5th June 2017
EP Desk

UN climate negotiations conclude in Bonn recently with delegates putting on a brave face despite the threat of an American exodus hanging over their global pact to stem global warming.

Envoys from nearly 200 country signatories to the Paris Agreement kept a close eye on Washington throughout their 10-day huddle for any signal about President Donald Trump's intentions.

On the campaign trail, Trump had threatened to "cancel" the hard-fought pact in which his predecessor, Barack Obama, played an instrumental role in dragging it over the finish line in 2015.

On the second day of the Bonn talks, the White House announced the postponement of a meeting to discuss America's future in the deal, compounding the uncertainty.

A historically small US delegation at the annual round of technical negotiations was thus also left in the dark.

"I personally have met with the head of the (US) delegation a couple of times and... he's just very open in repeating: 'Our position is under review'," UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa said.

But delegates insisted that work continued on outlining a nuts-and-bolts "rule book" for implementing the agreement's goals, despite the ever-present "Sword of Damocles", as one put it.

Observers pointed to the importance of coming meetings of the G7 and G20, strategic country groupings of which the US is a member, in putting pressure on Trump, who has described climate change as a "hoax" perpetrated by China.

The "rule book" the Bonn participants started work on is meant to guide countries in implementing the Paris Agreement's goals -- what type of information to include in their emissions-curbing updates, for example. The rules must be finalized by next year, leaving just over 18 months for what appears set to be a difficult negotiation.

The Climate Change Conference convened from 8-18 May 2017 in Bonn, Germany devoted much work to advancing efforts to operationalize the Paris Agreement through technical discussions under the three subsidiary bodies.

This work proceeded in incremental steps, leaving considerable work for the 23rd session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP in November 2017 when delegates are scheduled to come back to Bonn under Fiji’s Presidency.

The conference included the 46th sessions of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI 46), and the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA 46), and the third session of the first meeting of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA 1-3).

The conference brought together over 3900 participants, including over 2000 government officials, 1800 representatives from UN bodies and agencies, intergovernmental organizations and civil society organizations, and 70 members of the media.

The APA adopted conclusions outlining inter-sessional and pre-sessional work under each substantive agenda item.

The SBI adopted conclusions on: public registry/-ies referred to in Paris Agreement Articles 4.12 (Nationally determined contribution (NDC) registry) and 7.12 (adaptation communications); matters related to least developed countries (LDCs); national adaptation plans; scope and modalities for the periodic assessment of the Technology Mechanism in relation to supporting the Paris Agreement; review of the functions of the Standing Committee on Finance; third review of the Adaptation Fund; matters related to capacity building; arrangements for intergovernmental meetings; and various administrative and financial matters.

The SBSTA adopted conclusions on: the Nairobi work program; the Technology Framework under the Paris Agreement; agriculture; research and systemic observation; various methodological issues under the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol; matters relating to Article 6 (cooperative approaches) under the Paris Agreement; modalities for accounting of financial resources provided and mobilized through public interventions under Paris Agreement Article 9.7; and cooperation with other international organizations.

The SBI and SBSTA adopted joint conclusions on response measures and scope of the next periodic review of the long-term goal under the Convention and progress toward achieving it, which also contained a Conference of the Parties (COP) decision.

The minds of many were overshadowed by the uncertainty regarding US participation in the Paris Agreement going forward. However, the “elephant in the room” at the start of the meeting soon became a non-issue as the US administration delayed its decision, allowing negotiators to settle back into a “business as usual” mode of work.

The Bonn meeting was the first official UNFCCC session since the 22nd session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP 22) in Marrakech, Morocco, which had set 2018 as the deadline for the adoption of the Paris Agreement “rulebook”—the operating manual on how the Agreement will be implemented in the decades to come.

With this deadline looming, the technical work required to put flesh on the bones of the Paris Agreement took center stage in Bonn. The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA) stole most of the limelight, moving attention away from the “routine” work of the permanent subsidiary bodies. These two bodies also ended up devoting a substantial amount of time to efforts to build the post-2020 regime. 

Incremental Steps Towards Textual Elements

As discussions delved into the details of the Paris outcome, the underlying differences that had existed among parties in the lead up to Paris continued to resurface. While on most APA agenda items these differences hindered the shift to more textual negotiations, on other issues parties were able to set aside the political divergences and focus on technical aspects.

Stemming from the lingering question of differentiation between developed and developing countries, calls were heard for adopting a binary approach in the development of the modalities of the committee to facilitate implementation and promote compliance, and in guidance related to mitigation and transparency.

The divergence between those wishing to introduce a differentiated treatment within the Paris Agreement’s modalities and others arguing that the nationally-determined nature of the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) provides for sufficient differentiation hindered agreement on the “skeletons” of the decisions on the rulebook that are expected to be adopted in 2018. However, as one seasoned observer noted, delegates were not expected to “resolve things” in Bonn, and the rich discussions under all APA agenda items, captured in the Co-Facilitators’ informal notes, arguably had the merit of laying out the issues.

Parties were able to engage in technical discussions on a number of issues where there was agreement to carve out a “safe area” in which to focus on technical or legal aspects, while avoiding political pitfalls. The two discussions on a public registry—for NDCs and adaptation communications—had been polarized over whether to create one or two registries. In Bonn, parties managed to focus on technical aspects, such as registry user features and accessibility, even if the seemingly mundane and slow-paced deliberations made one observer question whether it was the best use of negotiators’ time.

Useful exchanges also took place in finance-related transparency discussions. While many developing countries felt that the support aspects of the transparency framework received inadequate attention under the APA, many others felt that the discussions on ex-ante and ex-post finance information (Paris Agreement Articles 9.5 and 9.7, respectively) convening under the SBSTA and a special in-session COP roundtable helped move the discussions forward.

Another area where progress was made in Bonn was agriculture. Here again, instead of polarized debates on whether to include mitigation in the discussion, the SBSTA focused on substantive agricultural activities, enabling parties to set the scope of future negotiations.

Incremental progress was also evident under the APA in clarifying the options on the so-called “orphan issues,” which have not yet been explicitly included on the agendas of the subsidiary bodies. For instance, the inputs provided by the UNFCCC Legal Affairs team on the legal requirements for the Adaptation Fund to serve the Paris Agreement, related arrangements and modalities, and transitional measures helped move the debate beyond whether or not the Fund “should” serve the Agreement, but also clarified that this issue may require more time than some developing countries had initially hoped for.

Steps that Get Us Closer by Ensuring Coherence

The 36-page Paris Agreement and accompanying decision constitute a very complex and carefully balanced outcome that includes a myriad of tasks and mandates for the subsidiary and constituted bodies under the Convention. Given the complex inter-linkages among the elements of the Paris outcome, parties were wary that delays on any one issue could risk bringing the whole process to a halt. This underlined the importance of coordination and sequencing. Another measure of progress achieved in Bonn is therefore whether parties were able to advance on elements of this “package” in a coherent manner to address linkages and to keep the political compromises made in Paris intact.

To ensure coordination among their respective agenda items, the Chairs and Co-Chairs of the subsidiary bodies made visible efforts, including by meeting ahead of the session, holding a joint informal plenary, encouraging the APA co-facilitators to meet and avoiding scheduling conflicts between meetings on related issues.

Parties also sought to address sequencing among the various agenda items in various ways, for example by postponing consideration of the scope of the review of the long-term global goal under the SBSTA until 2019 to allow for the modalities of the Global Stocktake and the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue to be completed under the APA. For similar sequencing reasons, SBI discussions on the review of the Clean Development Mechanism and of the capacity-building framework, and on national adaptation plans were deferred to November 2017 or even December 2018.

The need to advance in a coherent manner, in light of the complexity of the task, is uncontested. However, the calls by some parties in Bonn for balanced progress illustrated the resurfacing of another dividing line that existed in the lead up to Paris, namely the balance between action and support. During the session, various developing countries argued repeatedly that mitigation was allotted more “bandwidth” than other issues. These concerns culminated in the final days, which saw parties engage in protracted debates over which APA items to prioritize for the limited slots of roundtables to be held before COP 23, and in particular on the need for the roundtable on transparency to give equal treatment to transparency of action and of support.

Many recognized, however, that there are elements of the Paris rulebook that require more work because they are “newcomers” to the UNFCCC world. Two such issues are the Global Stocktake and some elements of cooperative approaches under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. Without the benefit of years of proceedings to draw from, delegates spent considerable time exchanging views, often far apart, on these two items. On Article 6, many felt frustrated by being unable to agree on how to capture the 36 hours of discussions, which included an in-session roundtable, let alone on the headings under which to structure further negotiations.

While many also lamented the lack of agreement on headings for the Global Stocktake, some pointed out that Bonn had kicked off positively the shaping of the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue, dubbed by some as an “initial stocktake.” Encouraged by the good spirit and openness of the consultations held in Bonn by the Moroccan COP 22 Presidency and the incoming Fijian COP 23 Presidency on this dialogue, one long-term observer expressed hope that it would help build confidence on a partnership beyond 2020.

Thousands of Steps by Growing Number of Actors

Success can also be measured by how the meeting contributed to future implementation of the Paris Agreement beyond the mechanics of the rulebook—a task that arguably entails strengthening pre-2020 action to close the ambition gap and broadening the range of actors engaged in climate action worldwide.

In Bonn, most of this effort was carried out through mandated events outside the formal negotiations. The first meeting of the Paris Committee on Capacity-building constituted a positive step in supporting pre-2020 action in developing countries. At this event, which many characterized as highly productive, the Committee elected its co-chairs, agreed to its rolling workplan for 2017-2019, and began defining its role within the UNFCCC architecture. Observers praised the Committee meeting for its openness and inclusiveness.

The Technical Expert Meetings (TEMs) on mitigation and adaptation, a cornerstone of the pre-2020 action element of the Paris outcome, were held over seven days of the session. In designing both meetings, attention was given to convening stakeholders from a variety of sectors and making the events more interactive. However, some still felt more work remains to better connect the TEMs both to the formal negotiating process, as well as to the broader Global Climate Action Agenda and the work of its High-level Champions.

Non-party stakeholder engagement is another crucial enabler of the implementation of the Paris outcome. The Bonn meeting made progress on this front in two ways. First, a well-received multi-stakeholder dialogue convened to initiate discussions on operationalization of the local communities and indigenous peoples’ platform, established in Paris. Second, discussions under the SBI explored concrete means of enhancing the engagement of non-party stakeholders, including at a dedicated in-session workshop. The issue of whether or not to “differentiate” between different stakeholder groups through a conflict of interest policy or participation criteria, first proposed by one developing country group at SBI 44, continued to spark controversy. While recognizing the concerns over stakeholders whose interests might be in conflict with the objectives of the Convention, the majority of parties agreed that one party’s textual proposals on “safeguarding” the “integrity” of these objectives would not be the right message for communicating openness and transparency. As pointed out by one delegate advocating for bringing everyone into the room, “those who are not part of the solution are part of the problem.” Many welcomed the SBI conclusions on this item, which mandate UNFCCC presiding officers, COP Presidencies and the Secretariat to undertake several tasks to enhance non-party stakeholder participation.

Keeping the Focus on Progress

Many felt that parties were able to progress—even if only incrementally—by beginning to map out options for the skeletons of the decisions that will need to be adopted at COP 24 in 2018. The meeting also provided some reassurance to parties that all the elements of the Paris work program are advancing in a coherent manner. While one party suggested that “moving meaningfully was more important than moving fast,” the slow pace disappointed those stressing the urgency of tackling climate change.

Leaving Bonn, many hoped that the numerous informal notes prepared by the Co-Chairs and Co-Facilitators, together with the calls for focused submissions on all APA items and the five pre-sessional and in-session APA roundtables, would enable parties to further shift to textual negotiations at COP 23. Some also suggested that being guided by the same APA Co-Chairs, whose mandate parties agreed to extend by another year, could provide the necessary continuity to make this “transition COP” a success.

Some, however, returned to what was on their minds coming into the meeting, namely the question of US participation in the Paris Agreement, concerned over the implications not only for COP 23, but for the future of the regime. Even so, one optimistic delegate suggested that momentum behind the Paris Agreement is already too strong to be stopped by any single country.