Getting down to text in Bonn

The climate negotiations in Bonn in early June were a tale of two weeks. In the first week, delegates might have been excused for wondering if they had ever left Bangkok. The fights about the agenda continued, as did wrangles over whether it was permissible to have ‘spin-off groups’. In the second week, thankfully, the negotiations returned to some exchanges among countries, and even some elements of text emerged.

On the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, most of the movement was in bi-lateral discussions. There are increasing signs that the EU is willing to consider some sort of de facto movement to a further period, and the G77&China has been keen to find out under what conditions. In the past, negotiations have moved forward when such a ‘Green Group’ has emerged, that is a group across the Annex I / non-Annex I divide. If this happens again, it might gather support from other developed countries as well.

Linked to this major issue is that of the legal form of the agreed outcome under the Convention (the under the AWG-LCA, the Ad hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action). The LCA legal group meeting on this matter seemed to continue to debate the same options that have been considered for a few years now. Some persist with the argument that COP decisions are legally binding – dubious except when it means binding on the Secreatariat, which is what most people have in mind. Others argue for a legally binding agreement, or a treaty in plain language. While most observers agree that political conditions will not allow a treaty to be signed in Durban, the deeper question is whether the world is giving up on this endeavor altogether. There is little evidence to suggest that bottom-up approaches, focused on national and local action, will deliver enough – without the guidance of a legally binding framework. The question that will need to be answered in Durban is more political than legal – are countries willing to negotiate a new climate treaty, or not?

These ‘big picture’ topics did not get the most air-time in Bonn. Negotiators started focusing on more specific issues. Cancun set up a whole host of work, including institutions (Adaptation Committee, Technology Mechanism, Green Climate Fund) and a raft of modalities, guidelines and other technical details.

In some areas, it is possible to go well beyond detail. There has not been an institutional structure for adaptation under the Convention to date, with probably the most effective institution being the Adaptation Fund Board (under the Kyoto Protocol). Settling the composition of the new Adaptation Committee would be an important step in Durban, and most appropriate for an African COP. There are risks of creating empty shells of institutions, however – there needs to be a complete list of nominations to the Technology Executive Committee , to establish a body to oversee the development and transfer of climate-friendly technology – for both adaptation and mitigation.

The Transitional Committee, which will design the Green Climate Fund, has already met and will be well into its work by Durban. It might be able to focus on ‘what is new’ in the GCF and how to operationalise the unique elements. The crunch issue is around long-term sources of finance. Some developed countries are backing further and further from the political commitment made in Copenhagen – suddenly the emphasis is no longer on the $ 100 billion (never mind the question whether that is adequate to the need), but on ‘mobilising’, ‘leveraging’ and finding sources. There is much talk of the emissions gap – but the finance gap is equally glaring. The political commitment to including public sources, a scale appropriate to the need and a balance between funding adaptation and mitigation – in the long-term – needs to be bedded down in a decision.

The mitigation negotiations showed that confidence can be built, starting with issues where there is a common interest. The discussion on the registry, linking action and support, enabled some frank exchanges on IAR and ICA – international assessment and review for developed countries, and international consultation and analysis for developing countries. The balance between IAR and ICA is emerging as a core issue. The trick will be to unpack the concepts (and associated issue of reporting and common accounting rules for Annex I). There is no doubt that there are political issues at stake, but an elaboration of the details at the technical level can be useful in identifying areas in which progress can be made – and those that need resolution at a political level. This is no more or less than traditional UNFCCC style of negotiation – but after some years of different processes, getting back to letting the crunch issues emerge from the text is a return to essentials.

There are many others issues, with some of the ‘small’ ones having significant implications. There was some movement on a levy on bunker fuels, a difficult subject over the past years. Developing countries started warming to the concept, subject to ‘no net incidence’and a rebate mechanism that gets funding back to developing countries (including for adaptation). One hopes this is not scuppered by uni-lateral action by the EU – even if it is born out of frustration – and retaliation by the developing countries. Climate policy by trade war will help no-one, least of all poor communities.

The participation of observer organizations was discussed quite extensively in Bonn. Talk is not enough, though, and the emerging signs of opening up meetings to observers should be the default. It will be hard for South Africa to claim to have organized a “People’s COP” if there is not full access to the negotiating process. There will be many NGOs who prefer to meet each other sn protest on the streets of Durban – and that too, must be an essential component of Durban.

In negotiating terms, if Durban is to deliver anything at all, the ‘proto-texts’ (facilitators’ notes and Chairs’ summaries) will have to become formal negotiating text at the next session. It was agreed that another session will be needed in September or October – but it remains unclear whether in Bangkok, Panama or back in Bonn.