Bonn conference starts final phase of climate negotiations

March 25, 2009


Translation Gwendolyn Albert

The last Sunday in March will see the start of a two-week meeting of the UNFCCC in Bonn. This is the negotiators’ first meeting this year, meant to present a final agreement on establishing a global regime to replace the Kyoto Protocol. If everything goes smoothly, the many weeks of marathon negotiations will end in Copenhagen this December.

With the Bonn negotiations, we are entering – according to the statements of all those participating – into a “full negotiation  mode” in which country representatives will negotiate the specific text of the future agreement. The so-called “focusing document” prepared by the  Chair of the Working Group for Long-term Cooperation is meant to be the main aid to this effort. This text is the first attempt to narrow down the themes, summaries and general suggestions made by various  Parties. It is focused on all of the essential  elements of the Bali Action Plan and includes identifiable areas in which there is not yet agreement; it also attempts to propose an approach to overcoming these disagreements and fill in the gaps that still exist. There really are quite a number of such gaps in the text, primarily due to the unclear proposals made by the rich countries, especially concerning the financial architecture and support for adaptation and mitigation measures in the developing countries. Lively debate can therefore be expected over the individual points of the text, primarily concerning these “gaps”. It is certain that various states will focus on these problematic points, on areas which are insufficiently reflected, in their view, or on those which are given undue space.

What else is on the agenda? When we look at the official program, we see that before the final negotiations in the contact groups are concluded, there will be three workshops. The first and most interesting of these concerns the potential of and options for reducing emissions in both developed and developing countries. Developed states are to present their mid and long-term quantified  targets. The developing countries are expected to present their national plans and measures towards reducing emissions. The remaining two workshops are very specific, on the economic and social impacts of the unintended results of emissions reduction (so-called “response measures“), and on the opportunity for emissions reduction in agriculture.

The first workshop will definitely receive the most attention. The main expectation will be signals from the main polluters regarding their emissions reduction goals. All eyes will certainly be on the new team of negotiators from the USA. What news might the US team bring? It can be assumed that they will officially repeat what has already been indicated by President Obama, i.e., the reduction of greenhouse gases as of 2020 to 1990 levels, which at current volumes means a reduction of approximately 14 %. This is far from a level which the EU might consider comparable to its own  efforts, but as a first offer it is not bad.

The second determinant of the US position is going to be the process of approving national legislation connected with emission reductions. From more than one declaration by various heavyweights on the US political scene, among them John Kerry, it can be judged that the USA will not be able accede to any agreement before approving its own domestic legislation. In this context, instruments similar to those that function in the EU are most often mentioned, i.e., emissions permits trading, the so-called cap-and-trade system. Obama has already indicated his preference by counting on the yields from this system in next year’s budget. Therefore, it will be interesting in this regard to follow the US intervention concerning the introduction of a similar system at a global level, as the EU is calling for. The great unknowns will remain the financing and contributions from the USA to the future “climate” funds designated to cover the costs of adaptation and the transfer of “clean” technologies to developing countries. The US has not yet said what it prefers in this respect, and therefore the world is waiting for the US vision of the financial mechanisms. It will be interesting to follow their reactions to the EU proposals linked to the option of allocating part of the yields from emissions trading to the much-needed “climate” funds.

Japan is among the other important players to have promised to publish their aims sometime in the first half of this year. Currently the government there is considering six different scenarios, none of which,  are too ambitious. According to the information available, only two of them approximate what the EU is calling for. From the large developing countries, such as Brazil, China and India, the establishment of quantified aims is not expected; rather, national measures are expected to be introduced which will lead to emissions reductions (e.g., standards in various industrial sectors, improving energy efficiency, etc).

The EU position was clarified at the end of January, when the Commission issued a communication in which it presented its vision for the “Copenhagen” agreement. On the basis of this document, the EU adopted the conclusions of the Council of Member State Ministers of Environment and Finance, to which it added a page during the conclusions of the Spring Council. What do these documents suggest, and what sort of mandate have the negotiators achieved? The EU is primarily focused on mitigation. It stands behind its aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 % by 2020 compared to 1990, as long as the other developed countries adopt comparable aims. This is nothing new and the EU is still profiled in this matter as the “workhorse” of the entire negotiations and as a model for the others.

Of course, the EU has deserved a great deal of criticism on other points. It disappointed many observers from the ranks of experts, NGOs, and representatives of other countries, primarily in the area of finance. It was not able to clearly declare the financial amount it would dedicate to adaptation and mitigation in developing countries, but is revealing only the possible sources from which the necessary funds might eventually come. This concerns the auction of a certain percentage of emissions permits, or a system of contributions by various countries from their state budgets. It has not at all clarified how much it will be willing to contribute or sell during the auction.

Instead, the EU is offering conditionality, and for its yet-to-be-determined assistance it is demanding that developing countries reduce their emissions by 15-30 % of the business-as-usual scenario by 2020. All of the developing countries must develop so-called low-carbon development strategies, which will include both their adaptation and mitigation plans and options. They are to determine strategies regarding which measures might be paid for by the developing countries themselves and which require international support, i.e., from the financial mechanisms of the future regime under discussion. On the basis of these strategies and plans, financial and technical support will be provided for some of the measures.

Through this tactic, the EU wants to transfer the weight of taking the first step to the developing countries. Of course, the justified objection to this is:  How can they plan when they do not know how much money will be available through the international structures? UNFCCC head Yvo de Boer also expressed his dissatisfaction when he criticized this approach as exceeding the fragile mandate approved at the end of 2007 in Bali.

When we take into consideration the restrictions within which the EU and US have their mandates to negotiate, we can outline the extent to which the negotiations might be successful. The first condition for success will be the US meeting the others halfway with respect to establishing mid-range aims for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, supporting the global system of emissions trading, and taking responsibility for aiding endangered countries through adaptation measures and technology transfer. From the point of view of the EU, it is absolutely essential to open up closer collaboration with the US and prepare the ground for a grand finale in Copenhagen together. These two players need to start singing from the same page at Bonn in order to become the real leaders of this whole negotiating process. Otherwise, instead of a grand finale, we risk a grand frustration.