Bonn update

The lack of progress on climate change at Bonn between March 29 to April 8 was certainly discouraging, though hardly surprising. There is very little time to negotiate a new climate treaty before the final UN meeting in Copenhagen in December, and this first two-week meeting was mainly taken up by arguments over finance and the extent of emissions cuts by rich countries, as well as complex technical discussions about the legal status of a new treaty and decisions about when the next meetings should be.

As usual at these affairs, everyone has to have their say in exhaustive detail, and after umpteen discussions and votes about whether it was too late to include new submissions on a variety of arcane technical subjects, everyone got thoroughly fed up but no one seemed to know whether we were much further on.

The big substantive issues are whether the rich world will agree to cut emissions in line with scientific advice rather than trying to get away with much smaller cuts, and whether developing countries will receive adequate finance from the rich to help them move to a low-carbon economy.

But more time seemed to be spent on such technicalities as whether a new climate agreement should be in the format of an amendment to the Kyoto protocol, or as something new altogether, or as some mixture of the two. This particular technicality arises partly because of the success of the US under George W Bush in blocking progress on a successor – at climate talks in Montreal in 2005, delegates were forced to agree a two-track negotiating process for the future. In one track, the US participates along with everyone else as it is a signatory to the parent protocol to Kyoto – the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, of 1992. In the other track, the countries that have ratified Kyoto – basically everyone else – takes part.

The difficulties of this two-track process are now becoming clear. But they are not insurmountable. And such bureaucratic headaches are just another of the reasons it takes so very, very long to get anything sorted. While glaciers have speeded up, sometimes the climate talks seem to slow down in inverse proportion.

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