Inside Story

Where’s the climate action?

The latest UN climate conference is under way in Bonn. But the real action might be elsewhere

Michael Jacobs 5 June 2023 1473 words

Complex task: Simon Stiell, UN executive secretary for climate change. Christophe Gateau/dpa/Alamy

Delegates from over a hundred countries meeting in Bonn this week for the latest round of UN climate talks might be forgiven for having mixed feelings. On the one hand, they face the daunting task of making progress on no fewer than fifty-six negotiating processes in just ten days. On the other, they might wonder whether, in the real world, any of it will make any difference at all.

Taking place in the airy World Conference Centre in the former West German capital, the official title of the conference is the fifty-eighth meeting of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice, and the fifty-eighth meeting of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation, both of them subsets of the better-known UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC. The delegates’ task is to take forward the agreements made at the twenty-seventh meeting of the Conference of the Parties, COP27, which took place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt in November last year, and prepare the 28th meeting, scheduled for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates this coming December.

If all this sound complicated, that’s not the half of it. The conference agenda sets out the many different negotiating tracks that previous COPs have set in train. It is a bewildering array of numbers, concepts, processes and former host cities.

Along with the second Glasgow Dialogue on Loss and Damage, there’s a meeting on matters relating to the Santiago Network under the Warsaw International Mechanism, also covering loss and damage; the seventh meeting of the Paris Committee on Capacity Building; the eighth meeting of the Katowice Committee on Impacts; a workshop under the Glasgow–Sharm el-Sheikh Work Programme on the Global Goal on Adaptation; not to mention a meeting on the as-yet-unlocated “rules, modalities and procedures for the mechanism established by Article 6, paragraph 4, of the Paris Agreement and referred to in decision 3/CMA.3.”

It is easy to be cynical, of course. But the negotiating agenda is not simply a make-work scheme for government officials. It reflects the reality that tackling climate change is a complex and multifaceted task involving not just every country in the world but also many different kinds of policy.

Debate in developed countries focuses mainly on climate “mitigation” — how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by decarbonising energy, transport, industry and agriculture. But the primary issues are different for poorer countries experiencing devastating floods, droughts and hurricanes, and changes to food production and water availability from rising temperatures. They are more interested in how to adapt to the changing climate and whether they will be compensated for the loss and damage they suffer — with both issues requiring the rich world to make good on its promise of financial and technical assistance. A complicated negotiating agenda is a small price to pay if it leads to any of that support being delivered.

Yet the question remains whether it will be. Although the Bonn conference continues the official UN process, it is in many ways not even the most important climate negotiation at the moment. Just two weeks ago the richest countries, meeting at the G7 summit in Japan, declared that this year they would finally reach the US$100 billion in annual climate financing they first promised at COP15 in Copenhagen fourteen years ago. And in two weeks’ time French president Emmanuel Macron will host an even more significant summit in Paris.

Macron’s aim is to establish a new financial pact between the global North and South to guarantee finance for environmentally sustainable and climate-compatible development. In Bonn, government officials are discussing processes and modalities intended to govern finance and other forms of assistance to countries in the global South. But in Paris, heads of government will be agreeing on actual money for renewable energy, adaptation and disaster prevention, potentially in the hundreds of billions of dollars, via bilateral aid, World Bank lending and private sector finance. You could be forgiven for thinking that the official UN talks are a bit of a sideshow.

Not that controversy will be absent in Bonn. The fact that this year’s COP will be held in a Gulf oil state is the main focus for climate activists. With the UAE having helped water down COP27’s position on the phasing out of fossil fuels, the appointment of the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company as president of COP28 looked to many like a deliberate provocation. Sultan Al Jaber is in fact an experienced climate negotiator who, as former head of UAE’s investment fund Masdar, developed the country’s extensive global portfolio in renewable energy. But it was inevitable that his appointment to chair the UN climate talks would attract criticism.

Pointing out that Al Jaber’s company is hugely expanding its oil and gas production, the campaigning group Oil Change International has described his appointment as “a truly breathtaking conflict of interest… tantamount to putting the head of a tobacco company in charge of negotiating an anti-smoking treaty.” More than 130 members of the US Congress and European Parliament have signed an open letter calling on him to be removed as COP28 president. His presence, they said, reflected the “undue influence” of fossil fuel companies over UN climate talks and “risks undermining the negotiations.” The fact that a UAE official was recently found to have edited Al Jaber’s Wikipedia page to remove such criticisms has only added fuel to the fire.

Al Jaber himself will brush off the controversy: as a close ally of the ruling family his position isn’t in jeopardy. But other countries will hope the furore embarrasses the UAE sufficiently to provoke some compensating action. The country has been making huge windfall profits from higher global energy prices in the past two years. What better way to demonstrate its commitment to the climate than by providing a few tens of billions of dollars in financing for the most vulnerable countries?

Elsewhere there is talk about reforming COPs themselves — not least in the United Nations, where the gulf between the linguistic complexity of the negotiating agenda and the practical requirements of dealing with climate change has not gone unnoticed. In quiet meetings behind the scenes this year the organisation has been canvassing views on how to bridge the gap.

It is not as if the rest of the world is absent from UN climate meetings. On the contrary: nearly 50,000 people are estimated to have attended COP27 last year, most of them representatives of businesses, investors, international organisations, NGOs and research institutes. These people come to the annual COPs to participate in a global climate conference and expo, with literally thousands of events and meetings alongside the formal negotiations.

Most of these attendees are focused on how to make progress in the real world: the new technologies being developed to cut emissions, the policies required to incentivise them, the financing available for investment, the research and data needed to monitor both the climate and climate actions, and the political campaigning to pressure corporations and politicians.

It’s in these spheres and among these kinds of players that climate action is really occurring, not in UN negotiations. The Paris Climate Agreement has been signed, and its detailed rulebook completed. Important issues are still to be resolved, not least on finance. But observers generally acknowledge that the focus of attention at COPs should really be on the real-world action, not the talks.

Up to a point, the UN already recognises this. Alongside the negotiations it convenes a wide range of partnerships between companies, countries, cities and researchers to develop and disseminate climate solutions. These cover technologies, business models and policies in a range of nine fields from energy to oceans, transport to land restoration. The question being posed for COP28 is whether this so-called Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action could move closer to centrestage.

Could a parallel conference be organised, alongside the negotiations, to present and discuss climate progress in the real world? Might this provide a forum where some of the major industries, companies and financial institutions that have made ambitious-sounding climate commitments over recent years — commitments critics often describe as little more than “greenwashing” — are called to account? As several observers have noted, this would be particularly appropriate for COP28, which will feature a “global stocktake” of action and inaction over the past eight years.

Typically, the question of whether COPs could be made more relevant to the real world won’t be on the negotiating agenda in Bonn over the next two weeks. But as ever in these thirty-year-old talks, it is as much what goes on in the corridors and during the time-outs that matters. There are six months still to go before the world reassembles in Dubai. It’s still possible that when it does so, it will find itself at a somewhat more useful gathering. •