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The EU on track with its climate change pledges, as the UNFCCC talks end in Bonn

17 June 2010

After two weeks of negotiations between delegates from 185 countries at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) climate talks in Bonn (1 – 11 June), the outcome was a 22 page long document that nobody seemed to be happy with. The document is intended to guide discussions leading up to an eventual treaty aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, as the only international agreement which legally commits countries to cut emissions – the Kyoto Protocol – expires in 2012. Prepared by Ms Margaret Mukahanana-Sangarwe from Zimbabwe, the document says developed countries should reduce greenhouse gases by 25 to 40% by 2020, but does not set a reference year. In the long term, it sets a goal of cutting emissions by up to 85% by 2050 compared with 1990 levels. Although the new targets are more ambitious than those included in the non-binding Copenhagen Accord, none of the negotiating parties expressed satisfaction with the document.

One of the most controversial issues was the inclusion of 2020 as the global emissions peak year, a clause strictly opposed by developing countries which called the document “unbalanced”. China, India and other developing countries complained that this would force them to reorient their economies away from the fossil energy sources within a very short timeframe. That would be an impossible task, given the limited financial resources and the urgent need to improve the lives of their people through economic development, developing countries argued. Many also perceived that the document aims to do away with the binding character of the Kyoto Protocol, another contentious issue between the developing and developed countries. Indeed, the draft text does not refer to any legally binding compliance mechanism like the Kyoto Protocol, where the countries would have to list their emissions pledges.

Many of the delegates said there is no chance that a new binding treaty could be adopted at the next UN climate summit, to be held from 29 November to 10 December 2010 in Cancun, Mexico. Mr Artur Runge-Metzger, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, said: “There are many things that are pointing not to convergence but to divergence.”  If there were not a binding treaty, then the world would be left with individual country commitments. However, there is a huge discrepancy between what is recommended by scientists as the minimum cuts (to keep the temperature rise below below 2°Celsius from pre-industrial levels, developed countries need to make cuts of at least 25-40%) and what has been pledged by countries. Mr Yvo de Boer, the outgoing UNFCCC executive secretary, said: “As things stand now we will not be able to halt the increase of global greenhouse gas emissions in the next 10 years. The 2°Celsius world is in danger.” The US, for instance, is still trying to commit itself to 17% cuts by 2020 on 2005 emission levels (the climate bill is stalled in the US Senate). This would be, in fact, a reduction of less than 4% below the UN benchmark year of 1990.

The EU Member States so far have committed themselves to 20% cuts by 2020 from 1990 levels that could be raised to 30%, if other countries followed suit. Currently, there is no unanimity regarding the possibility to unilaterally raise the pledge of 20% to 30%, an issue discussed at the environment ministers meeting in Luxembourg on 11 June. The Commission will conduct further analysis of the costs and benefits involved at national level, and the ministers will come back to the issue in the autumn. In the meantime, the EU is reducing the emissions faster than before – partly as a result of the implemented policies, partly as a consequence of the economic crisis. In 2008 they dropped by 1.9% in EU-15 and by 2% in EU-27, with the EU’s 27 Member States’ total emissions now standing 11.3% below their 1990 level, while the EU-15 has reduced the emissions by 6.9%. In the meantime, the European Commission has estimated that, due to the economic slowdown, it will be less expensive to implement the current EU’s emissions reduction pledges: €48bn instead of €70bn annually. The Commission estimates that raising the target to 30% would cost €81bn a year. While these numbers look good on the balance sheet, the downside is that the economic crisis has reduced EU Member States governments’ and private sector’s ability to invest in green technologies.

Another contention in the UNFCCC negotiations is the financial assistance from developed to developing countries. Although the Copenhagen Accord says that US$100bn a year will be needed by 2020, there is no agreement reached on how this might be achieved. It also states that developed countries will provide “new and additional funding” for the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund, “approaching” US$30bn from 2010 to 2012, for immediate mitigation and adaptation needs in developing countries. The European Commission presented a report on its pledged “fast-start” funding of €2.4bn annually, a sum amounting to about a third of the collective commitment. According to the report, the EU is on track to meeting its pledge, with confirmed sums from the Member States to date amounting to €2.39bn for this year and €7.55bn for the entire three-year period, even more than the EU’s stated commitment of €7.2bn. However, the official report did not give details on the Member States’ contributions (EUobserver reported that only 15 of the 27 Member States have made financial commitments), nor did it provide clear answers whether these sums would come in addition to existing official development aid commitments – an issue consistently raised by developing countries and different NGOs.

All this indicates that there is still a long way towards a global agreement on climate change, not to mention a binding treaty. Even if in Bonn “countries talked to each other instead of shouting at each other”, in words of Mr de Boer, major deadlocks over emissions targets and climate finance remain unresolved. Therefore, it is important for the EU to reassert its somehow faded leadership in climate negotiations.

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