Climate Exchange

Connecting Knowledge and People

UNFCCC 40th meeting of the subsidary bodies – A stepping-stone to a COP21 agreement

By Rory Walshe and Janto S. Hess.

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The recent UNFCCC 40th meeting  of the Subsidiary Bodies in Bonn, Germany (4th-15th June) was a critical stage in the run up to COP 21 in Paris in 20 months time, where it is hoped a significant global agreement on climate change will be reached. 1,900 diplomats from 185 countries, plus hundreds of scientists, NGO’s, and journalists, attended.

The meeting ended on a positive note, with over 60 of the 185 counties in attendance pledging to phase out dependence on climate-polluting fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas, and instead aim to rely entirely on renewable energy sources by the middle of this century. To this end, there will be a draft treaty with the aim of curbing climate change sent to parties by mid-July.

The meeting also included two of what the official program called ‘high level ministerial sessions’ which discussed the implementation of the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, and political aspects of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. The same program claimed that Ministers would also consider the recently published reports by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This was in fact the first time that ministers had been especially invited to attend the June session, since it was agreed in Warsaw that their attendance would ramp up progress before the global deal came into play in 2020.

Somewhat disappointingly very few ministers actually attended the meeting in Bonn. For example, there were less than five in attendance from the EU. This lead to the ‘where are the ministers?’ campaign by a coalition of young civil society groups and the UK youth climate change coalition.

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As part of their Volveremos (Spanish for ‘we will return’) campaign and declaration (more here), this group also organized a ‘walk back in’ demonstration. This symbolized a return of the NGO and civil society collective to the process, after they walked out of Warsaw in protest against the stagnating negotiations. The declaration is a call to arms for society to reject inaction in the negotiation process and a demand for strong climate action internationally.

Ultimately, it is hard to see if the meeting has been a true success yet, since it is merely laying the ground work for the process in the coming years. A great deal of the meeting was occupied with debates on the definition and determination of ‘contributions’ of each nation’s climate action from within their own economies.

However, there were optimistic signs that the meeting was a success, with several countries discussing zero emission targets by mid-century for the first time. This was specifically cited by the delegations of the Marshall Islands, Colombia (for the Alliance of Latin America and the Caribbean), the Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Grenada, and France.

Many were also pleased to witness China pledge to submit its national contribution to limiting climate change by early next year, with the US following close behind (possibly in an attempt to save face after China’s commitment). This was a key step that many hope will create urgency and momentum, placing pressure on other countries to submit their own commitments.

Mr Seyni Nafo, a Malian delegate, highlighted that “we are getting to the point where all parties have a sense of trust that we can act together to combat climate change, but my biggest concern is about the cash”   (Reuters). Like many others, his concern refers to the uncertain financial situation and its impact on the target to reach the 100 billion US dollars in annual aid flow for developing states to tackle climate change, initially mentioned in 2009 by developed countries. Furthermore, the funding of loss and damage until 2020 is still up for debate.

In line with this, the role of the private sector in climate finance is still vaguely defined. The potential for the private sector to finance adaptation and mitigation, and use the markets innovative potential must be utilized. As Bryan Flannery, from the American non-profit organization, Resources for the Future, puts it: “While investments in adaptation certainly require public support, business has experience and a role to play in designing and implementing adaptation strategies.”

This meeting was also a very exciting milestone for the inclusion of traditional knowledge and practices in climate change adaptation. An expert meeting was held before SB40, which produced a technical report. This detailed the available tools for the use of indigenous and traditional knowledge and practices for adaptation, needs of local and indigenous communities and the application of gender-sensitive approaches and tools for adaptation (more here).

As first time attendees, the UNFCCC process was overwhelming. Firstly – and perhaps most obviously – an absolutely huge amount is said, and most of this is over relatively small details like the phrasing and wording of policy text. Thus, the overall impression left is one of going nowhere fast. It becomes glaringly clear very quickly that it is almost impossible for a single individual to keep track of any narrative or progressive development. The vast complexity of topics covered in the negotiations and the level of detail in the discussions reveal the reason of the pace of negotiations.

Particularly the main plenaries seem to consist of a chronology of statements repeating countries’ positions that every participant is knowledgeable about anyway. Several observers, some coming from the private sector, said that ‘the conference procedures are the most inefficient mechanism they have ever seen’.

It is hard to judge the efficacy as a first time participant. Having experience in Model United Nations Meetings we can understand the necessity of certain procedures that enable every party involved to have their say, in order to reach a consensus and widely supported agreement. However, considering the pace of effective policy and financial instruments being enacted, there must be more efficient methods for negotiations. The agenda points should probably be reduced and technical questions should be discussed separately.

In fact, as independent observers, the most insight was actually gained from the side events, which were not dissimilar to the sessions from an academic conference and offered a great opportunity for networking. We want to highlight one initiative that was represented in one such side event. The ‘Act 2015’ project by the World Resource Institute. This is lead by a consortium of the world’s top climate experts from developing and developed countries, who have developed three different proposals for a 2015 agreement. None of these proposals were ideal or totally in line with any countries ‘wish list’. However, the common elements of all proposals were that countries should put forward: (i) ‘national contributions’; (ii) a legally binding agreement; (iii) minimum transparency and accountability requirements; (iv) the inclusion of mitigation and adaptation plans. They are flying around the world to talk face to face with major decision makers to discuss their results. The goal is not to present a perfect solution, but rather collect opinions and foster the thought process towards a feasible agreement in Paris.

Apart from these insightful sessions, there are also perks to attending such meetings – such as pretending to be high-roller UN delegates and getting to test drive the new $100,000 Tesla Model S, next to a very nervous salesman.

Christiana Figueres, head of the UNFCCC, and Barbara Hendricks, German Federal Minister for the Environment, even posed for a photo:

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One thing we both remarked upon from where we were sitting, in a heavily air conditioned 5-star hotel, was the surreal nature of these conferences, which are so far removed from the problems they are engaging with.

Overall, there really was a palpable atmosphere of urgency, perhaps spurred on by the most recent IPCC reports and the realization that efforts must really be stepped up to promote low-emission development solutions and help the poorest and most vulnerable increase their resilience to climate change impacts. Whether this translates into meaningful actions is yet to be seen, but now is the time to get involved and make your voices heard for climate action.

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About Rory Walshe

Rory is fascinated by disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation in developing countries, with considerable experience researching the role of Indigenous knowledge and resilience, including in Small Island Developing States of the South Pacific and Peru. Rory has a BSc Hons in Disaster Management, an MSc in Climate Change and International Development and is currently a PhD Student on a Natural Environment Research Council studentship at King's College London.

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