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OPINON: Climate talks in Bonn – search for consensus

Dan Hamza-Goodacre, CDKN’s Head of Negotiations Support, offers his interpretation of the outcomes of the UNFCCC negotiations at Bonn and discusses what it will take to get a positive outcome at Doha. 

The latest round of international climate talks, which took place in Bonn from the 14th to the 25th of May, made only modest progress and were beset with difficulties. In Durban last December all parties agreed to “a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” to come into effect from 2020 onwards. But at Bonn, where work on this process was supposed to start, it was delayed instead until the last day of the talks, after two weeks of wrangling. With so much at stake it is hard not to see the latest round of talks as one step forward and two steps back. So what actually happened in Bonn and what will it take to unblock the impasse and make the kind of progress needed if we are to avoid dangerous climate change?

One step forward

The Bonn talks covered a wide range of issues including loss and damage, REDD+, national adaptation plans, reporting, agriculture, capacity building and technology. Covering these issues is a real challenge for negotiators, especially those from developing countries, which often only have small delegations not able to attend the parallel negotiating tracks. Climate change talks have become the largest and most complex negotiations in the world; a sobering fact, which critics of the process should bear in mind before dismissing the slow pace of progress. Because, despite the complexities, a raft of agreements were reached in Bonn, including on forest monitoring, reporting and verifying (MRV) of the results of programmes aimed to slow and end deforestation and on how to assess loss and damage (including recognising slow onset events), the agenda for forthcoming loss and damage workshops and the need for additional loss and damage negotiating time ahead of the next round of talks in Doha. Progress was also made on the short-listing of hosts for a new Climate Technology Centre, nominations to the board of the Green Climate Fund, and the text regarding the funding and implementation of adaptation plans.

Two steps back 

Work on the new global deal agreed in Durban was supposed to have begun in the first half of this year but a stalemate over the agenda and the appointment of the chair thwarted progress at Bonn, with some nations accusing others of backtracking on what was agreed last December. On the final day a complex compromise was reached for the co-chairs of the new Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, which will see different countries share the positions over the years ahead. The agenda for the Durban Platform was also finalised on the last day but there was no time to start work on the agenda items themselves, the most important of which is the issue of ambition with regards emissions reductions targets (this had been a major stumbling block over the two weeks of talks).

Other issues where agreement was out of reach included identifying sources of long-term finance to help developing countries adapt to climate change, establishing the length of a second phase of the legally binding Kyoto Protocol (parties argued over whether this should be 5 or 8 years) and what countries’ emissions reduction ambitions will be under the new phase.

Negotiating stalemate 

Wrangling over which working group takes the lead on which issues or who chairs the working groups is a distraction from the real issues that need to be discussed. What matters is limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees (or less) and providing help to those countries which are most vulnerable to the inevitable impacts of climate change. Reducing negotiations about the future of the planet to negotiations about chairing a meeting has all the hallmarks of ‘bad faith’ negotiating tactics (on behalf of some parties), in which there is no honest intention to reach compromise on the real issues, or at least not any time soon. The result is stalemate.

Building consensus for action 

The problem is that the act of ‘negotiation’ can, and in the context of the UNFCCC, often does, mean something different to different parties. Negotiation can refer to reaching an understanding, resolving a point of difference, gaining advantage or finding agreement. In the UNFCCC talks, negotiation should be about consensus building (finding agreement), which is the modus operandi for the UN system in general. However despite the best efforts of the UNFCCC Secretariat and many of the delegates, the negotiations often appear to be dominated by one or more parties trying to gain advantage.

So how can this impasse be overcome? In the margins of the Bonn talks, CDKN co-hosted an event entitled ‘Supporting Climate Negotiators’. The event brought together over 50 negotiators, advisors, trainers, academics, the UNFCCC and other climate change stakeholders to discuss what makes a good negotiator, to learn lessons from past work supporting negotiators and to identify future priorities and opportunities. Numerous tips were offered to help negotiators do their day job, including: the importance of planning ahead of the talks and coordinating whilst at them; the need to tackle the ‘information and misinformation problem’ (no single person knows everything that is going on in the UNFCCC talks and no one should try to find out!); ensuring continuity of knowledge; and building capacity in terms of climate change knowledge and conference protocol. But the most interesting and arguably important part of the discussion was about the need for negotiators to be good at reaching ‘acceptable compromises’. They need to be able listen, to empathise and to build trust.

Success at Doha later this year will be made much more likely if the talks are underpinned by trust. For this to happen parties must show consistency in their positions (no backtracking on Durban), work collaboratively on an agreement in the build-up to Doha (including at other international fora such as Rio+20 and the G77 and G8 meetings), and they must walk the talk (with regards the financing of low carbon development and progress in reducing emissions now). Negotiators can build consensus but the enabling conditions need to be right. This includes the ability to enter into discussions with the full backing of their political leaders for an ambitious agreement on tackling climate change. With such backing the talks will progress on the real issues, not the distractions.

Image: Opening SBI session, courtesy of UN Climate Change  

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