The Bonn climate change summit concluded on Saturday with bitter fights, intrigue and convoluted trade-offs between developing and developed countries dragging the negotiations well beyond the allotted two-weeks into the weekend. At the end, the best many developing countries could say of the negotiations was that, against odds, the window of opportunity had been kept open to implement Paris climate change agreement effectively from 2020 onwards.

The Paris Agreement is an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change dealing with greenhouse gas emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance starting in the year 2020, under which the targets of developing countries post-2020 are linked to three conditions – how well the developed countries perform by 2020 against their obligations, how much of the responsibility they shoulder to reduce emissions after 2020 and how much finance they provide to developing world after 2020 to reduce their emissions.

Developing countries and their groupings had to draw deep from their collective reservoir of negotiating skills to fight tenaciously and ensure the summit did not close with worse results.

It could have easily got worse.

In the face of a determined European Union, working in parallel with an unexpectedly aggressive United States, developing countries stood to lose their rights under the Paris Agreement even before the global pact against climate change gets implemented from 2020. They also faced the risk that developed countries transfer some of their existing responsibilities in the fight against climate change onto the shoulders of poorer nations.

Rare show of solidarity

In a rare show of solidarity, the various fractions of the G77+China group of 134 developing countries coordinated well to stave off the challenge thrown by the geopolitical heavy weights from the developed world. This was made possible by the group of Like-Minded Developing Countries, with India and China as members, and the Africa Group of Negotiators leading from the front.

Developed countries wanted to ensure that future United Nations summits do not get to scrutinise whether rich nations had delivered against their targets to reduce emissions and provide finance to developing countries by 2020 – called the pre-2020 agenda. The Like-Minded Developing countries, including India and China led the fight on this front. By Thursday, they ensured that developed countries would report on their performance over next three years to the global community. But as a compromise, the developed countries would present their reports in a fashion that does not lead to anything worse than public opprobrium if the results are below par. If these reports show that rich nations failed to meet their pre-2020 commitments, the developing countries will be able to use them to some extent to ensure the burden of fighting climate change is not transferred on their shoulders disproportionately in the short-term.

The like-minded developing countries could ensure this favourable decision, with other developing countries standing strong behind India and China through the two weeks.

“The pre-2020 agenda should have remained alive by default,” said a senior delegate from a developing country. “But Fiji, as presidency, played an unfortunate role and dropped it suddenly, which had the US and EU gleeful. We had to put it back on the table and kept alive. That took a great surgical intervention.”

The Africa Group of Negotiators, the group that speaks on behalf of African nations, took on the developed countries on another front. The Paris Agreement requires developed countries to report how they intend to provide public funds to developing countries to fight climate change and to adapt to its effects after 2020. The developed countries tried hard to ensure that no discussions be held this year or in future on the design of these reports.

Developing countries realised that if the design of these reports was not clearly chiselled out before 2020 it would become hard to pin down developed countries to their financial obligations under the Paris Agreement in coming years.

The Africa Group anchored this debate for the developing countries as others from the G77+China group coalesced around it with their diplomatic heft. The debate dragged the talks into Saturday morning but the developing countries stood firm on what came to be called as the fight over agenda item 9.5 – a reference to the specific provision of Paris Agreement.

The developed countries relented, around midnight over between Friday and Saturday. The Bonn summit agreed that it would decide next year the nature of these reports and how finely their parameters can be defined to hold the developed countries accountable.

Another developing country negotiator summed it up at the end of the talks. “Unfortunate as that will sound, the fact is at Bonn we just decided that we shall actually discuss in 2019 what we had promised each other in 2015 we shall discuss in 2019. The developed countries have turned this into a battle of attrition running up to 2020 when the Paris Agreement comes into force,” he said.

“They want to weaken the implementation arrangements for those parts of Paris Agreement that require the developed countries to be accountable for their promises,” he added.

Reduction targets

The one argument India, China and other developing countries did not win too convincingly was over the nature of the process to ratchet up emission reduction targets under Paris Agreement before 2020 by all – called the Talanoa Dialogue.

Fiji, which is presiding over the negotiations, and the developed countries had wanted that the process of ratcheting up of emission reduction targets be designed without any reference to the financial responsibilities of developed countries or their pre-2020 obligations.

The negotiating rules of the summit ensured that India and China could not get the Fiji proposal altered beyond a point. They did manage to bring a reference to the pre-2020 obligations of developed countries into the process. They also managed to ensure that the results of the dialogue are not taken from the beginning as binding on all countries to accept and act upon.

“One can say we lived to fight this on another day and ensured our options do not get closed at Bonn this year,” said a member of the Like-minded developing country team.

On several other contentious issues that was the best result 197 countries could deliver – not closing any option till 2018 when the roadmap for implementing Paris Agreement is to be finalised.

“To put it simply, developed countries wanted the UN negotiations not even consider our views and submissions next year when text-based negotiations start,” the like-minded developing country negotiator summed up. “We have ensured that our views will have equal footing next year when the roadmap is actually drawn up in specific words and phrases.”