One of the major achievements of the COP17 climate change meeting in Durban in 2011 was an agreement by countries to establish a binding global treaty for emission reductions by 2015, with an implementation date of 2020 at the latest.
The Kyoto Protocol, the global agreement that legally binds developed countries to emission reduction targets, ended in 2012. In Durban, an ad hoc working group on the Durban platform for enhanced action (ADP) was launched to ensure continuity of the protocol post-2012.
International negotiations to build a successor to Kyoto continued in Bonn in early May. But, is the process just a tedious, expensive talk shop to fiddle with documents while the planet burns? Or are the talks creating a binding, meaningful successor to the Kyoto Protocol?
No pre-2020 targets set for carbon reduction
Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations framework convention on climate change, warned that recent record levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should prompt governments to take global warming more seriously.
She said nations had focused on practical interventions at the Bonn meeting: "Countries discussed transparent, measurable, verifiable agreements." National climate legislation was increasing and business was investing in clean energy and climate-resilient networks, she said.
The Bonn talks were organised in two "work streams", one focused on actions to be taken before 2020 and another on a new, international agreement for post-2020 climate interventions. Critics complained that neither work stream had focused on concrete proposals.
"In Bonn we heard all the right rhetoric from parties, and there seemed to be convergence on the issues requiring further attention and discussion. But we now need to see concrete action and agreements," said Tasneem Essop, head of the WWF International delegation.
"The underlying political binaries — for example, north versus south — still exist and will probably re-emerge as the real negotiations take place up to 2015.
"While the potential big political battles are yet to be fought in the negotiations for a post-2020 agreement, there are exciting opportunities to have concrete outcomes — like setting renewable energy and energy efficiency targets for pre-2020 goals."
The Bonn meeting hosted the second session of the ADP, which will resume talks in June and prepare decisions for adoption at the next major UN climate change conference, COP19 in Warsaw in November.
South Africa's coal stations a "disappointment"
Ferrial Adam, Greenpeace Africa's climate change and energy campaigner, said there had been no breakthroughs in Bonn and tough decisions had been put off at least until the next ADP talks in June.
"The negotiations are moving extremely slowly," Adam said. "We celebrate baby steps while science is screaming for giant leaps.Temperatures have already risen to about 0.8˚C and many leading scientists say the target of keeping temperature rises below 2˚C is slipping out of reach."
On May 10 the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii announced that the average CO2 concentration in the atmosphere had crossed the critical threshold of 400 parts per million, the highest ever, Adam said.
"South Africa, as one of the biggest emitters of CO2, should play a leading role," she said. "Building two of the biggest coal-fired power stations in the world and declaring coal a strategic resource bodes poorly for South Africa's commitments, and is disappointing given that Africa will be on the frontline of climate impacts."
Bob Scholes, systems ecologist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, said the lack of urgency in global climate negotiations "will cost our children dearly".
"The rate at which countries are agreeing to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions — and then actually doing it — is currently far too slow to avoid a global temperature rise far above the two degrees agreed as the acceptable limit," he said.
Possible solutions to quicken the pace
Although progress is slow, Bonn showed how a legally binding climate deal could work by providing a series of milestones over the next two years. These included rules to measure climate goals that could be adopted at COP19 in Warsaw.
A new agreement was reached between China and the United States, the two nations that are jointly responsible for more than 42% of global greenhouse gases, to run a climate working group aimed at curbing their emissions.
A new registry for "nationally appropriate mitigation actions" was launched at Bonn. It is a searchable database of the actions taken by developing countries to mitigate against climate change.
Other promising outcomes from the Bonn talks included new monitoring, reporting and verification guidelines, progress in setting up the global Green Climate Fund, the establishment of a new climate technology centre and network, and agreement on an climate change adaptation committee.
"There was agreement from most governments that the United Nations needs to take 'equity' considerations more seriously and decide on a way to define and allocate 'fair shares' of the effort," said Mohamed Adow, senior adviser at Christian Aid.
Attempts to obtain comment on the Bonn meeting from the South African department of environmental affairs were not answered.
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