Perspective  |  July 25, 2023

Reflections from Bonn: Climate negotiations must face reality and rebuild credibility

by Dan Jasper

Last month, Project Drawdown policy advisor Dan Jasper attended climate negotiations in Bonn to promote climate solutions that also improve human well-being. Hosted by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the negotiations in Bonn provided a space for technical conversations in the lead-up to COP28.

Sitting in a surreal daze, I couldn’t help but look back and forth between the conference screen and my phone. On the conference screen, delegates argued about the importance of including historical emissions data in the upcoming Global Stocktake report (the first assessment of how far we’ve come since the Paris Agreement). One delegate chided the suggestion that the data be included, stating it would be “confusing for the public.” On my phone screen, texts from friends back home in Washington, D.C., with chilling pictures of the wildfire smoke blanketing the National Mall and iconic monuments. One text from a friend in New York offered an orange view from her hotel room; the text read simply, “Our world is dying.” This seemed to contradict the delegate’s point. Climate change is visible now; it’s no longer hidden by the depth of science, it’s a lived reality for much of the planet. The dual screens before me painted a clear picture: The focus of these talks must shift to urgent, scalable solutions for people and the planet, or these forums will lose all buy-in from many countries and the public.

That scene is, unfortunately, indicative of the confusing lack of progress made in Bonn this year. Parties (read “countries”) failed to even agree on an agenda until the second to last day of the two-week conference. While conversations carried on under provisional agendas for subsidiary bodies, the clash over the program reveals a widening chasm between countries that want to focus on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions (mainly high-income countries, or HICs) and those that want to focus on adapting as well as dealing with the losses and damages that climate change has already brought for many of the world’s most vulnerable (mainly low- and middle-income countries, or LMICs). 

China objected to the proposed agenda item on mitigation from the EU, offering an alternative agenda. The stand-off over the agenda lasted until the second to last day.

Integral to this conversation is the question of responsibility. Given that LMICs will face steeper challenges from climate change than HICs but have done little to contribute to the problem, a looming question of who is responsible for paying for all the damages hangs over international climate talks. It should be no surprise, then, that there is growing anger among LMICs over the position they’ve been put into with little recourse and few financing options that won’t drag them deeper into debt

That anger should be a wake-up call for HICs that the situation is untenable; a serious “rescue plan for people and the planet”—one that addresses mitigation as well as adaptation and losses and damages—must be resourced and scaled urgently for any chance to meet international climate and development objectives, or negotiations will continue to fail and fragment. Without a mechanism for international cooperation, climate and development action will fall further behind, quality of life for ordinary people around the world will deteriorate, and development may continue along a path that increases emissions, ultimately undermining human and planetary well-being further.

An artist captured the discussions on adaptation and loss and damage during the Global Stocktake dialogue.

Unfortunately, even the mitigation efforts of HICs suffer from tunnel vision because they primarily focus on the energy transition. Project Drawdown’s library of over 90 climate solutions across eight sectors reveals that the issues at hand go far beyond the energy transition. While sectors such as food, agriculture, and land use (FALU); buildings; health; and education are receiving more attention than in the past, it’s not nearly enough. Consider that FALU accounts for nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, yet last year was the first year that a food systems transformation pavilion was present at COP. This year, in Bonn, food systems transformation received more attention through workshops and side events; however, the conversation remains contentious and has seen little progress on official agendas. 

Some state delegates and representatives from industrial agriculture corporations have taken similar approaches to obfuscating climate science and obstructing climate solutions as some oil and gas companies have. During a food systems transformation workshop in Bonn, an NGO representative spoke to the importance of plant-based diets, only to be scoffed at by representatives from the dairy industry and state parties. Citing the regional nature of food systems, one state delegate suggested that plant-based diets shouldn’t be discussed at global forums. The reality that plant-based diets offer a major mitigation opportunity for HICs and that food systems are deeply interconnected seemed to be dismissed by a proverbial strong arm rather than a strong counterargument.

There is no doubt that international negotiations have been instrumental in moving us toward agreed objectives and a stronger response to climate change. But they are not moving fast or far enough, nor are they moving equitably enough, to make the changes that are needed. This year at COP28, the Global Stocktake will be finalized, offering the world a view not only of the state of the climate but the state of negotiations. This moment offers us a turning point to reinforce commitments, build international consensus, and move toward swiftly deploying climate and development solutions. 

The Climate Action Network hosted daily press conferences throughout the event; these  panelists spoke to the need for just and equitable climate financing.

My friend’s text from New York was wrong: The world isn’t dying, it’s being actively attacked by our way of life, the assault is being downplayed by world leaders, and, as a result, the response is being delayed. We cannot let our planet fall victim to the “bystander effect,” where no one takes responsibility and no one steps out to stop the assault in the hopes that someone else (or the next generation) will save the day.  We know the science. We have the solutions. There are no more excuses for delay.

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Feature  |  September 27, 2023
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Perspective  |  September 5, 2023
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Hats off to climate champions at work
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