3 things that surprised me at the Bonn Intersessional last week.

The complexity

Sure, I knew climate change was complex, but attending this ADP session felt like walking into the sticky, intricate web of the human side of climate change. 195 delegations, each with a mandate to pursue the self-interest of their countries as perceived by their current governments. Since climate change touches on almost every important issue of this century, from IP law to human rights, biodiversity to sustainable development, each delegation has a unique position. Add to this the numerous nested and overlapping negotiating blocs, with their own internal dynamics, a lack of formal hierarchy in the international system and consensus decision-making, the resulting dynamic is very, very complex. I have a new appreciation for why this process is so slow moving.

The goal

Before attending Bonn, I saw the intersessionals as (ideally) moving parties gradually towards an agreement that will be reached in Paris. That’s true, in a sense, but the Paris COP (actually, the last week of it) and this intersessional  have qualitatively different goals. The last week of the COP will see country’s high-level representatives (usually ministers of foreign affairs or the environment) arrive and negotiate. The upside is that such representatives have a mandate to make trade-offs in areas outside of climate change. The downside is that these ministers typically have a weaker grasp of the issues than the seasoned climate negotiators who grind through the text based negotiations like in Bonn year-in, year-out.

So the aim until the second week of Paris need not be to reach agreement on matters of substance or even necessarily come close, but to “crystallise” the options on the table. Success at Bonn would be moving towards a negotiating text with a small number of understandable different options and square brackets (which illustrate language not yet agreed upon). But, unlike the second phase in Paris, having quite contrasting positions in the text is not a problem. Having a negotiating text a non-expert can’t easily read and understand is a problem.

Exhibit A, from the text produced at Bonn

1. Collective long-term goal

Option 1: [Parties aim [to achieve the global temperature goal], in accordance with the best available science [and the principles of the Convention], through [long-term global [low-[carbon][emission] transformation] [[climate][carbon] neutrality]], [and peaking their [net] emissions] [by 2030][20XX][as soon as possible], [with a [x]40-[y]70% net emission reduction below 2010 levels by 2050][according to the global carbon budget distribution based on climate justice], and [overall reductions][[net] zero emissions] [over the course of the century][by 2050][by 2100]]

The Co-chairs’ role

At Bonn, two tasks of this rather mysterious role were highlighted. First, because of the varied, rather chaotic nature of parties’ proposals for the shared text,  parties themselves at some points can ask the co-chairs to take some steps towards compounding and massaging a text to a more manageable shape than a spiky ball of brackets and options. Parties did just this at the end of the previous intersessional in September.

Second, the “mode of work” that parties take at the meeting is rather fluid, partly because of the lack of a hierarchical leadership structure in the UNFCCC process. This means that how parties work together formally is itself a matter up for debate. The co-chairs try to get a sense of parties’ needs regarding whether a portion of text should be worked on in a large “open-ended contact group” or a smaller “spin off groups”, as well as whether civil society observers (i.e us) should be allowed to be present or not.  And as the talks progress, the co-chairs propose amendments to the timetable. On all these matters they simply present suggestions. Of course parties can reject the suggestions, but the co-chairs’ suggestions holds a kind of status, since those that object can end up seen as disrupting a consensus.

So co-chairs will inevitably ruffle some feathers. A good chair, apparently, ruffles all feathers equally. It appeared that that the very slimmed down text the co-chairs proposed before Bonn may have ruffled more developing country feathers than developed country feathers.

On uncertainty

Whoops, I wasn’t going to try to analyse the negotiations. Given my first point, about complexity, I feel uncertain of any substantive conclusions I might make not only about the prospects for the future, but even what exactly happened at Bonn. Statements by seasoned negotiators in rooms of hundreds of people aren’t the most transparent and obvious sources of information. Further, the NGOs and even the reporters have their own particular worldview and usually some spin to add, even if it is a desire to tell a story that will get clicked on. However, I must say that the Earth Negotiations Bulletin summary seem to report things more cleanly than anyone (try the analysis on page 9 onwards).

One thing I do know, I’ll certainly be watching the next six weeks or so with an interest and awareness much sharper than I had before.

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