Postcards from Bonn Climate Conference

Written by
Glen Chua and Neha Agarwal with contributors
Aug. 20, 2023

Below we present some vignettes of the pivotal conversations that took place at the Bonn Climate Change Conference as captured by a delegation of Princeton University graduate students that attended the Conference this year. These reflections provide a glimpse of negotiations and technical dialogues that took place in the side sessions, altogether providing a glimpse into what went on at Bonn.

The Bonn Climate Change Conference is an annual meeting that is a part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. It is the smaller, less-talked about and more-technical counterpart of the larger Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings, but it is arguably as important, because it serves as a key midway point between the previous and the next COP meetings. The Bonn Climate Change Conference brings together technical experts and representatives from governments, international organizations, civil society, and industries to discuss, negotiate, and make progress on critical technical issues that underpin decisions and commitments at COPs. Crucially, it also sets the stage for the upcoming COP. The Bonn Climate Change Conference is officially known as SB58, i.e. the 58th session of UNFCCC’s Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation.

Building on mandates from previous COPs, the Bonn Climate Change Conference has served as a platform to discuss issues such as emission reduction targets and adaptation and resilience, and this year was no different. A key issue this year was the ongoing Global Stocktake (GST), the first since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015 and which is set to conclude at COP28 later this year in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Loss and Damage fund, hailed as one of the key victories of COP27 last year in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt (see C-PREE participant reflections on COP27 here), was also an important discussion topic at Bonn.

Global Stocktake and the role of Non-State Actors 

The GST is a crucial component of the Paris Agreement, allowing the world to assess progress towards achieving the Paris Agreement goals and to facilitate the ‘ratcheting up’ of climate goals as laid out in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The latter is particularly important because the current global targets are at present not on track to meet Paris Agreement goals of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Students attending the Bonn Climate Change Conference focused on the particular role of non-state actors (NSAs) - that includes corporations, financial institutions, and local and regional governments - in the GST process.

Calvin Spanbauer, G1

At this year’s conference, there was a growing recognition of NSAs’ crucial role in realizing the Paris Agreement’s goals. During last year’s COP27, an important report commissioned by the UN Secretary-General, titled "Integrity Matters: Net Zero Commitments By Businesses, Financial Institutions, Cities and Regions," established a foundation to guide NSAs engagement in climate action. While the report was well-received at this year’s conference, several discussions explored the potential of taking a step further by linking NSAs with UNFCCC processes, such as the GST, to enhance accountability and catalyze further climate action.

A dedicated conference session titled "A Global Stocktake for Non-State Actors: how to drive accountability and action?" delved into various strategies through which NSAs are aligning with the climate imperative. Within this session, panelists articulated the need for a definitive stance on this topic by COP28. Such efforts are crucial for fostering inclusive and effective collaboration toward achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. As such, NSAs’ involvement in climate action warrants further attention in forthcoming international climate negotiations.

Nong Li, MPA1

“The GST must be the turning point to limit warming to 1.5°C,” according to Simon Stiell, the UN Climate Change Executive Secretary. While the GST is a country-driven process, discussions at the Bonn Conference highlighted the critical role of multilevel actions at the regional, national, and local scales in GST.

According to the Independent Global Stocktake, a consortium of civil society organizations working together to support the GST, NSAs play a vital role in translating GST outputs into regional and national contexts, which can help specify and enhance actions to be taken in countries in specific regions. In the future, the GST should make space for regional-focused discussions. Governments and NSAs can work together on various issues, including regional assessment, updates on NDCs, and public awareness and outreach.

In addition to regional-level actions, local governments and local solutions are also critical in climate change responses. Local governments can help assess their communities’ climate targets and figure out just transition paths at local levels. However, local actions are only partially reflected in the current NDCs. The GST could therefore identify and report the achievements and potentials of the local solutions in strengthening the countries’ climate ambitions and NDCs.

Although these discussions were critical, the side events addressing GST lacked voices from a few actors, including China and India - two of the largest global emitters, and major private sectors. These actors are important for harmonizing assessment standards and forming strong political will. This casted doubt on whether the first GST could really accelerate climate actions.

Loss and Damage fund

The Loss and Damage Fund was a key breakthrough in negotiations at COP27 after previous failed attempts at other COPs made by Global Majority countries already suffering from the brunt of climate change impacts. While it has been viewed as a victory, important details about implementation and operationalization still remain scarce, and the Bonn Climate Change Conference provided another opportunity to further the discussions. These discussions were also a topic of focus by some of the students attending the Conference.

Ryan Klaus, MPA ‘23

One facet of negotiations that I paid particular attention to at the conference was the next steps for the Loss and Damage Fund, which many considered to be one of the few successes at COP27. However, several important issues remain unresolved. These concern the operationalization of the Fund after Bonn, including whether or not it should be set up as an entity of the UNFCCC, how capital should be deployed (with prospective beneficiaries advocating for an emphasis on grants instead of burdensome loans), and how to determine eligibility for funds. Relatedly, sessions for the Santiago Network for Loss and Damage, which was established prior to the Loss and Damage Fund at COP25 to provide technical assistance to “developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change,” had one major objective - to decide on a host institution - but were unable to accomplish it by the conclusion of the talks.

Beyond meetings focused on Loss and Damage specifically, barriers inhibiting the ability of particular countries to access climate finance in the past -  such as having requisite capacity to apply for available funding and the financial return expectations often associated with this capital - were referenced in a variety of other contexts. It is essential at COP28 that this feedback and other highlighted needs from countries that will be recipients of Loss and Damage funding (in addition to other mitigation and adaptation assistance) are seriously taken into account. Moreover, it is essential that developed countries finally offer action commensurate with the urgent language that they regularly deploy when talking about climate change for the sake of both their peer countries and the well-being of their own residents.

COP versus Bonn

Some of the students participating in the Conference had also attended past COPs, and were able to compare their experiences at Bonn with the larger COPs.

Melissa Tier, G2

Despite the ambitious goals of the Bonn Climate Change Conference, progress on most items was limited and there was a general feeling that many decisions had been pushed to the upcoming COP28 in Dubai.

In my experience, this is not an uncommon outcome – UNFCCC agendas typically overstate what can reasonably be achieved during each negotiation session. However, it is critically important that ambitious items remain on the agenda in order to not lose sight of the big picture goals. Having attended COP24 (Katowice, Poland) and COP26 (Glasgow, Scotland) in the past – both of which were remarkably large events and quite overwhelming, though educational – it was interesting to be at the smaller, intersessional SB58. Once physically at the SB, access to events and to speakers themselves was much higher, so it was far easier to have informal conversations and to network. On the other hand, the gap between who does or does not have the financial resources to attend the SB was perhaps more stark than at the highly-publicized COPs: Global South representation felt to me more clearly lacking at the SB, whereas COPs tend to host a larger variety of countries, activists, and civil society organizations.

In summary

Ultimately, the outcomes of the Bonn Climate Change Conference were somewhat muted. As captured in some of the reflections here, there was a clear mismatch between the actual slow pace of progress of the actual negotiations and the urgency expressed by participants worried about the climate crisis, a problem that has also plagued previous global climate meetings such as COP27. Notably, for instance, negotiators were unable to reach agreement on the SB58 formal agenda until the penultimate day of the two-week talks. There was also a lack of diversity of voices represented at Bonn, at a time when the voices of the Global South and other private and civil society actors matter more than ever.

Looking in the near future, discussions on issues captured in these reflections, such as the GST and the Loss and Damage fund, as well as other issues, such as a just transition away from fossil fuels and the state of global climate financing (which was the focus of a meeting that happened right after Bonn in Paris), will resume at COP28. COP28 has been mired in controversy due to the large representation of fossil fuel interests, not least in its leadership. Therefore, all eyes will be on COP28 particularly because, through the GST, countries will have to face up to the fact that climate action has been insufficient, hopefully spurring increased climate ambition which necessarily involves moving away from fossil fuels. If countries do not double down on mitigation at this critical juncture, they may miss the opportunity to avert the worst outcomes of climate change.