris between November 31 and December 11.

The talks opened with an éclat when developing countries said their core demands had been removed from the blueprint, which had been reduced to 20 pages. Some of the passages were then reinstated, taking the draft to 34 pages and delaying the negotiations.

'No common ground'

Mattias Söderberg is chair of the ACT Alliance climate change advisory group, which works with development and relief in 140 countries around the world. He told DW he felt frustration and disappointment at the pace of the climate talks this week:

"From our perspective, where we work with those who are affected by climate change, the progress is far from enough. Parties need to leave their comfort zones, to look for common understanding. Now they stay in their corners, sticking to old positions."

Söderberg said the Bonn meeting played an important part in coming up with "a draft agreement everybody agrees they can use."

However, he said it still contained too many "technical disagreements" and was not the type of document ministers would be able to work with when it comes to the decision-making segment of the Paris meeting.

Bonn hosted this week's climate meeting
Bonn hosted this week's climate meetingImage: AFP/Getty Images/P. Stollarz

"An example is on loss and damage (where adaptation to climate change is no longer possible). Some rich countries want to cut it out, while developing countries, led by LDCs (least developed countries) and small islands, want to include ambitious text. There is no middle ground," he said.

A matter of survival

The chairperson of the Group of 77 and China, South African diplomat Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko, expressed "profound dissatisfaction" with the progress of the meeting. She told journalists the issue of funding to help poor nations cope with climate change would be the defining issue at the Paris meeting.

"Whether Paris succeeds or not will be dependent on what we have as part of the core agreement on finance," she told a news conference in Bonn.

"For the low lying island countries in our group, their very existence is in jeopardy as sea levels rise. For others, their fresh water supplies are threatened due to desertification. As we speak, at least two of our members, the Philippines and the Bahamas, are struggling yet again to cope with devastating storms that will set back their development."

Mxakato-Diseko appealed for more understanding of her group's point of view.

"For us, this is not about economic competitiveness of making profits from renewable energies," she said. "The reality is that developing countries require climate financial resources, technology transfer and capacity building both now and far into the future, in some cases just to survive."

Developed nations have promised to raise climate funds to $100 billion (90 billion euros) a year from a wide range of public and private sources by 2020 to help emerging economies curb greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Poor nations want clear promises that aid will be increased, while the United States and other rich nations favor vaguer wording that stops short of promising a rise from 2020.

Flooding is increasing on account of climate changes
Flooding is increasing on account of climate changesImage: Reuters/E. De Castro

Bridging the emissions gap

The other main stumbling block to a Paris agreement is the "emissions gap" - the difference between the amount of greenhouse gas emissions countries have voluntarily pledged to reduce, and the amount necessary to keep climate warming to the internationally agreed target of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). So far, pledges are generally agreed to be insufficient.

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks told German radio the current pledges could only limit warming to around 2.7 degrees Celsius.

While developing countries say the industrialized nations who caused global warming should increase their commitments, developed nations want guarantees that emerging countries will step up their actions to slow rising emissions.

A study published this week by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) confirmed that the national pledges were insufficient. It also said, however, that the pledges could be the turning point for a switch to a low-carbon economy, if the Paris agreement includes a mechanism to ensure that the targets are upped by 2020 at the latest.

Infografik Rating of climate pledges
Climate pledges: who promises how much?

UN climate chief Christiana Figueres told DW:

"The agreement in Paris would not be able to be reached if we don't incorporate the path towards a progressively increasing level of effort on the part not only of national governments but of all actors, all stakeholders, including some national governments, private sector, even civil society."

The question is what form a mechanism will take to continuously review and increase any targets agreed.

Jennifer Morgan, global director of the Climate Program at the World Resources Institute told DW the key to success lay in the "long-term vision" of a Paris agreement.

"Is there going to be a signal sent that we are going to decarbonize our economies over this century sooner rather than later? Or is it going to be a bit vague and not send a signal to markets around the world to shift to clean energy?"

Paris: too big to fail?

While the Bonn meeting was billed as the last opportunity to come up with a successful base for negotiation, Morgan stresses the need for high-level behind-the-scenes action between now and November 30:

"It is really critical that leaders engage in the coming final weeks going into Paris. These are heads of state decisions, so we need a core group of leaders to really understand what's at stake."

UN climate chief Figueres has her work cut out for her
UN climate chief Figueres has her work cut out for herImage: AFP/Getty Images/P. Stollarz

As the Paris meeting approaches rapidly and the urgency of tackling climate change becomes ever more apparent, there appears to be widespread agreement that COP21 cannot be an end in itself. Instead, it should be the launch pad for a comprehensive shift away from fossil fuels.

UNFCCC chief Figueres refuses to contemplate a failure of the Paris summit. "It's not a scenario that we entertain," she said.

But there is still widespread concern amongst countries affected worst by climate change and NGOs like ACT Alliance.

"I am pretty sure there will be an agreement," says ACT Chair Matthias Söderberg. "But I am afraid it will be a weak agreement, lacking options to ratchet up the ambition. That could mean that we lock in low ambition, as national pledges so far are not ambitious enough."