The latest round of climate negotiations wound down last Friday in Bonn, Germany with most delegates from the nearly two hundred countries represented expressing guarded optimism that progress has been made toward laying the groundwork for an international agreement to be signed in 2015 at the COP 21 climate conference in Paris.
In learning lessons from the past, especially with the disappointing outcome of the COP15 conference in 2009, negotiators are coalescing around the idea of creating a more "fluid" pact, freeing countries from the need of endless rounds of negotiations as they respond to new scientific understanding and technological breakthroughs in their efforts to cut carbon emissions.
"The agreement of 2015 cannot be cast in stone, and it cannot be frozen in time," said Christiana Figueres, the current Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). "It needs to accompany the efforts of countries over time, and it needs to be able to bring on board consistently and constantly the emerging science on the one hand and the growing capabilities of stakeholders on the other."
On the road to Paris
Countries have agreed that Paris in 2015 is the time and place to finally sign an international treaty requiring all nations to begin reducing carbon emissions by 2020, supplanting the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997 at the COP3 climate conference, that targeted only industrialized nations for mandatory cuts.
This time around, most countries want a more flexible approach that "is not burdened by U.N. bureaucracy," says Artur Runge-Metzger, lead negotiator for the European Commission. "If there's news from science that tells you have to do more, you should be able to react quickly instead of having long negotiations about the next negotiating round," he said.
Bridging the climate divide
Despite the overall feeling of progress coming out of Bonn, most of the same divisive issues remain. Some of the more vulnerable countries, including the Alliance of Small Island Nations (AOSIS), call for wealthy industrialized nations to begin cutting their emissions before 2020.
The divide between the developed and developing world will not be easily bridged as poorer counties look to the developed world to take the lead for emissions reductions, pointing to their historical responsibility for the lion's share of greenhouse gas emissions as wealthy nations seek developing countries to share in that responsibility as those economies rapidly develop - especially China and India.
While more countries are adopting their own climate legislation to begin dealing with emissions reductions, delegates from the Philippines and other developing nations accused the United Sates, in its dearth of national climate legislation, of doing little to meet its obligation (even though carbon emissions are declining in the US), leaving the poorer countries to shoulder an unfair portion of the burden.
"Instead of spearheading efforts to move the world away from climate disaster, developed countries have refused to take responsibility and jumped from one excuse to another," said Gary Theseira of Malaysia, underscoring the continuing challenge between rich and poor nations.
"If it's apparent that developed countries are not meeting their obligations to increase their ambition, then there won't be appetite amongst their developing country partners for a 2015 agreement with an updated interpretation of equity," Climate Action International said in a statement.
Despite the rhetoric, there are signs of cooperation between China and the US, the two heavyweights in any climate action, as seen by recent high-level meetings discussing possible shared action on climate.
A journey of a thousand miles...
What is clear is that the session in Bonn is only the beginning of a long, hard road to an effective international agreement on climate change. But any journey, no matter how long or arduous, alwys begins with a first step.
As Ireland's David Walsh put it at the conclusion of the Bonn meeting:
"It was a positive start to the year, but I suppose we must remember that it's just a start."
Image credit: adopt a negotiator, courtesy flickr
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