Bonn climate talks: world presses on despite US retreat

11 May 2017
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Agriculture in India. Photo: CGIAR/Leo Sebastian CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The recent UN climate talks in Bonn feature new and stark warnings from science – five islands have disappeared in the Pacific due to rising seas, just as carbon dioxide hits alert levels in the atmosphere. Despite the certainty of this latest science, political uncertainty is again palpable in the corridors and conference rooms.

Negotiators have been trying to devise a rulebook to turn the political agreement reached in December 2015 at the Paris climate talks into action by December 2018. Here’s the latest on their progress and the mood in Bonn.

Climate science robust and irrefutable

No one at Bonn can forget we are tackling the major problem of our time. We have heard how the prolonged drought in southern Africa has left Cape Town with only six weeks of water and small famers throughout Africa struggling, inflating the price of food. Serious problems in the polar regions will cause irreversible sea level rises.

What were once long-term predictions from the scientific community are now people’s daily reality.

US retreat talk of the conference

As the sun came out today, there is relief that some decisions on the US’ future role in the UN process have been postponed, and are likely dependent on the influence of the Trump grandchildren. Other developed countries will hopefully step up to fill the funding gap in international climate finance, but as a leading voice from the Philippines Bernaditas Mueller says, if the world’s number two polluter fails to cut emissions, 'it will condemn present and future generations to much suffering.'

Pressure is already mounting on the US to stick to its commitments. 'There is a huge necessity that the UN continues to involve all nations and coordinate the action of all nations,'  NATO’s supreme allied commander for transformation General Denis Mercier said last week. 'If one nation, especially the biggest nation, does not recognise a problem, then we will have trouble dealing with the causes.'

Businesses still calling for strong political leadership

Meanwhile in the real economy and capital markets, businesses are demanding clearer long-term climate policies – they want them ‘loud and legal’. The Institutional Investors Group representing over USD 15 trillion in assets have called for climate action to be an urgent priority for G20 countries (including the US) in a letter targeting the G7 meeting in Italy later this month. 'Global investors are keen to open their wallets to a low-carbon future but it won’t happen without clear stable policy signals from countries worldwide,' says the Ceres investment group.

Global investors are keen to open their wallets to a low-carbon future but it won’t happen without clear stable policy signals from countries worldwide.

The Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change says, 'regardless of the US administration, it is vital that every signatory across the G7 and G20 adopt policies that reduce climate risk, cut fossil fuel subsidies and put in place strong pricing signals to catalyse significant private sector investment in low carbon solutions.'

Political progress around the world

Many governments are in fact already moving in the right direction. Legislation on climate change is steadily increasing. The London School of Economics reported on Tuesday that there are now 1,200 laws in 164 countries covering climate change.

The mood this week in Bonn has been robust and energetic in tackling the tricky issues. These include how to monitor reductions in greenhouse gases; what developing countries can expect in support for their low carbon programmes; how adaptation is reported and supported with funds; and how the next stages of the climate negotiations can increase ambition. Most developing countries are firm in their resolve to tackle climate change and China has stepped up to provide global leadership.

Most developing countries are firm in their resolve to tackle climate change and China has stepped up to provide global leadership.

At the Climate Action Fair side events, we have also heard of many exciting developments which inspire enthusiasm and hope, including the Global 100% Renewable Energy Platform, Singapore as a 'climate smart city', and the start of digital agriculture, which needs a Tesla-style revolution.

It is crucial that the remaining 144 countries out of the original 145 signatories to the Paris Agreement maintain this positive environment, keep up the momentum and continue to work to together for those living with climate change today and for future generations. 

Dr Merylyn Hedger OBE is a Senior Research Associate at ODI and has followed the UN climate talks for over 20 years.