Nov 29, 2017

What Happened (and Didn’t) at the Bonn Climate Talks

After wrangling through the night, the 23rd conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change wrapped up early Saturday with modest accomplishments, paving the way to complete by next year the rules that will set the Paris agreement in motion.

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, left, with Timothy Naulusala, 12, and Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, both of Fiji.CreditRonald Wittek/European Pressphoto Agency

Delegates wrapping up before dawn congratulated themselves on another year of saving the process, if not the planet, and called on countries to be more ambitious in tackling emissions.

“Climate change is a global challenge. The Paris agreement has sped up the historic global momentum for dealing with climate change, and that momentum is not reversible,” said China’s lead negotiator, Xie Zhenhua.

The conference resolved a handful of issues dear to vulnerable nations, but the most thorny decisions were kicked to 2018. Here’s a look at what got resolved in Bonn, and what to look for in the year ahead.

Big issues still not resolved

No major decisions were expected from this 23rd Conference of the Parties, known as COP23. The goal for this meeting had always been that countries would begin drafting rules and processes for translating the ambitious goals of the Paris agreement into action.

Under the 2015 Paris agreement, nearly 200 nations submitted individual pledges to curb their greenhouse-gas emissions and wealthy countries promised to deliver aid — amounting to at least $100 billion per year by 2020 — to help poor countries develop clean energy and build resilience to disasters.

Negotiators said they had made some progress expanding the fine print of that agreement, particularly in refining rules that will help verify whether countries are actually reducing emissions as promised. But countries still have to finalize a rule book that will govern a much larger climate discussion in 2018, when countries will formally gauge how much progress they have made in reducing emissions to date. That rule book will have to be completed by next year’s climate conference in Katowice, Poland.

The United States is playing nice. Mostly.

After President Trump announced in June that America would withdraw from the Paris agreement by 2020, many feared his administration would play a spoiler role in this year’s climate talks. That didn’t happen.

White House officials in Bonn did draw the ire of climate advocates when they staged a forum promoting fossil fuels and nuclear power. But, behind the scenes, a team of career State Department negotiators showed up to work with other countries on the details of international policy.

American business executives and government officials at a presentation in Bonn promoting fossil fuels and nuclear power. Credit Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

Those negotiators pushed hard for China, India and other developing countries to be as transparent as possible in verifying their emissions reductions. But they also beat back proposals from poor countries that insisted that rich nations should offer a fuller accounting of the climate aid they are providing. That move angered a number of developing countries, particularly since Mr. Trump has said the United States will no longer contribute to the Green Climate Fund for global warming assistance.

Island leaders were disappointed

Fiji was the official host of this year’s talks and organizers did their best to transform the conference hall in this German city into something resembling a tropical Pacific island. But the leaders of islands and other vulnerable countries said they were disappointed that wealthy nations had opposed sweeping steps to compensate countries already threatened by climate change.

Negotiators did create a technical expert group to discuss the issue, known as “loss and damage,” which island leaders said they welcomed. Other island leaders said they were pleased that more programs to promote insurance coverage on islands were cropping up. But those on the front lines of disasters said they were getting tired of delays on what they need most: money.

“This means life or death for us,” said Tommy Remengesau, the president of Palau, an archipelago in the Pacific. Helping islands and others hit by weather extremes, he said, “is a moral question, and it requires a moral answer.”

Coal cast a shadow over the talks

The world is still wrestling with its reliance on the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. On Monday, midway through the talks, scientists reported that global carbon dioxide emissions would most likely rise in 2017 after a three-year plateau, in part because of a rebound in Chinese coal consumption.

And not just in China: An hour’s drive from the conference, Germany is expanding mining operations for lignite coal.

Still, there are signs that the global coal boom is coming to an end. The International Energy Agency issued a report declaring that coal’s “boom years” are over, as more and more countries start shifting to cleaner sources of electricity, including natural gas, wind, and solar. On Thursday, 19 countries vowed to phase out their coal use by 2030, though it was largely a symbolic gesture because those countries were already getting rid of coal.

The world is still far from its climate goals

Under the Paris agreement, nations vowed to limit the rise in global temperatures since the industrial revolution to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

Everyone at the Bonn talks conceded that nations were still way off course from that goal. Current pledges for constraining greenhouse gases put the world on pace for 3 degrees Celsius of warming or more, a drastic change that would reshape coastlines, put many populated islands underwater and usher in a new era of deadly heat waves, floods and droughts.

Graphic: Here’s How Far the World Is From Meeting Its Climate Goals

Despite this, very few countries announced new initiatives to speed up emissions cuts. Some had hoped that China would announce a major cap-and-trade program for its emissions, but that was delayed. Environmentalists pressed Chancellor Angela Merkel to set a timetable for phasing out Germany’s coal use, but she simply announced that she was holding “tough discussions” as she sought to form a new government.

Instead, most countries will wait until the next few years before discussing how to ratchet up their efforts. The wheels of diplomacy turn slowly.

By and for The New York Times, 18 November 2017