December 11, 2017

UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn – What has it accomplished?

Over the course of two weeks in November, 195 participating countries wrestled with the future of the global climate – and achieved several results. How should the climate summit be assessed?


The spirit of Paris

The Bonn Climate Change Conference was the first international climate conference to be held after the announcement made by the US President that his country would be leaving the Paris Agreement. Despite the announcements made by many countries in the leadup to the Conference that they would adhere to the Paris Agreement, it had been unclear what kind of negative consequences the departure of the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases would have on negotiations. At the end of the conference, many attendees and observers were visibly relieved that the “spirit of Paris” continued to be alive, and that international climate change diplomacy also continues to work without the USA. Moreover, it became clear how divided the USA is on the question of climate change, for a series of US states (including California) and various communities and companies formed the “We Are Still In” alliance, which was present at the Climate Change Conference in Bonn.

The role of host country Germany

As the “Country of the Energy Transformation,” Germany could have obtained a special role several years ago as the host for the international Climate Change Conference. In recent years, however, other countries have assumed the leadership role in international climate change diplomacy – especially China. All in all, it was recognized that Germany made a good impression as host country, yet was unable to perceivably leave its mark on the conference in terms of substance. That was to be expected. After all, Germany merely had the “technical” role of host country, while the Conference was actually chaired by the Republic of Fiji. However, the lack of clear substantial impetus from the German side is also due to the current domestic political situation – after all, the partner candidates for a coalition government between the CDU/CSU, FDP, and Green Party have been particularly at odds in questions of climate protection and energy policy.

The role of coal

There was heavy discussion on the role coal plays in climate change. One surprise was that 20 countries under the leadership of Canada and Great Britain declared they would be leaving coal power step-by-step. Coal-generated electricity constitutes 40 percent of worldwide power generation, and among all fossil energy carriers coal is deemed to be the one with the highest level of carbon emissions per kilowatt hour of electricity generated. This means that departing from coal would make a significant contribution to fighting global warming. Germany also has a share of 40 percent coal in electricity generation, placing it at the bottom of the list in Europe – only Bulgaria, Greece, the Czech Republic, and Poland rank worse. Yet during her speech in Bonn, Chancellor Merkel could only bring herself to make the generalized acknowledgement that coal (meaning coal reduction) in Germany needed to make a “significant contribution” to climate protection in the future. She didn’t get any more specific than that.

Structure of the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement adopted two years ago continues to be considered a milestone in the efforts for international climate protection. However, many of the Agreement’s specifics continue to be unclarified and disputed. The matters in question here are seemingly banal, such as how a country’s greenhouse gas emissions should be measured. Yet these details are what bear the greatest potential for conflict and can still lead to a collapse in the Agreement’s implementation. The Bonn Climate Change Conference was able to deliver specific results here, with a draft being passed for a comprehensive set of rules on the elaboration of the Paris Agreement. This rulebook is scheduled for adoption at the next climate conference in Katowice, Poland, in 2018.

What happens now?

Overall, the Bonn Climate Protection Conference was an important stage victory on the path to globally reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While the Conference’s results are not groundbreaking, they do show progress in the right direction. However, they also clearly illustrate how difficult and tiring it is to implement the ambitious resolutions from Paris.

But what will happen until the countries have come to an agreement and the Paris Agreement enters into force in 2020? We have a choice between waiting or taking action today. The mechanisms for effective climate protection are known: avoid, reduce, and offset carbon emissions – this applies for individuals, companies, and states alike. This is all the more true in light of 2016 being the year with the highest level of greenhouse gas emissions in the history of humanity. Besides, there continues to be a large gap between the Paris objectives (a climate neutral global economy by 2050 and limiting global warming to two degrees maximum) and the means for attaining these objectives. If we were to implement the current reduction plans on a global scale, we would still be on course for more than four degrees of warming by 2100 – with disastrous consequences.

This means it may not be enough to rely on international diplomacy alone. We need flagship projects from mainstream society to illustrate how climate protection can work – especially companies that show how business success and climate protection can have a cross-pollination effect. One example of this kind of beacon project is Foundation 2° – German Businesses for Climate Protection. In this alliance, 52 companies signed a declaration in November to draw more attention to climate protection in the coalition negotiations to form a federal government in Germany.

Those who are already working intensively on the subject today need not fear unpleasant surprises in the future – such as stricter regulations. And they motivate others to also become engaged in this important field.


An Analysis by Dr. Christian Reisinger, ClimatePartner

Picture: COP23, ©BMUB/Sascha Hilgers