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UN climate talks in Bonn: business tells it like it is

23 June 2011
UN climate talks in Bonn: business tells it like it is

Damian Ryan, Senior Policy Manager, The Climate Group, analyzes the UN climate change talks in Bonn.   

LONDON: A fixed feature of all formal UN climate meetings these days are the plenary statements from the officially designated observer groups.  Best known by their acronyms, the BINGOs, RINGOs, ENGOs, YOUNGOs* and others, are each provided with a two-minute slot to cajole, harangue or inspire officials in their negotiating efforts.

Generally, these statements tend to be fairly anodyne affairs, sticking to well worn formulas and positions. This partly reflects the need for observer groups to find language all their members can agree on, and partly the need to avoid ruffling too many sensitive feathers. The UNFCCC is after all a diplomatic institution. 

It seems, however, that someone forgot to remind the business and industry constituency of these diplomatic niceties at the recent round of UN climate talks in Bonn, Germany.

In a short statement delivered at the closing meeting of the Kyoto Protocol negotiating group, business representatives pulled no punches regarding the importance of an ongoing Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)

Parties were told in no uncertain terms that their political posturing was putting at risk large scale low carbon investment that the CDM has created space for.

Countries who were opposed to participation in the CDM were told to respect the rights of those countries that did wish to participate. The statement concluded by explaining to all Parties that: “The CDM is ... your responsibility, and right now, as long predicted, you are preventing investment from taking place in developing countries.” Ouch.

Such language should really come as no surprise. With only 18 months left before the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol expires, there remains much uncertainty about what a post-2012 climate regime looks like. And no business likes uncertainty, particularly of the policy variety.

With negotiations struggling to get out of first gear, what hope is there that this year’s UN climate summit in Durban in November can provide some of the policy and investment certainty that business is demanding?

On the Kyoto Protocol front, the treaty’s future hangs in the balance, a situation that the Bonn meeting did little to change. It is now generally acknowledged that there will be a gap between the first and the second commitment periods.

Even if agreement could be reached in time, a post-2012 Protocol is almost certain to be a slimmed-down, ‘lite’ version of the current model, missing Canada, Japan and Russia

The EU, and countries such as Norway, Switzerland and New Zealand, have meanwhile said they're prepared to accept a second commitment period. In part this is because of the importance they see in retaining Kyoto’s progressive elements and tools, which they hope can be incorporated into a new, more comprehensive treaty in future.

Their support however, is contingent on progress in a number of areas. For example, these countries need to see movement on the technical rules governing such things as forestry and carbon trading, as these will define how new emissions targets can and cannot be meet.

Perhaps most importantly, the EU et al have stressed the need for clarity on the mitigation commitments by all major emitters (especially the US and China) that are being discussed in the broader negotiating process taking place in parallel to the Kyoto talks. 

Unfortunately, the Bonn talks underlined the ongoing challenges facing these wider ‘Convention-track’ negotiations. The talks, which are aimed at strengthening climate action by all countries, have struggled under the weight of an (over) ambitious work program.

In Bonn, for example, 14 different informal consultation groups were established to cover core issues, ranging from mitigation through to finance and legal form. This not only created logistical problems, but also sequencing challenges, as countries worried about the loss of negotiating leverage in case their key issues were left behind while others progressed.

The result, unsurprisingly, was and is an increasingly sclerotic process which allows single issues or countries to block wider progress.

The overall outlook for Durban then is a relatively modest one at best. While developing countries have stressed the importance of agreeing a second Kyoto commitment period, it seems hard to image even a ‘Protocol 2.0-lite’ being agreed. This is especially so in the absence of some firm mitigation pledges under the Convention track from the major emitters.

What seems more likely – and politically essentially if the UNFCCC process is to retain credibility (an ongoing challenge) – is agreement on the final design and/or operationalization of the various institutions and processes that Parties agreed to in Cancun. This includes the Green Climate Fund, the Climate Technology Centre and Network and the Adaptation Framework.

The good news is that none of these require progress on mitigation targets or agreement on an overarching treaty to be implemented (at least that’s the theory).

The same is also true of the CDM, which although is a creation of the Kyoto Protocol, does not require a formal second commitment period to function. Ongoing demand for CDM credits could be generated by individual countries or regions – a key point made by the BINGO representatives in Bonn last week.

Agreement on these institutional bodies or processes in Durban would undoubtedly be an important achievement, laying the basis for increased bottom-up collaborative action over the short-term.

None of this, however, gets around the inconvenient truth that the overall political response at the international level continues to fall far short of what the climate science increasingly demands. Bridging this so-called ‘Gigatonne Gap’ is the essential challenge over the coming two to three years.

The good news, is that the technology and business models are there to do the job. What is needed is the political will to move beyond self-interest and establish the necessary collaborative frameworks and policies.

A few more pugilistic but progressive interventions from business wouldn’t go a miss either.

All available conference documents from Bonn are available from the UNFCCC

*Business & Industry; Research; Environment; and Youth, Non-Governmental Organizations respectively.

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