Bonn as the Waystation Between Ambition and Implementation

The climate conference in Bonn has served as an important bellwether of the international communities’ continuing commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions and of the impact of US President Donald J. Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement. 

As the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP) comes to a close, it is worth noting why this conference was important, what it accomplished, and why Bonn, and the meetings to come, matters.

While Bonn may not have generated nearly the fanfare of Paris, it served an entirely different purpose than the gathering two years ago. While Paris set the bar for ambition, Bonn established the roadmap for action. While the goal in Paris was to reach an agreement, the goal in Bonn was to begin to draft the so-called rule book to actually implement the Paris Agreement.

In addition to collectively promising to take measures to hold global temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees,” through their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), countries individually promised to cut emissions. However, for those commitments to make a concrete contribution to climate mitigation, countries must take steps to meet them, and the larger COP process must establish a mechanism for reporting, tracking, and verifying individual country efforts.

Bonn was the first step in outlining a rule book, to be finalized at COP 24 in Poland, helping to do just that, offering guidance for countries to transparently report on the measures they are taking and the pursuant emissions reductions. The integrity of the Paris Agreement’s logic, which relies on bottom-up, voluntary, individual country contributions, relies in part on ensuring country actions are tracked and accounted for. A framework for measuring compliance, tracking progress, and reviewing commitments is crucial if countries are to have trust in the system—and in one another’s commitments.

COP 23 is also critically important in that it kicked off the “facilitative dialogue,” intended to take stock of efforts thus far and provide a benchmark in the early years after Paris. The conversations in Bonn also set the stage for what is referred to as the ratcheting process, an increase of ambition which will be necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Taking stock and raising ambition is increasingly important given the Carbon Project’s 2017 report, which showed that after three years of stagnation, carbon emissions increased by 3 percent in 2017. The Paris Agreement’s goals are impossible to reach under the status quo. Its signatories understand that a variety of policy mechanisms, financial support and incentives, and other measures would be needed to increase ambition over time.

However, two years after Paris, no industrialized nation is on track to meet its goals.

Bonn did serve as a forum to discuss policy mechanisms, including emissions trading and carbon markets, the focus of increasing attention as China is in the process of developing—and likely will soon announce—the world’s largest carbon market. This market will reportedly be based on the European Union’s Emissions Trading System, which the EU recently reached an agreement to reform after 2020. While low fossil fuel prices and low carbon prices have in some cases hindered their effectiveness, emissions trading systems also represent one way to raise funds for the energy transition.

The dialogue will also inform the second round of NDCs, to be submitted in 2020 for countries with 2025 targets, when countries with 2030 targets will either update or submit their pledges.

In some ways, Bonn is a harbinger of what is to come—and the difficult issues still to be addressed.

Primary among them is the role of the United States. As the world transitions from setting goals to undertaking the measures necessary to meet them, the world’s second-largest carbon emitter has effectively said it is not buying it. However, the Trump administration still wants a seat at the table even with one foot out the door, sending a delegation to Bonn even after throwing in the proverbial towel. As Lisa Friedman of the New York Times put it, the situation is akin to “a spouse who demands a divorce, but then continues to live at home.”

While sending a delegation to discuss the role of coal in global climate efforts is not a particularly constructive stance (and indeed is a thumb in the eye of the Paris Agreement’s overall aims), it was not as destructive as its participation in the G7 talks earlier this year, where the Trump administration refused to sign on to common language on energy and climate. At Bonn, the US federal government rather seems to have been relegated to the sidelines as states and cities stole the show.

However, bigger questions loom large for 2018, when countries must work together to assess progress thus far and increase ambition, and 2020, when the United States and other countries with 2025 commitments must update their NDCs. At that point, a US administration with no intention to follow through with its previous commitment to the process, but insistent on a continuing presence goes from being contradictory to counterproductive.

The prominent role of cities and states from New York City to Maryland to California also raises the question of who has the authority to speak for and deliver on US climate commitments. As Bonn underscored, mayors and governors are becoming increasingly vocal—and increasingly viewed as partners and an alternative to Washington. This includes 20 states and more than 100 cities, collectively representing, as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pointed out, “a bigger economy than any nation outside the US and China.”

While the role of US cities and states has been widely touted, emissions reductions are not the only expectation of developed countries. The Trump administration has effectively cut off sources of climate funding, including US contributions to the Green Climate Fund, and it seems unlikely that state and local actors will be able (or willing) to fill that void.

As China and the EU step into the vacuum the US has created by stepping aside, it is still unclear how serious—and how lasting—the damage to US credibility will be. Conversely, Bonn demonstrated that an absence of US federal leadership, at least in the short term, has been less damaging to the Paris framework’s credibility than many may have feared.

Ellen Scholl is an associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. Follow her on Twitter @EllenScholl.

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Image: The US delegation’s empty seats are seen before the opening session of the COP23 UN Climate Change Conference 2017 in Bonn, Germany, on November 6. (Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay)