Douglas Fischer/Daily Climate

From the Bonn climate talks: Increasing ambition, inside and out.

The climate talks are already crowded. Do we need more people at the table?

BONN – Ambition is a recurring point of tension at the United Nations climate talks.


Activists keep pushing it. Scientists have made pretty clear we don't have enough of it. Those of us living a carbon-rich Western lifestyle have built-in pushback against it.

That conflict is how I found myself Tuesday at the back of a room packed with activists and other representatives, listening as Harro van Asselt, senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environmental Institute, called for more inclusion of "non-party" stakeholders in the UN climate talks.

First, a bit of history: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change arose in 1992 from a global concern that something had to be done about climate change.

Just what, exactly, has never been specified – and has consumed 25 years of annual talks. Preparation for the next round of talks this fall is underway right now in Bonn, and as usual those participating are broken into two main groups: "Parties" represent country governments.

"Observers" capture everybody else, from business organizations like the Chamber of Commerce to activists like Greenpeace to university researchers. Observers can send delegates to the talks (I teach, for instance, at Montana State University and have brought 11 student "observers" from my #climateclass here). Such delegates can speak at plenary sessions and, sometimes, participate in negotiations.

But the problem, van Asselt pointed out, is that in the end, when actual agreements are being hammered out, the only people at the table and are the parties.

From van Asselt's view, governments tend to be dominated globally by fossil fuel and other entrenched interests, with little incentive to increase ambition. Nobody at the negotiating table, he said, has the inclination to "name and shame" countries into greater commitments.

I confess that, from the back of a room jammed pack with activists, I found the question curious. Civil society, from my view, has a strong presence here. And it often shapes the policies and people making up those governments at the negotiating table.

So I left that room and threaded my way across the cavernous Bonn World Conference Center, threading past activists and observers, to a room where, by absolute chance, Prof. Samuel Frankhauser was presenting data showing the influence these talks—and the activists—have exerted on governments worldwide.

Frankhauser co-directs of the London School of Economics and Political Science's Grantham Research Institute. His team has tallied the amount of climate legislation worldwide and found 1,200 climate-related laws. The laws are in 164 countries, including 93 of the top 100 emitters.

That's up from 60 laws total just 20 years ago—a "huge amount" of lawmaking, he said. And it stems from the ambition coming out of these climate talks: He can trace 47 pieces of legislation directly to the 2015 Paris Agreement alone.

The sheer amount of lawmaking, he added, acts like a shock absorber to shifting political winds. The No. 1 topic nobody wants to discuss here, for instance, is President Trump's potential to dampen global ambition to cut planet-warming emissions. But as Frankhauser looks at his data, he concludes progress to date on climate will be hard to reverse.

"This is a body of law that is broad. It is big. It is deep. It is there to stay," he said.

Is that enough? Of course not. Frankhauser and many other groups have concluded laws and policies on the books are insufficient to meet promises made in Paris two years ago.

But do the talks, already cumbersome and unwieldy, need to be further expanded to give more a seat at the table?

Fortunately sitting next to Frankhauser was Patricia Espinosa, the UN's top climate diplomat.

Certainly, she said, civil society, has a role to play in both spaces. Their presence at the talks helps "build and maintain momentum."

But not everybody can or wants to attend the talks, she added. And the UN's top-down approach has limits: Climate ambition has to come from the ground up, too.

"The transformation we require takes place on the ground," Espinosa said. "The ability to transform is enormous on the national level."

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