As far as international climate agreements go, this year has the potential to be a historic one. In December, more than 190 countries — along with representatives from cities, companies, NGOs, and other actors — will descend on Paris in the hopes of emerging with a new international agreement to tackle climate change.
But before countries can come together in Paris, there are still a number of meetings to be had and issues to be resolved — including a week-long negotiating session in Bonn held this week.
The Bonn negotiations are the second-to-last in a series of intentional negotiating sessions meant to lay the groundwork for Paris, and they’re an extremely important stop on the road to a strong international climate agreement. As Robert Orr, longtime climate adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who now works at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, told Politico, the Bonn talks are crucial for tying up loose ends before heading into Paris.
“We can’t end up in Paris with a lot of open issues,” Orr said. “These Bonn meetings are critical to ensure that a lot of the key issues get resolved — not all of them, but a lot of the key issues.”
Where Were We Before Bonn?
Bonn isn’t the first international negotiation meant to pave the way toward Paris — there’s been a lot of action leading up to the U.N. Climate Conference in December. Attempts to get countries to sign a binding, international agreement on climate change have been happening for decades — the last big one happened in Copenhagen in 2009 and was largely deemed a failure.
In the run-up to Paris, many countries — as well as cities and private companies — have been submitting individual climate pledges to the United Nations. The United States, for example, submitted commitments back in April pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2025. China has committed to peak its CO2 emissions before 2030. The European Union collectively pledged to cut its emissions at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, a goal the World Resources Institute called “strong,” but noted that it still has the potential to be even stronger.
Canada and Australia — countries whose leaders have notoriously bad records on climate — have also submitted commitments, though both were met with sharp criticism from environmental groups for not going far enough.
In June, G7 leaders announced that they had reached a nonbinding agreement to limit global warming to 2°C.
What Are The Issues Negotiators Are Talking About In Bonn?
One of the biggest issues negotiators are hoping to tackle during the current round of Bonn talks is whether an international climate agreement will set a long term goal for emissions reductions — something that goes beyond the international agreement to limit the impacts of global warming to below 2°C.
“Right now all parties agreed to keep global emissions from rising 2 degrees, but that doesn’t really explain how they’re going to do it,” Kyle Ash, Senior Legislative Representative for Greenpeace, told ThinkProgress. Ash said that Greenpeace — as well as others present at the Bonn negotiations — are pushing countries to outline specific emission reduction commitments that go beyond the shorter-term, 2025 commitments. Such a commitment might look like promising to phase out fossil fuels 100 percent by 2050, though Ash notes that this is a parcitularly strong commitment, and other weaker forms are also on the table.
Many at the Bonn meetings also hope that the week-long session will provide clarity on the legal nature of any international agreement decided in Paris. Some countries — like the United States — want only certain parts of a climate agreement to be legally binding, something that Ash says could undercut the international agreements ability to influence domestic laws.
“If you don’t have international law it’s a lot less likely to result in domestic law,” Ash said. The United States negotiators could be worried that a legally binding international agreement would be politically unpopular — especially with Republicans at the helm of Congress — but Ash argues that such a view is an outdated vestige of an old political atmosphere.
“It’s not the case anymore that pushing for action on climate is a political liability, but they’re still operating under that assumption,” he said.
There’s also the question of whether countries will agree to meet at specific intervals after Paris in order to reaffirm or strengthen climate commitments. Some countries, like the United States, are pushing for international meetings every five years in order to monitor international progress. But others, like the European Union, are arguing for lengthier intervals or every 10 years — a time-scale that worries environmentalists calling for immediate action on climate.
“Every time the IPCC comes out with a report, it’s worse,” Ash said. “It would be good to have shorter commitment periods.”
Negotiators in Bonn are also grappling with the issue of transparency and accountability — how nations will share emissions reduction information and how they’ll make sure that information is credible. This means coming to an agreement about how countries measure greenhouse gas emissions — the United States counts all greenhouse gases as part of its individual emissions, but some countries either lack the capacity to calculate all greenhouse gas emissions, or simply choose not to.
So What Comes After Bonn?
Bonn is the second-to-last negotiating session before the Paris climate talks — the final session, also in Bonn, will be held in October. But even if all of the issues outlined above — as well as a number of others still up in the air — aren’t solidified after this session, that doesn’t necessarily mean Paris is doomed to failure.
In September, leaders from both China and India will meet with President Obama, and international climate issues will almost certainly be on the agenda. From there, the three leaders will head to New York to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. There’s also talk of another international negotiation session being scheduled before Paris, though nothing has been solidified yet, according to Ash.
Still, David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute, seemed optimistic that this week’s Bonn talks were beginning to set the stage for a successful meeting in Paris.
“We have a situation where there really is momentum toward reaching an agreement. The arrows are all pointed in the right direction, in a general sense,” he told reporters on a press call Thursday, adding that “on specific issues, there’s still much that’s still important that’s yet to be determined.”