Bonn Climate Talks: Sailing Forward, But With Half a Crew?

The Kyoto Protocol (KP) still sits in troubled waters, as three of its signatory countries threaten to jump ship on its continuation beyond 2012

(Photo: The Adopt a Negotiator Project) The Kyoto Protocol (KP) still sits in troubled waters, as three of its signatory countries threaten to jump ship on its continuation beyond 2012.

Governments just finished another round of negotiations in Bonn, Germany under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. If the international climate talks are a ship, the last two weeks’ voyage saw equal parts clear sailing, stormy seas, and listless drifting, as nations advanced toward agreements on addressing ocean carbon storage and clean technology transfer, fought over the future of the Kyoto Protocol, and wasted nearly three days just trying to agree on the agenda for parts of the meeting.

The Bonn negotiations, held June 6-17, began more like a dreary, repeat survey of some crumbling harbor than the next leg of a mighty quest to stop climate change. Exactly like the first few days of April’s Bangkok negotiations, delegates spent their time bickering over the list of agenda items to be discussed, down to the level of disagreeing on the very name of a negotiation on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries (commonly called REDD+). Bolivia preferred to talk about “measures with regard to forests”, opposing a focus on REDD+ and developing countries. The “+”-related policies (focusing on conservation, enhancement, and sustainable management of forest carbon) were agreed to at the 2010 Cancún negotiations, where Bolivia was the sole objector.

After three days of debating (and finally agreeing on) the terms and titles of their fight on several agenda items, countries finally started lobbing legal cannonballs, and no issue saw more intense debate than that of the future of the Kyoto Protocol. As I mentioned in my summary of the Bangkok talks, Kyoto’s most significant provision, legally binding greenhouse gas pollution reductions for many industrialized nations, will expire after 2012. Many nations, especially economically poorer ones, want Kyoto to continue, with a new period of commitments for developed nations, the so-called Annex I countries. Three major Annex I emitters — Japan, Canada, and Russia — have said they are jumping ship and refuse to join a second commitment period. Without a sizable crew of nations committing to further cut their climate pollution, Kyoto would essentially be dead in the water.

While hardly a new war, this round of battling over Kyoto seemed all the more intense as the hourglass drained that much further toward the start of  the uncharted territory a gutted Kyoto would bring. There were some bright sights on the horizon, though, as the European Union (EU) seemed to solidify its commitment to furthering Kyoto. Negotiation insiders whispered that Japan might stick with Kyoto, if only to save face from being labeled a mutineer on a ship christened its own city’s name, and that the EU could easily give up a little treasure (unspecified political concessions) to keep Russia on board.

No specific agreements on Kyoto emerged from Bonn, however. The urgency of resolving Kyoto’s future did at least compel countries to put up the booty (a couple million U.S. dollars) for another port of call on the voyage to December’s climate summit in Durban, South Africa. The new meeting, scheduled for late September or early October, provides wind in the sails for countries to navigate through contentious issues like Kyoto in time to potentially arrive at major decisions on them by the end of Durban. Countries also agreed that the new session would function as a continuation of Bonn, rather than a brand new negotiation, meaning that time drag normally imposed by formal speeches and opening and closing ceremonies will be trimmed.

In Bonn, governments progressed on issues related to REDD+, particularly toward agreement on verifying emissions and carbon storage from changes in forest cover, how to compare changes to historical deforestation trends so as to calculate market credits for carbon storage, and precise definitions to differentiate between natural forests and tree plantations. Countries also agreed to develop technical work plans to address the role of “Blue Carbon” (the oceans and marine ecosystems) in storing greenhouse gases and regulating the climate. Nations also made progress on the launch of a coordination center and network of experts to facilitate the transfer of clean energy production and other climate-fighting technologies across countries, especially to economically poorer countries. This Climate Technology Centre and Network, seen as an important outcome of the Cancún meeting, had yet to be realized.

The international climate negotiations sail onward, buoyed by these modest gains. But, battered by major disagreements like Kyoto, international verification of pollution reductions, and new sources of funding for climate change mitigation and adaptation, it remains unclear whether they will reach their agreed goal to limit global average warming to two degrees Celsius or less. Most countries by now have successfully mapped the space between where they are and where many aspire to go in terms of international agreement. As any good sailor knows, however, there is a big difference between a map and a chart, and governments have yet to fill in all of the policy details or plot their entire course. While not lost on climate negotiation insiders that South Africa sees many ships rounding its Cape of Good Hope every day, it’s worth noting just how far from Durban that is.

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