We’re all “Bonners” now

Guest post by Stephen Minas

The words “Ich bin ein Berliner” were a promise by John F Kennedy to defend German freedom at the height of the Cold War. The words “Ich bin ein Bonner” were used to draw a line under the past fortnight’s climate change summit, the modest outcomes of which included…familiarity with Bonn. It’s an unkind comparison. But it was invited.

It was Friday evening and it had fallen to the chair of the final plenary session, American delegate Dan Reifsnyder, to bring the two weeks of talks to a close. Acknowledging his rhetorical debt to the former president, Reifsnyder exclaimed that after three weeks in Bonn he felt able to say “Ich bin ein Bonner”.

The first UNFCCC meeting since the April week in Bangkok had seen more agenda standoffs, progress on some parts of the work programme, deadlock on others and, above all, no breakthrough on the really big questions: the future of the Kyoto Protocol; comparable efforts by the major emerging economies; and raising GHG mitigation commitments from a level many say could still lead to dangerous climate change.

Threading through the two weeks was a sense of frustration, by turns intensifying and lulling as the negotiation took its various turns.

“From the outside it looks very strange that you invite people to a plenary meeting at ten o’clock and then nothing starts,” acknowledged EU chief negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger as the start of the meeting was hobbled by disagreements over agenda items.

The EU Hungarian presidency’s Jozsef Feiler noted that “we don’t have time to waste” and remarked that guidelines for the measurement, reporting and verification of mitigation actions will not come from “heaven” but must be prepared here on earth.

Tanzania, on the repeated deadlocks, lamented that delegates’ expertise was “being used uselessly”.

Occasionally, the frustration may have been tinged with hunger. After the SBSTA agenda had finally been adopted, Switzerland remarked: “It is somewhat unusual to continue our work after 1pm… a time were usually we stop our meetings and have our lunch.” Words that President Kennedy is unlikely to have spoken during the Cuban missile crisis or other moments of decision.

For UNFCCC head Christiana Figueres – a year into the job – the frustrations continued (and not just when a reporter told her that he had a seventeen-part question to ask). On Friday, Figueres pointedly called on nations to devote “high-level political guidance” to determining the Kyoto Protocol’s future, and stressed that the links between pledges under Kyoto and the parallel Convention track need “high-level political attention”. Why it remained necessary to make these points was left unsaid. The secretariat, like the negotiators, must wait for the big decisions to be made at the political level.

The activists (generalising grossly) are frustrated over the lack of progress – particularly by what they see as the rich world in general and the United States in particular failing to do their share. One of the more softly spoken, Martin Khor from the South Centre think-tank, said that “the situation today is pessimistic” and warned that the world was in danger of returning to the period before the Kyoto Protocol when no country had taken on binding commitments.

The positives that emerged from the fortnight should not be ignored. Conclusions were adopted by consent for elements of the work programme across the different tracks, so some progress has been made on the negotiating texts (even if the final day knots parties tied themselves in over the various species of official document showed an absence of trust and good faith).

And for all the doubts over the UNFCCC’s ability to deliver, it still draws an admirable collection of smart, passionate people to work on one of the world’s great problems. In particular, there was the dedication of the youth activists.

There was also the respite afforded by the Piano Bar, with its very own piano man belting out the big numbers late into the night (“Man, what’re you doing here?”), sometimes when a plenary session had ground to a halt.

But after yet more talks, the provisional verdict must be this: if the collective will exists among nations to “pay any price, bear any burden” to stave off dangerous climate change, it remains remarkably well hidden.

Stephen Minas covered the Bonn talks for Climate Spectator. Twitter @StephenMinas