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Momentum – but uncertainty – in final pre-Paris climate talks

Delegations from nearly 200 countries will meet in Bonn, Germany this week to finalize a draft agreement before the UN Paris climate talks in December. 

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    France's President Francois Hollande walks on the Solheimajokull glacier, where the ice has retreated by more than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles), during a State visit in Iceland, Friday, Oct. 16, 2015. Francois Hollande is in Iceland to experience firsthand the damage caused by global warming, ahead of major U.N. talks on climate change in Paris this year.
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There’s one last stop on the road to this year’s much-hyped global climate talks.

Delegations from nearly 200 countries meet in Bonn, Germany this week to begin the arduous process of finalizing a draft agreement, dissecting line by line each aspect of a potential accord to reduce carbon emissions worldwide. The Bonn talks will be the final formal meeting among negotiators  before the UN Paris climate talks in December, which aim to determine global climate policy after the current Kyoto Protocol winds down in 2020.  

Headed into this week’s talks, officials and analysts say they are optimistic about a successful outcome both in Bonn and Paris. They point to bold climate pledges from major emitters across the longstanding divide between developed and developing economies. They praise the private sector’s increased commitments to decarbonizing their energy use. They cite the plummeting costs of renewable energy technology as motivation for countries to wean themselves off carbon-heavy fuels.  

But when it comes to nailing down the nitty gritty of who exactly does what – and how they will be held accountable for their pledges – negotiators face some of the same obstacles that have long dogged international climate efforts.   

“There is a deep desire by all the countries to have an agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions,” says Scott Barrett, professor of natural resource economics at Columbia University. “But it is not clear that the pledges being made will meet the goal, or how the pledges will be met at all.”

The United Nations gave the world a glimpse of what the Paris agreement would look like when it published the most recent draft version of the accord, a document that was slimmed down from its original 90 pages to just 20, earlier this month.

But aside from a pledge to ensure that global warming doesn’t reach 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels – which scientists say could cause highly dangerous changes to the Earth’s climate –, the document contains almost no specific details. In its current form the agreement still leaves numerous points left to be negotiated, and exactly how each country will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and thus curb global warming, has yet to be determined.

“Parties aim to reach by [X date] [a peaking of global greenhouse gas emissions][zero net greenhouse gas emissions][a [n] X per cent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions][global low-carbon transformation][global low-emission transformation][carbon neutrality][climate neutrality],” the current drafts reads, employing brackets to signify undecided components.

Despite the many details that still need to be hammered out, officials close to the negotiations say the reduced version of the text is a sign that the countries involved are coming closer to consensus.

“The new draft text provides a much more coherent and concise approach,” says David Waskow, director of the Global Climate Initiative at the World Resource Institute. “There are a number of elements that could be improved on, and Bonn will be about making clear what additional options are needed in the negotiating text.”

Insiders stress that the negotiations in Bonn will probably get “messier” and more complicated as new points are added to the document in the run up to Paris.

A main point of contention is how much, or whether, to differentiate between the obligations of developed and developing nations. While developing countries like India have expressed their willingness to reduce carbon emissions, they also argue that they have the right to develop the same way western countries did during the industrial revolution. Many developing nations fear they will stunt their economic growth by cutting down on fossil fuel consumption.

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India, for example, has pledged to reduce its emissions relative to gross domestic product by 33-35 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. Nevertheless, India is expected to increase its overall carbon emissions as its economy continues to expand.

To balance environmental concerns with demands for economic growth and energy consumption, some developing nations are pushing for monetary assistance from developed countries in order to help meet their environmental commitments.

Negotiators say the issue of finance will remain contentious in the lead up to Paris, and that the countries involved have yet to determine what role contributing nations will play. Delegates in Bonn will discuss which countries will offer monetary assistance and which will be recipients.

Meanwhile, a handful of countries has yet to make any climate pledges at all. On Tuesday, the UN Secretary General’s advisor announced that his office would begin calling all of the countries that have yet to submit their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), the official name of the commitment countries are making to reduce their level of emissions. Currently, there are around 40 nations that have yet to make a formal commitment, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Egypt, among others.

In order to address these issues, some experts say the INDCs should be standardized and that greater enforcement mechanisms, such as international sanctions, should be put in place for those who do not meet their commitments.

“Simply saying a document is binding is meaningless. Countries need incentives to change their behavior,” says Dr. Barrett. “Right now countries write [INDCs] to make themselves look good.”

Using the threat of sanctions to ensure countries meet their commitments, however, is largely off the table, since most negotiators agree that countries would be hesitant to sign off on an agreement that includes punitive measures.

Although around 150 governments responsible for up to 90 percent of global emissions have submitted their INDCs, many scientists say that the current commitments are insufficient to limit global warming to 2 degrees C.

While much of the focus is on what happens before and during this year’s climate talks, experts emphasize that what happens afterwards is what matters most. It helps explain why the  draft accord stipulates that nations should reevaluate their greenhouse gas limits every 5 years, a provision that environmentalists pushed for during a negotiating session in Bonn in early September. Still, many say that instating monetary incentives, such as a global carbon tax or bottom price for carbon emissions, is the only effective way to ensure that countries reduce their emissions enough to avoid irreversible damage to the environment. Experts believe a global price on carbon is politically and economically unlikely, but individual nations have already implemented and may continue to implement such systems to meet their climate goals.

Despite the uncertainties, officials say that progress is being made behind the scenes as trust develops between the delegations and differing positions begin to solidify.

“Momentum is clearly building,” says Todd Stern, US special envoy for climate change, in an email to the Monitor. “We still have a lot of ground to cover between now and a successful Paris agreement. The Bonn session this week is an opportunity for further discussions on the substance and structure of a global agreement.”

Negotiators concede that more clarity is needed on what the targets really mean for global warming. Still, many say they are optimistic that the talks in Bonn will prepare them for a strong outcome in Paris.

In the lead up to Paris, there is widespread consensus that something needs to be done to curb global warming. Not only are hundreds of countries committing to reduce emissions, but the world’s biggest economies and largest emitters have shown support in ways they never have before.

Last fall, the US pledged to cut carbon emissions by up to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. China, meanwhile, pledged to reach peak emissions by 2030.

“There is quite a bit of momentum going into Bonn,” agrees Mr. Waskow. “Now we need to have an agreement that continues that momentum in a very clear way.”

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