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16th May 2021

US may cause 'distraction' at Bonn climate talks

  • Environmental activists hold a protest outside a German coal-fired power plant on Friday 3 November (Photo: Friends of the Earth International)

The world should manage its expectations for the 23rd annual United Nations summit on climate change that starts in Bonn, Germany, on Monday (6 November), said Claire Healy, a former adviser to the US department of energy.

She told EUobserver in an interview that she expected a lot of attention will be on the United States, since this will be the first global climate summit following the American president Donald Trump's announcement that the US is pulling out of the Paris agreement.

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  • Workers prepare the building where COP23 will be held (Photo: UNclimatechange)

"It's a bit of an unusual year. There is a lot of attention on it, it's happening in a heightened political context, yet the actual landing zone for policy outcome is pretty minimal," said Healy, who now is programme director on climate diplomacy at E3G, a climate change think tank funded by a range of governments, NGOs and multinationals, including the European Commission.

"There is a lot of attention on how the US are going to play it, what they are going to say, who are they going to send. Because that is going to be a pretty big deal," Healy told EUobserver in an interview.

Trump announced on 1 June of this year that the US will leave the Paris agreement, which was agreed at 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris in 2015.

"If that hadn't happened, the media perhaps wouldn't be as interested in this," said Healy, adding that she hoped the US will not be too much of a "distraction" from "the real work."

The COP is the forum where UN members meet to discuss how they will limit climate change. This year's edition, COP23, is more about preparing procedural decisions than reaching agreements like in Paris.

"It's very process-heavy, even though there is a political spotlight on it," said Healy, noting that COPs "are not all like COP21".

"We should manage your expectations," she added.

While countries agreed in Paris that they should slow down the Earth's temperature rise to prevent catastrophic climate change, they did not specify all the details yet.

An open question is how each country's climate commitments will be verified, and what happens if a country fails to do what it promised.

Next year's COP, which will be held in Katowice in Poland, will be about agreeing a "rulebook". This year's COP is about preparing for that rulebook.

"We're not literally discussing the rules at this COP, but discussing the process by which we are going to decide the rules."

EU wants 'tangible progress'

The European Commission hopes that COP23 will deliver "tangible progress on the Paris work programme, which is to be agreed next year in COP24 in Poland," according to spokeswoman Anna-Kaisa Itkonen.

"For us this is clearly a COP that is important to prepare for the 2018 COP," said Itkonen at a press briefing in Brussels on Friday (3 November).

She acknowledged that 'tangible progress' can mean different things to different countries and regions. Itkonen said that to the EU it would mean "clear language on how the parties are implementing their national contributions".

Think tank director Healy said it will be difficult to "give you technical milestones" which would make the difference between success and failure.

"It's all very procedural," she said.

EU ministers for environment said in a statement last month that they expect COP23 to deliver "sufficient clarity on how the 2018 facilitative dialogue will be conducted" – the term 'facilitative dialogue' refers to the moment when the treaty's signatories take stock of their progress.

To the ministers, substantial progress should take "the form of draft decisions or textual elements."

COP23 will last two weeks. Traditionally, politicians will show up in the second week. On behalf of the EU, climate commissioner Miguel Arias Canete is expected to attend, in addition to national ministers from the EU member states.

The chair of the meetings this year is the island nation Fiji, but the actual talks are held in Bonn, the location of the headquarters of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

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