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22nd of November 2017

Science



What’s at Stake in the Bonn Climate Talks?

By BRAD PLUMERNovember 10, 2017

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The Paris climate agreement of 2015 was a key moment in the battle against climate change: 195 countries vowed to help limit the rise in global temperatures since the industrial revolution to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

But the Paris deal was just the start of a long, arduous process. The world’s nations are still struggling to translate their lofty promises into meaningful cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Which explains why diplomats are now meeting for yet another round of climate talks in Bonn, Germany, which began on Nov. 6 and continue through Friday.

Much of the attention at these talks will be on the Trump administration, which has vowed to withdraw the United States from the Paris deal by 2020. In response, a gaggle of world leaders, American governors, major corporations and advocacy groups will make a big show of insisting that global action on climate change is still trundling forward, with or without President Trump.

Yet much of the crucial work at Bonn will happen behind closed doors as diplomats try to build on the initial Paris agreement, crafting new rules and guidelines that, they hope, will help turn hazy national promises into concrete action. Here’s what to watch for.

What is being done at Bonn?

The overarching task is the same as ever: figuring out how to limit severe global warming in the decades ahead.

Under the Paris agreement, each country submitted a voluntary pledge to tackle its greenhouse gas emissions and then agreed to meet every five years to review their collective progress and prod one another to ratchet up their efforts.

But so far, those pledges have proved inadequate. Most industrialized countries — from Europe to Japan to the United States — aren’t on track to meet their emissions goals. And even if they were, the current pledges put the world on course to heat up 3 degrees Celsius or more, an outcome with a far greater risk of destabilizing ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, drastic sea-level rise and more destructive heat waves and droughts. To stay well below 2 degrees, countries would need to cut back fossil-fuel emissions far more rapidly than they’ve promised so far.

In 2018, leaders plan to assess their efforts to date and discuss what further action could help lessen the odds of drastic global warming — with the goal of crafting newer, stronger national pledges by 2020. But before they can do any of that, they need to agree to formal ground rules for that exercise. That “rule book” will be a focus at Bonn.

How do countries plan to make progress on climate change?

One widely recognized problem with the current Paris pledges is that they’re fairly vague.

China promised that its emissions would peak around 2030, but the country’s energy data is notoriously murky, so it’s hard to tell how much progress it’s actually making. Similarly, the European Union vowed to cut emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, but offered few specifics on how to achieve that goal — making it hard to gauge whether European policymakers could realistically be doing much more.

At Bonn, negotiators will be discussing how to make these pledges more rigorous and transparent, so that countries can more readily be held accountable for their actions. That means tackling questions like: What’s the best way to track nations’ progress, to see if they’re doing what they said they would do? Is there a way to tell if a country’s pledge could be made more ambitious? Which specific policies are working well and which aren’t?

Because the Paris pledges are largely voluntary — world leaders would have never agreed to a deal otherwise — no one can force governments to take additional action. But, the idea goes, if pledges and policies are made more transparent, world leaders will be better able to pressure and help each other to do more.

The final draft of this “rule book” is not due until next year, and it may not actually get finished at Bonn, but negotiators are hoping to make significant progress on a long list of items at these talks. As always, diplomacy tends to proceed fitfully.

What role will the U.S. play?

Even though the Trump administration has vowed to withdraw from the Paris agreement, the United States can’t formally exit the climate talks until 2020. So the State Department is sending a small team of negotiators to discuss some of the details of the pact.

The United States and China will still preside over a working group on transparency, though it remains to be seen how much influence American officials can wield.

The administration will also hold an event in Bonn with representatives from energy companies to promote coal, natural gas and nuclear power as solutions to global warming. Other countries are expected to view the American push to promote fossil fuels with a wary eye.

In the meantime, a coalition of pro-Paris governors and other officials plan to attend the conference to tout efforts that states, cities and businesses are making to reduce emissions despite the Trump administration’s stance — highlighting the country’s deep divide over climate policy.

Any disagreements expected?

Discussions around the “rule book” for assessing and ratcheting up pledges could prove contentious. In the past, for instance, the United States has insisted that developing countries be held to the same strict monitoring standards as wealthy countries, while China and India have pushed for a bifurcated system.

Developing countries have also argued that they need financial aid from wealthier nations to expand clean energy and adapt to the ravages of climate change.

The government of Fiji is presiding over the Bonn conference, which will put the spotlight on issues like “loss and damage” — that is, whether wealthy nations should compensate island nations and other poorer countries for the droughts, storms and rising sea levels that their emissions are causing. The Paris agreement broached this issue only briefly, and industrialized nations have resisted calls to be held legally liable for their role in warming the planet.

What’s the best-case scenario from Bonn? What’s the worst?

Some climate advocates are hoping for a relatively low-key conference that makes modest progress on issues like transparency and climate finance. In this scenario, American officials would play a quietly constructive role in helping craft the rule book for ratcheting up pledges. And nonstate actors, including cities and businesses, would continue to press forward on efforts to tackle climate change outside of the formal United Nations process.

Conversely, it’s entirely possible that the Trump administration’s rejection of the Paris deal could lead other countries to disengage from global efforts to address climate change. Or the talks could get bogged down by the traditional rifts between richer and poorer nations. That, in turn, could stall momentum right before the next big round of climate talks in 2018 — when countries are supposed to get down to the details of what’s needed to step up their climate policies going forward.

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