On November 6, ministers and diplomats from 197 countries will meet in the German city of Bonn to negotiate a rule book on how to implement the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which aims to contain the rise in global temperatures this century at 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Achieving this target, scientists say, will help stave off catastrophic and irreversible changes to the Earth’s natural systems.

The Bonn meeting is officially called the 23rd Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or COP23. It will last two weeks.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was agreed upon in 1992, is the equivalent of a constitution. It enshrines the principles countries must follow to collectively fight climate change. The Paris Agreement is the equivalent of a law under this constitution.

In Bonn, countries will begin writing the rules to implement the Paris Agreement from 2020. The rules are to be framed by the end of next year. This will give all countries two years to change their domestic policies and systems to meet the goals.

While Bonn is a pit stop to next year’s finale when the rules will be agreed upon in their entirety, it promises to be as acrimonious as climate negotiations usually are. But as at these and other multilateral talks, the acrimony will be couched in diplomatese and jargon. This makes it difficult to determine what exactly countries are saying in public, what they will push for in negotiations that are held behind closed doors and what they will settle for at the end of the two weeks.

The Paris Agreement, with a goal to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels this century, will be implemented from 2020. Photo credit: Jacky Naegelen/Reuters.

Competing interests

Despite these difficulties, many in the global civil society and the media will be keeping a keen eye on the talks.

Each round of these annual United Nations climate change negotiations takes the world a step closer to (or away from) adapting to the inevitable impact of climate change, ensuring the impact does not worsen and that global temperature rise remains within safe limits for humanity in the long term.

The science of climate change and consequently the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change squarely lays a large part of the blame on developed countries that grew rich by burning fossil fuels, which led to the accumulation in the atmosphere of greenhouse gases. These gases trap heat, resulting in a rise in global temperatures. Now, as emerging economies expand to reach the energy consumption levels developed countries have enjoyed for decades, greenhouse gas emissions are growing even faster.

Scientists have estimated the amount of greenhouse gases that can accumulate in the atmosphere without breaching the 2 degree temperature rise threshold. This is called the carbon budget. The developed countries have consumed most of this budget over the last 250 years.

But if the planet is to be kept safe, the rich cannot continue to power their economies by burning more fossil fuels. It’s also clear that the poor, who aspire to be better off, cannot possibly take the same easy route up the growth ladder.

Experts recognise that reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the scale necessary to safeguard the environment means altering prices and access to various sources of energy. This could alter the economic growth patterns of countries in the near and mid-term future.

However, developed countries are finding it difficult to persuade their citizens to alter their lifestyles. Emerging economies, such as India and China, meanwhile, are wary of being asked to sacrifice their present growth for future rewards, even as this preserves the current lifestyles of the rich. In addition, there are nations whose very physical existence is threatened by accelerating climate change.

This jostling of competing national interests stacked against the need to work together and stave off the long-term threats to the planet makes the negotiations complicated. In reaching the Paris Agreement agreement, countries had compromised on some matters and postponed disagreements over many others, papering over them to seal the pact. Writing the finer details of the rules will bring these differences back to the fore in Bonn.

There is also the new United States president to contend with. In 2015, countries bent backwards to fashion the global agreement that Barack Obama, the US president at the time, could sell to his domestic audience. This required tenuous compromises by many nations, including India. But in June, President Donald Trump threatened to withdraw from the climate accord unless the US identified “suitable terms for re-engagement”. Formally, the US is still party to the Paris Agreement. But Trump’s team is coming to Bonn with yet more demands.

US President Donald Trump's team of negotiators will be coming to the Bonn climate talks with a new set of demands. Photo credit: Reuters.

How the negotiations work

It is the practice of deciding everything at the United Nations climate talks by complete consensus that ensures the fight against climate change does not come at the cost of the less powerful nations. Nothing is decided unless all 197 countries agree on it. To ease the friction, countries work in groups.

Graphic credit: Neha Dani.
  • G77+China: 135 developing countries including India and China
  • Small Island Developing States: A coalition of some 40 low-lying islands
  • Like Minded Developing Countries: India, China, Malaysia and others
  • BASIC: Brazil, South Africa, China and India
  • European Union: 28 member states of the European Union
  • Umbrella Group: A coalition of non-European Union developed countries comprising the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Kazakhstan, Norway, the Russian Federation and Ukraine
  • Arab Group: 22 countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates
  • Independent Alliance of Latin America and the Caribbean
  • Coalition for Rainforest Nations and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America
  • Least Developed Countries: 48 least developed countries as defined by the United Nations
  • African Group of Negotiators: With all African countries as members
  • Alliance of Small Island States (not formally recognised as a group within climate talks but sometimes operates as one)

India is part of three groups. It is a member of the largest group, the G77+China group comprised of 137 developing countries. Along with China, India is also part of the Like Minded Developing Countries, with which it coordinates closely. It is also part of BASIC along with three other large emerging economies Brazil, China and South Africa .

The European Union is unique as it negotiates as a single unit at the talks and gets to take on a collective single target for its 28 member-countries on reducing emissions and providing finance to the rest of the world.

The United States operates as part of the Umbrella group, which includes Australia, Mexico, Japan, New Zealand and Canada and others.

These groups and countries at times form strategic short-term alliances to further common agendas or to show collective bargaining power. At the Durban climate change talks in 2011, a loose Durban Alliance was formed between the European Union and the Small Island Developing States and the Association of Small Island States. This was partly in reaction to the European Union having lost ground to a tactical deal between the United States and the BASIC countries in 2009 when the Copenhagen talks crashed.

In the negotiating rooms, to try to understand what a country actually wants, diplomats (and when given a chance, observers) listen not just to what individual countries are stating but also to what the groups and alliances are saying through their common representatives. They pay particular attention when powerful or large countries state their positions. However, even geopolitically smaller countries are respected for their views and followed carefully if they are part of larger alliances or seen as allied with specific powerful countries.

Negotiations take place on various elements of the agenda in parallel in multiple rooms. Some last through the night. Then, countries and groups talk with each other in private to understand each other’s red lines – issues on which they will not give up under any circumstances. Most meetings and negotiations move behind closed doors, cut off to all but the diplomats, and are held in a frenzy, sometimes turning into all-nighters, as the ministers arrive in the second week of the talks. A given day in the second week could see more than 100-150 meetings. This is in addition to the activities dozens of civil society and non-governmental organisation observers and groups do at the convention.

“The negotiations and compromises at the UN climate talks are not limited to just the arena of climate change,” explained a veteran negotiator from a Southeast Asian country, who did not want to be identified. “Countries can bilaterally strike bargains across different geopolitical concerns, including trade and security. The economic and geopolitical relations between two countries or the influence of powerful countries over several others also shapes the decisions taken at these forums even though at the negotiations each country has an equal voice.”

Before any talks on climate change, the Union cabinet draws up a list of red lines and potential spaces for compromise for the Indian delegation. Photo credit: Reuters.

In India, the Union cabinet draws up a list in advance of red lines and potential areas for compromise for the delegation of the minister and diplomats attending the negotiations. The negotiating team stays in touch with senior officials at home on a daily basis to update them on possible compromises the country will have to make towards the end of the talks. In India, any breach of a red line at the talks requires an approval of the minister at the least, if not the Prime Minister’s office. If the breach is approved at the negotiations by the minister, it has to be approved retrospectively by the Union cabinet once the negotiating team returns and presents its report. The government is yet to draw the red lines for its negotiating team this year. But the broad contours of its position at the talks remain clear and have been fleshed out over several rounds of inter-ministerial meetings held since September.

At the COP23

Two sets of decisions were taken at the Paris meeting in 2015. The Paris Agreement was one, which looked clearly towards the future. But there was another set of decisions that largely links the action being taken now on fighting climate change to how the Paris Agreement will function.

Countries, particularly developed countries, have taken on many obligations between the United Nations Framework Convention coming into force, the Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1997, and the Cancun pledges in 2010. These include reducing emissions, providing finance and technology to developing countries and helping them adapt to the inevitable changes. Whatever they do not fulfil by 2020 will be a burden that will be shared by all later to keep global temperature rise within control.

But at the talks in Paris in 2015, most countries focused mainly on the Paris Agreement and the other decisions were taken in haste. Since then, many have found that these unfleshed decisions and the Paris Agreement itself in some parts papered over differences or postponed their resolution.

While India draws up its list of red lines, internationally potential political minefields have already been identified in two preparatory meetings held between countries in September and October. These were attended by officials from India as well. At least one of these promises to turn into a high-octane argument.

The second part of the series will explain the issues that could become potential minefields at the Bonn conference.