Disagreements between rich and poorer countries was a worrying aspect of the Bonn climate conference

Major work remains to be done if we are to avert a climate catastrophe.
Published November 22, 2017

As I walked towards the heavily-secured Bula Zone at the World Conference Centre in Bonn, Germany, to attend the 23rd Conference of Parties (COP23), an activist handed me a leaflet and mumbled in heavily-accented English, “Please help us save the Hambach Forest.”

Where have I heard the name of this forest before, I wondered. And then I remembered – it was during a visit to the Thar coal mine earlier this year where we were told that consultants from Germany were advising Pakistanis on how to exploit lignite, a type of coal found also in Hambach in western Germany.

Just as in Thar, there is a struggle in Germany too against a dirty fossil fuel like coal, especially in Hambach where an open-pit coal mine is endangering the 12,000-year-old forest.

This is what I find most exhilarating about the annual coming together of the signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC): The convergence of environmentalists from all over the world with a single-minded mission to save the planet from climate disaster.

Read next: The perils of inaction on climate change in Pakistan

COP23 was a technical conference – it didn’t have the excitement of the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) when a historic, legally-binding climate treaty was signed, agreeing to “hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to ensure that efforts are pursued to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C.”

The goal in Bonn was to flesh out a rule book, which will lead to the implementation of the Paris Accord from 2020 onwards. It might sound boring, but the conference was anything but.

The venue was divided in two zones, Bula and Bonn. ‘Bula’ means ‘welcome’ in Fiji and the small Pacific island, threatened by sea level rise and hurricanes, was the president of this year’s COP.

The conference couldn't be held in Fiji as the country doesn’t have enough hotel rooms for over 20,000 delegates!

The Bonn Zone, situated across a lovely park with ducks, lakes, and trees changing their autumnal colours, was where all the country pavilions were located. It was crowded with delegates buzzing with energy.

November, despite being cold and wet, is a festive season in Germany, and I entered the Bonn Zone at the beat of drums and could see dancers and performers in costumes at the German pavilion, who were inviting everyone to a nearby carnival.

Infographic: Nabeel Ahmed
Infographic: Nabeel Ahmed

I didn’t go the carnival but was told that thousands of activists had hit the streets of the city to protest against fossil fuels.

On one float, an activist dressed as Donald Trump was driven through the streets by a fleet of polar bears. A tipped-over, smoking model of the Statue of Liberty was dragged behind the troupe.

But while Trump has pulled out of the Paris Accord, there was a large contingent of representatives of states and cities of the US who had set up the US Climate Action Centre near the Bula Zone with the message: “We Are Still In”.

I visited the igloo-shaped tent later but missed out on seeing the former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who equated fossil fuels with smoking and told a packed audience, “Wouldn’t it be great now if they could... make the same pact with the rest of the world to go and say, ‘Let’s label another thing that is killing you - which is fossil fuels.’”

I did spot the former US vice president Al Gore, who told the audience that he had given up on persuading Trump to reverse his climate policies. He said the only way for the US to regain a leadership role in combating climate change was a new president in the White House.

Related: Special Report: Why climate change is a real threat for Pakistan

I finally reached the Pakistan pavilion, which was tucked away behind Germany’s. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was a spacious, well-decorated stall with a small office where some members of the Pakistani delegation were gathered.

Unfortunately, there was little activity at the pavilion, with only one side event on the threats faced by the Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountains.

Pakistan’s newly-appointed minister for climate change, Mushaidullah Khan, took part in the ministerial segment of the conference, but aside from reading out a few scripted speeches, he hardly provided any vision or leadership to the delegation.

The Climate Change Authority that was supposed to have been set up by the government was nowhere in sight. It was supposed to hire professional climate change specialists who could also play a positive role in the negotiations for Pakistan.

The Pakistani delegation was instead spearheaded by the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Climate Change. They held negotiations with a ‘like-minded’ group of around 24 countries within the G-77 bloc of developing countries plus China.

The officials told me that Pakistan, which has signed and ratified the Paris Accord, was pushing for its earliest operationalisation and would like COP23 to adopt all the procedures and modalities needed to start its implementation.

The director general of the Ministry of Climate Change, Irfan Tariq, looked tired and exhausted. He had been waking up at 6am to make sure he got to the conference centre on time and had been assigning officials in his delegation to cover the various streams of negotiation.

Infographic: Nabeel Ahmed
Infographic: Nabeel Ahmed

The two-week long conference went late into the night and was finally wrapped up at 5:30am on Saturday, with many important issues, especially from the point of view of the developing countries, still outstanding, despite some compromises.

One of the main points of contention was the pre-2020 commitments to combat climate change. Remember, the Paris Accord comes into effect after 2020, and there many accords signed prior to the Paris deal. Two issues surfaced here:

First, developed countries have not yet fully financed the Green Climate Fund, a $100 billion project that was promised in 2009 and was supposed to be fully funded by 2020, “to address the pressing mitigation and adaptation needs of developing countries.” As it stands, the Fund has only received $10 billion.

Second, the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol, which “establishes a second commitment period (2013–20), adds nitrogen trifluoride to the list of greenhouse gases covered, and facilitates the unilateral strengthening of commitments by individual parties,” has yet to be ratified by enough countries to have any teeth.

The negotiating bloc of developing countries, comprised of the G-77 + China, had sought to have these points prominently included in the COP23 agenda, but the industrialised countries refused to give it due consideration at first. Ultimately, however, pre-2020 commitments were made an integral part of the final COP23 text.

But the disputes over funding weren’t restricted to the pre-2020 commitments; some related clauses in the Paris Accord came under scrutiny as well.

For instance, the meeting agenda didn’t include Article 9.5 of the Paris Accord, “which asks developed countries to report on their flows of climate finance to developing countries.” In the end, it was agreed that the point will be discussed in the meetings in the lead-up to next COP in Poland.

Dealing with losses and damages caused by the changing climate is just as important as mitigation and adaptation. Despite demands by developing countries, however, there are no dedicated funding channels in the Paris Accord to help less advanced countries in case of climate disasters. This point remained unaddressed at the COP.

As for coal, an alliance of 20 countries was formed which laid out the timelines by which coal needs to be phased out in order to attain the goals set out by the Paris Accord.

However, the declaration does “not commit signatories to any particular phase-out date. It also does not commit the signatories to ending the financing of unabated coal power stations, rather just ‘restricting’ it.” The host country Germany also failed to announce a phase-out date for its coal mines.

Photo courtesy Global Climate Risk Index Report, Germanwatch *The Lancet, 2017
Photo courtesy Global Climate Risk Index Report, Germanwatch *The Lancet, 2017

Despite the ambiguities and the delays, there were some positive outcomes. The conference was able to make progress on key social issues such as the Gender Action Plan that will put more focus on the impacts of climate change on women.

The Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform, "which aims to support the exchange of experience and sharing of best practices on mitigation and adaptation," was another highlight of the event.

Major work remains to be done if we are to avert a climate catastrophe. COP24, to be held next year in Poland, will finalise the rules for the implementation of the Paris Accord. An additional, earlier session has been planned so that all the points are ironed out in time.

I left Bonn feeling hopeful that a framework was slowly coming together under which we can face the numerous challenges up ahead.

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