Making sense of two weeks of climate negotiations in Bonn

Timmons Roberts

With hundreds of negotiators and observers from around the world on their annual pilgrimage to Bonn, Germany for the climate “intersessional,” the crisp June air along the Rhine river and the bountiful rose gardens in the front yards make the common refrain among the talks ring true:

“It’s beautiful, but it’s boring.”

Two weeks long with twice daily meetings of about seven different negotiating tracks, plus plenaries and dozens of official side events, and there is a lot of talking. Some of it is interesting. Much is boring. So here’s another refrain:

“It’s boring, but it’s important.”

Why combining ideas at Bonn was a cumbersome task

This is the critical year for the United Nations to lead us away from the approaching cliff edge, which awaits us if we fail to agree on how we are going to avoid the unknown disasters that will come with a destabilized climate. December 2015 at the negotiations in Paris is the deadline by which a new deal must be struck.

Bonn was meant to be a big part of getting us there, with 10 of the 20 negotiating days left before Paris. Earlier this year, countries from around the world submitted pieces of text they thought should be in a Paris agreement. Then the U.N. secretariat compiled it into a 90-page text, dense with redundancy and conflicting ideas. The main task at Bonn was to streamline that text, make clear what the different choices are, and eliminate all that redundancy. 

However by late in the afternoon on Friday of the second week, the document was still 84 pages and a new 68-page “working document” was posted. Why should it take 2,000 people two weeks to boil down a document? I’m sure a team of three journalists and an editor would have gotten it down to 10 pages of actually intelligible and coherent ideas in one night. So why undertake this in such a backwards fashion? 

Here is a bit of the non-intuitive logic: Parties to the treaty have seen their ideas vanish upon “distillation” before, including in just such a Bonn negotiation back June of 2010. If it can be avoided, they don’t want the bureaucrats doing the editing—they want to do it themselves. In fact, developing countries did not want even the subtraction of words, “so as to retain the positions of all Parties,” in the language of the Third World Network.

Many countries are still feeling burned by having their collective work crafting an agreement entirely cast aside at Copenhagen in 2009, and replaced by a slim text hastily whipped up by just five countries (the U.S., Brazil, India, China, and South Africa). Countries were handed a “done deal,” and told to sign it. So there are scars that explain this behavior; now the problem is making this cumbersome system work.

Very much is at stake here, as most countries ardently want the U.N. to develop a fair solution to this problem—one that won’t cripple their nation’s economy or cost them too much. It is just a tremendously hard task, since the solution to this puzzle also needs to be adequate to keep the world from going over the cliff to dangerous climate change.

Will the Paris deal have an impact on global climate change?  

One key area of disagreement is whether the Paris deal should be universal (applying to all countries in a similar way), or bifurcated (creating two classes of countries with qualitatively different responsibilities). The Kyoto Protocol was strongly bifurcated, with the wealthy countries agreeing to go first to address the issue, since they were the ones who had created it and they also had the cash to address it. So getting from 90 pages to a more manageable 10-20 pages will be a herculean task. This streamlining bit should be the easy part, since it isn’t actually negotiation or bargaining over the hard stuff, just the clarifying of options. None are being taken off the table, yet. Or so they say.

So is this all just wasted time, or “active inaction” as my colleague Mizan Khan of North-South University in Bangladesh (and frequent negotiator for that country) puts it? After all, whatever comes from Paris will not be binding on countries, who will also spend this year putting out national pledges for what they are planning to do to reduce domestic emissions and help other poor nations adapt to climate change. These are just “intended contributions,” not binding commitments.

Many of us think intuitively that international treaties and bodies would be most effective if they could write and enforce rules, as national and local governments do. But at the very start of this whole process way back in 1992, three leading international relations scholars reviewed seven different areas of environmental treaty-making and institution building, and wrote an influential book called Institutions for the Earth. Rather than writing and enforcing rules, Marc Levy, Peter Haas, and Robert Keohane concluded that international environmental institutions have three quite different functions. They said environmental institutions have impact when they are able “to promote concern among governments; to enhance the contractual environment by providing negotiating forums and creating ways to disseminate information; and to build national political and administrative capacity.” These three functions, they say, “dominate the attention of effective institutions.

“On the other hand,” they commented, “there is little evidence that international organizations enforce rules. Indeed, in the case studies, monitoring environmental quality and national policy measures was a far more influential institutional activity than was direct enforcement, and promoting re-evaluation of state interests was more effective than was forcing behavior against a state’s interest.”

This suggests a very different view of what is going on this year. Hopefully the “Road to Paris” is raising the profile of our global climate change challenges, and the “national contributions” are able to spur major planning efforts in the nations of the world. Some hope a kind of “race to the top” will get going where countries seek positive international profile from doing something dramatically good in their pledges. China and the U.S. simultaneously got good international buzz from their joint announcement of pledges back in November, and in doing so they took away the main excuse many laggard countries had for not acting.

However even perfectly engineered international institutions are probably incapable of orchestrating this kind of change by themselves. This is especially the case when there have been such powerful shifts in the global economy and such an effective campaign dismissing the value of strong government action on this and other environmental issues. The anti-climate science campaign funded by fossil fuel companies focused on the U.S. was effective at stalling action for 15 years; the broader economic orthodoxy of neoliberalism sought to discredit strong governmental action on any issue.

Is dangerous climate change at stake without Paris solution? 

We don’t know yet what is possible in 2015, since many shifts are occurring at the same time. After the 2008 Great Recession, neoliberalism is more widely questioned than before. The global North and South are being reshaped, with new coalitions and trading blocs inside and outside the negotiating halls. Climate-related disasters are occurring sooner and more intensely than expected. Solar and wind power and high-capacity batteries are plunging in price and new kinds of social movements are forming, utilizing new media tools and networking strategies.

Truly everything is at stake in Bonn, in Paris, and back home in the local and national capitals where the real decisions are being made. Can the act of constructing this institution succeed in creating global momentum, by promoting concern, building mobilized networks, and supporting political and administrative capacity back at home? 

Stand by. The progress will sometimes be boring, but it couldn’t be more important.

Editor’s Note: Quotes are taken from the article summarizing their book, which appeared in Environment magazine: Levy, Marc A., Peter M. Haas, and Robert O. Keohane. “Institutions for the Earth: promoting international environmental protection.” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 34.4 (1992): 12-36.

The findings, interpretations and conclusions posted on are solely those of the authors and not of The Brookings Institution, its officers, staff, board, funders, or organizations with which they may have a relationship.