Bonn: a leap forward in climate ambition

The governing paradigm for energy policy and climate action is shifting, now, in real time. With a few crucial innovations, we can achieve a more rapid pace of decarbonization than was previously thought possible by any players in the global negotiations. We will need:

  1. Commitments that are catalytic, cooperative, and accelerating over time;
  2. A framework that makes clear no one wins by stalling action;
  3. Regular escalation of national commitments, with tangible economic benefits;
  4. More direct participation by citizens and civil society, at all levels.

Though many are frustrated with the pace of progress toward the Paris consensus, we have seen meaningful progress on all of the above.

The climate negotiations held from June 1 through June 11 in Bonn, Germany, have given us new clarity about where global climate policy is heading. Key developments have come from outside the negotiations: first, Tesla announced in May it would produce industrial-scale clean energy storage capacity; then, the G7 agreed they would work toward a shared goal of decarbonization; and today, the IEA has announced that global energy-related emissions might peak as soon as 2020. What we know after Bonn is that we are now, as a world community, moving rapidly toward a low-carbon economic development paradigm.

The only question is how long it will take us to get there.

This month’s climate negotiations were also newsworthy for the kind of thing that we don’t generally hear in news broadcasts or on the front pages of newspapers: innovations in the negotiating process that could change comprehensively what is possible at the end of the year. Instead of the nations of the world co-editing a 90-page document, letter by letter, arguing over plurals and semicolons, the Co-chairs of an all-country working group (the ADP) that has that responsibility will produce already streamlined drafts, as samples of what might be the best framework for an agreement.

Why is that such an innovation?

The negotiating process includes 196 countries, the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Though all must vote for consensus, there is great imbalance in the economic and political landscape. So, most nations are part of larger negotiating blocs. The European Union negotiate as one bloc, though all 28 member states are individual parties to the Convention. There is the G77, group of developing countries, which often aligns with China. There are the Like-Minded Developing Countries, the Least Developed Countries, the Small Island States (AOSIS), and the Independent Association of Latin American and Caribbean Countries (AILAC), and there are others.

The Major Groups rarely come to consensus until the last minute—on the central mitigation component (emissions reductions) of the negotiating process. This is partly because the Convention acknowledges “common but differentiated responsibilities” between nations of different levels of historic industrial development. There is an interest in making sure one has one’s own voice in the process, as distinct from others.

In Bonn, on Monday of the second week, all of the Major Groups agreed they wanted the Co-chairs to produce their own streamlined draft text, which would become the basis of future negotiations, though it would not replace the agreed Geneva negotiating text, created in February. We now have an informal Streamlined and Consolidated text, as well as a new, shorter Working Document, from the ADP Co-chairs.

Looking at the options for mitigation commitment responsibilities, there are only options that require action from all Parties, and that aim to accelerate the pace of global emissions reductions, to stay within either a 2ºC or 1.5ºC global average temperature rise above pre-industrial levels. The 1.5ºC ceiling is important for three reasons:

  1. Some island nations will disappear under rising seas if we go past it;
  2. We are now experiencing severe, compounded and ever harder to manage impacts at 0.8ºC;
  3. The cost of these impacts does not rise in a linear way, but rather compounds, exponentially.

In other words: 2ºC might well be catastrophic.

So the process has moved into a new, more constructive phase, where the aim of decarbonization and the ambitious global effort to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system (the foundational standard required by the Convention) are not at issue, but rather the specific means of achieving the outcomes everyone knows must be achieved. The questions now on the table are more to do with how long “commitment cycles” will run (2 years, 5 years, 10 years), and how progress will be assessed.

The importance of commitment cycles has to do with the differentiated responsibility, respective capabilities, and the commitment by all Parties to the UNFCCC to abide by a standard of “escalating ambition” in their national mitigation strategies. At the end of a commitment cycle, a nation would be expected to accelerate its mitigation activity (the US, for instance, has built this into its 2015–2025 plan, clearly showing a doubling of the pace of decarbonization in the 2020–2025 cycle).

May and June 2015 have given us the clarity we have always needed: full decarbonization is possible without economic disruption, and we have the means to achieve it. All we have to do now is cooperate effectively.

The International Energy Agency now reports a global peak in energy-linked greenhouse gas emissions is possible by 2020. In a press release dated today, the IEA calls for the following four outcomes at COP21 in Paris:

  1. Peak in emissions — set the conditions to achieve an early peak in globalenergy-related emissions.
  2. Five-year revision — review national climate targets regularly, to test the scope to raise ambition.
  3. Lock in the vision — translate the world’s climate goal into a collective long-term emissions goal.
  4. Track the transition — establish a process for tracking achievements in the energy sector.

Item number 1 is not as simple as it sounds: to “set the conditions” means to reach an agreement in which no Party has an interest in delaying its actions toward global decarbonization. But, with analysis showing this can happen by 2020, and even Saudi Arabia’s oil minister foreseeing the end of oil by 2050, possibly as early as 2040, we know we are already closer to this than the commitments from major economies (the US, China and the EU) would suggest.

The recommendation of 5-year revisions means the more aggressive standard can and should be adopted. (Some nations argue for 10-year commitment cycles, or for none at all.) The very significant, unresolved question that would still exist, even with adoption of 5-year commitment cycles, would be who conducts the review, and with what level of authority. There is concern among some powers that uniform global accounting will work as a disincentive for some nations, which will seek to capitalize on stronger action abroad by burning more carbon-based fuel at home, or selling it elsewhere.

So, the 5-year cycles should be accompanied by provisions that help to define and motivate a “race to the top” in clean energy production, where nations see diplomatic and economic co-benefits from decarbonizing, beyond the environmental and domestic economic co-benefits. International economic competition can be redefined, according to a global goal, if the IEA’s four pillars are achieved in a serious way.

So, the IEA calls for “locking in the vision”, which means making new international law through a consensus agreement in which all 196 Parties to the UNFCCC agree that implementation of the Convention must work toward a global goal. Full decarbonization by 2050 is still the strongest goal in the negotiating text, but clearly a motivational global goal. If we are to achieve it, it has to be clear that in a relatively short time-span (35 years), every nation should have learned how to conduct economy-wide industrial development without carbon-emitting fuels.

Everything else can be built around such a clear, unidirectional vision.

Tracking the transition is crucial. Of course this will be done informally, by think tanks and universities, by climate-footprint accounting firms, which are now beginning to emerge, and by other elements across governments and the financial sector. But tracking the transition requires two things that we don’t yet have clear structure for: 1) a uniform global accounting method for climate-forcing activities, and 2) a single, all-inclusive reservoir of verified information, complete with staff whose right and whose power is to provide that day to day visualization of the transition in progress.

On the first score, a clear price on carbon helps to provide clarity: mitigation activities will be able to be measured with more clarity if there is a global standard that allows us to visualize hidden costs, and translate one kind of energy currency into another (cheap fossil fuels vs. climate impacts, emissions intensity vs. carbon sink capacity, etc.). On the second point, a multilayered approach will be what we get, so we need to make it as strong, coherent, useful and catalytic as possible.

Right now, we have the NAZCA portal to track climate-favorable local actions by non-state actors. This helps us to visualize the landscape of respective capability and of escalating ambition in a way the joint reporting of national governments does not. We need both. National governments will report their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), and pledge to accelerate the ambition of their efforts at least every five years.

NAZCA provides us, should it become a coherent reporting and verification tool for non-state actions, with a way to do more detailed, day to day monitoring of action and ambition. But we need to go beyond what NAZCA is now: we need to include citizens as non-state actors, who have both the capability to build projects that enhance action and ambition and also to report on the landscape in which they live. We can know if a power plant has been shut down, if everyone everywhere has the ability to provide testimony. Such transparency is not hard to achieve with today’s communications technologies, and provides a clear incentive for governments to use climate finance to capitalize on climate action, as there will be a way to measure all against each other on this point.

We know from the World Wide Views consultation on climate and energy, which took place in 80 countries on June 6, that 75% of the general public believes aggressive climate action will have economic benefits. We know that including the voices and views of citizens provides clear moral and visionary support for more aggressive action, enhanced cooperation, and better outcomes for people in the communities where they live and breathe. So, we need to find a way to include substantive, ongoing citizen participation in the process, to fully implement Article 6 of the Convention, which requires that governments foster citizen participation in both policy and solutions.

This is what the Pathway to Paris engagement process aims to do.

The news today is that the IEA’s four pillars are within reach. We can get what we need, from the process now underway, to establish an emissions peak no later than 2020 and full decarbonization by 2050. We can do it through a transition that is just and equitable and that adds value at the human scale.

This article was first published Monday, June 15, 2015, as “What we know after Bonn”, at

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