The Bonn climate talks: Here’s what you need to know

Fiji

Savusavu marina and Nawi islet, Vanua Levu island, Fiji. The Government of Fiji is presiding over COP23 in Bonn with the support of the government of Germany. (© Donyanedomam/istockphoto)

This year’s UN climate change conference, the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23), starts Monday in Bonn, Germany.

You may be forgiven if you hadn’t heard about it.

Two years after the 2015 climate talks culminated in the Paris Agreement, the 2017 talks have seen far less pre-conference hype, but they are no less important, observers say.

In this interview, Conservation International climate experts Maggie Comstock and Shyla Raghav break down what is being talked about in Bonn and why you should care.

Q: So — what is happening at this COP?

Maggie Comstock (MC): Last November in Marrakech, countries said, essentially, ‘We weren’t expecting the Paris Agreement to enter into force so early, and we actually haven’t finished coming up with all the rules and guidelines that were outlined in the agreement.’

So they gave themselves an early deadline of two years to define those implementation guidelines, to be finalized by December 2018. This COP is the halfway point, and while we’re not expecting any huge decisions, it is really important that we make significant progress at this meeting to have those full guidelines by next December.

Q: Guidelines for what, exactly?

MC: Guidelines for how to implement the whole agreement. For example, how are countries going to meet their “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) — in other words, the emissions reductions that each country has agreed on to contribute to the Paris Agreement goals?

There are questions of timing, of reporting, of how individual sectors can contribute, how market mechanisms fit in — everything about how the agreement will actually be operationalized is what countries have to decide.

Q: What kind of outcomes can we expect from these talks?

MC: We are hoping for a draft text that shows areas of agreement on some of these issues, options for when countries might disagree, and a road map for what we’re going to accomplish in 2018.

Shyla Raghav: The Paris Agreement was flexible by design — it left the specific actions up to each country to define on a voluntary basis. So the rules and guidelines governing the agreement are crucial — they ensure that not only are countries held to a certain standard but that there’s also a mechanism that ensures that the ambition and the level of commitment can increase over time. This will be what ensures that the Paris Agreement is effective.

If we just take the commitments that each country has submitted so far, our planet would warm far more than 2 degrees Celsius, the limit beyond which impacts of climate change become very severe. So what we have right now is a floor, not a ceiling — the commitments need to be strengthened over time.

This is the biggest and most important annual gathering for anyone working on climate change, so in addition to the negotiations themselves, it also offers really important opportunities to take stock of recent progress on climate change, to stay up with trends, and to make sure that our discussions and solution set is up to date and responsive to what is needed.

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Q: These are the first talks since the United States said it would pull out of the Paris Agreement. How is that affecting things?

SR: The U.S. is a party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change [the intergovernmental body that runs the talks] and has historically played an important role in propelling discussions at the COP. So the changed position of the United States might either create opportunities for other countries to step up in leadership, or might insert a level of uncertainty over the financing issues, because the U.S. is one of the main contributors to the funds that will help developing countries meet their targets. We don’t know. Some of the discussions might be difficult given that uncertainty.

Q: Even though the COP is being held in Bonn, it is being ‘hosted’ by Fiji. What’s up with that?

MC: COP hosting duties rotate among regions. Fiji stepped up to lead this year’s COP, but due to costs and capacity, it will be held in Germany. But it’s not a ceremonial position. As hosts it’s their responsibility to have outcomes at the COP, so they do play a big role. And it’s the first Pacific island to ever host a COP, so it’s also an important moment to highlight the unique vulnerability of small islands to climate change, as well as their innovative approaches to adapt to it.

Q: What is CI’s role in the talks?

MC: CI will participate in the COP, as we have for many years. Our main goal is to highlight the role that nature can contribute to the goals of the Paris Agreement. We’re looking at the development of these implementation guidelines, as I mentioned, to see how nature can help support each of these goals — how nature can contribute to NDCs, national climate adaptation plans, supporting markets, etc.

CI will engage with country government partners, field offices and non-profit partners on the ground to advance our policy priorities but also to advance the role of oceans and climate change, building on the outcomes from the UN Ocean Conference earlier this year.

SR: From my perspective, the biggest contribution that nature can have is that when anyone who is thinking about solving climate change doesn’t only think about energy, fossil fuels and hurricanes. It’s that nature becomes synonymous with action on climate change. One of the main things we’re trying to do is to ensure that nature-based climate solutions are widely accepted and understood, and that that awareness will translate to action, resources and implementation.

So I would also like to see nature get its due, that it has a platform, that it is embedded into policy in a way that enables their implementation, but more important that the discourses around climate change include the role of nature.

Forests and land use tend to be marginalized as a conservation issue and not as something that’s fundamental to solving climate change. While the role of nature is recognized in the Paris Agreement itself, which mentioned forests specifically, we aren’t seeing the large-scale transformative shifts that are needed to fundamentally correct the discrepancy between the potential role of nature as a climate solution and the minimal funding it receives to help solve it.

The COP is an important time and place to advance these necessary shifts.

Maggie Comstock is CI’s director of climate policy. Shyla Raghav is CI’s climate change lead. Bruno Vander Velde is CI’s editorial director. 

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