During the last two weeks of May, the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) gathered in Bonn, Germany for their regular midyear meeting. This session is called SB44, which simply means the 44th meeting of the climate change convention’s subbodies, which include two standing groups, the SBI (Subsidiary Body for Implementation) and SBSTA (Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice) and one temporary one, the APA (Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement). SB44 is the place where the rubber meets the road. Few world leaders attend and even fewer members of the media. Instead, career diplomats who focus on international environmental law in general and climate change specifically come to Bonn to work out the technical realities of translating treaty words into governmental actions.
At SB44, the Parties continued work on climate change mitigation and adaptation programs initiated under the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol (KP). But it’s fair to say that this work was perpetually overshadowed by the future impacts of the Paris Agreement (PA). What would happen to pre-2020 commitments under the KP’s Second Commitment Period if the Paris Agreement entered into force early? How do the NDCs or nationally determined contributions required under the Paris Agreement relate to the pre-2020 Cancun pledges? How will existing governance mechanisms under the UNFCCC and KP, like the KP’s CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) Executive Board, UNFCCC’s Standing Committee on Finance and Adaptation Committee, and the COP19-created Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage, serve the Paris Agreement? Will we simply learn from their track records of what (and what not) to do when creating new governance structures under the PA?
The Paris Agreement seized the center stage for at least a third of SB44’s agenda, given the number of tasks assigned by COP21for moving into implementation. While on the surface, this work has the appearance of being technical, in reality it is rooted deeply in international politics. Hence the first week of the APA’s SB44 work was held up while the Parties disputed their agenda for the midyear session. The G77+China — the largest negotiating group in the UNFCCC negotiations — filed a request before the opening plenaries with concrete suggestions for “balancing” the agenda so that it was less mitigation-centric — a hangover from the UNFCCC and KP’s work programme foci. Through these agenda corrections, the G77 also sought to launch the next phase of work using the precise language that Parties forged last December when agreeing by consensus on the COP21 decisions.
The APA agenda dispute (and to a lesser extent, those in SBSTA and SBI) served as the opening salvo of a consistent campaign to address the constructive ambiguity that Parties had built into the Paris Agreement’s provisions very carefully. The art of compromise on display in Paris does not transition easily to the technical exercise in Bonn of translating those words into action. This difficulty stood out most strikingly for me on two agenda items: Paris Agreement Article 6 (“cooperative approaches”) and its relation to Article 5 (forests and other land use) and transparency and global stocktaking under Articles 13 and 14, including on finance. More to come soon on these specific topics.