Back from the Bonn Climate Change Conference. Can we still oppose science and equity?

Kari De Pryck
Lecturer at the University of Geneva’s Institute for Environmental Studies

In this blog, Kari De Pryck reflects on the Bonn Climate Change Conference organized in June 2023. While these intersessional meetings are less known than the Conferences of the Parties (COPs) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), they constitute essential sites for the preparatory technical work of the COPs. With discussions about the implementation of the Paris Agreement becoming increasingly politicized, this year’s talks were particularly interesting to take the pulse of the negotiations for the next COP in Dubai (COP28). Disagreements about the conclusions provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were especially tense, revealing the growing divide between Parties over the need to consider equity when implementing climate action.  

Global climate governance, UNFCCC, IPCC, COP28, science-policy interface

This June, the intersessional sessions of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) took place in Bonn, Germany, with the aim of preparing for the next Conference of Parties (COP) in December 2023. Several issues were on the agenda of the Bonn Climate Change Conference (SB58), debated in parallel meetings for almost two weeks. On the agenda was, among other things, the closing of the technical phase of the Global Stocktake, which should support the development of a decision at COP28 in Dubai to assess State Parties’ collective efforts to implement the Paris Agreement. The conference was also tasked with deciding on the precise modalities of the Loss and Damage Fund, which was formally established last year at COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheik.

Bringing together a large number of delegates and stakeholders, the Bonn Climate Change Conference was a particularly politicized event.

The adoption of the agenda was itself the subject of bitter exchanges between Global North and Global South countries. The coalition of the Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDCs) made the addition of a new agenda item on climate finance conditional upon the inclusion of the mitigation work program proposed by the European Union and the Environmental Integrity Group (EIG). Such a high level of disagreement is rare in an intersession and was all the more surprising in a context of absolute climate emergency, as the beginning of June was the hottest on record for this period. Typically approved on the first day, the agenda was only adopted on Wednesday June 14, nine days after the opening of the conference and just one day before its closure, creating uncertainty about the very status of the discussions that were taking place in Bonn.  

If the adoption of the agenda was already contentious, a seemingly innocuous agenda item nearly derailed the negotiations and delayed the closing meeting by several hours. Entitled “Research and Systematic Observation” (RSO), this consultation brings together delegates with scientific and technical backgrounds who often represent their respective governments at meetings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose periodic reports inform the UNFCCC. Discussions generally focus on the scientific and technical needs of the UNFCCC, with the hope that such a “wish list” will justify and guide research programs at the national and international level. RSO is also the privileged space for deliberating IPCC reports, once published, and for the UNFCC to express its gratitude for the work of the organization. In Bonn, State Parties were therefore expected to “welcome” the Synthesis Report of the IPCC’s sixth assessment cycle (AR6).  

However, when sitting in on RSO meetings, one quickly realizes there is nothing more complicated than debating the conclusions of the IPCC and their relevance for climate negotiations. The most seasoned observers might remember disagreements around the IPCC Special Report on the consequences of global warming of 1.5°C (SR15), which was commissioned by the UNFCCC in 2015. In 2018 at COP24 in Katowice, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Russia refused to “welcome” the report, preferring simply to “take note” of it, a euphemism harshly criticized by the scientific community (Hughes and Paterson 2018). In Bonn, discussions quickly took a similar turn. On the one hand, industrialized countries and the coalition of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) wanted to welcome AR6 and emphasize that it represents “the best available science,” a key notion that grants considerable symbolic weight to scientific conclusions in the UNFCCC. On the other, the LMDCs refused to use the language of “best available science,” instead contending that AR6 contained too many gaps. India, in particular, deplored the report’s failure to take equity into account in the production of IPCC low-carbon scenarios and pathways. China thought it pertinent to mention that the approval of the Synthesis Report had been particularly contentious and that many delegations—mainly from the Global South—had to leave the meeting before it closed as the negotiations ended two days later than expected (see Earth Negotiations Bulletin 2023). As a compromise, State Parties decided to remove any reference to “best available science” in the AR6 decision and to tone down the scope of several paragraphs. Thus, instead of acknowledging AR6 as the “most comprehensive and robust” assessment of climate change, the text characterizes AR6 as “more comprehensive and robust than AR5.” Disappointed by this outcome, several industrialized countries proclaimed “science is not negotiable” in the closing session of the Bonn talks.  

Some will interpret this conflict as another example of climate denial and anti-science and they are not entirely wrong. It is indeed possible that some states take genuine pleasure in attacking and undermining scientific expertise in UNFCCC negotiations. However, these disagreements also show the importance of creating an inclusive knowledge base (De Pryck and Hulme 2022) that incorporates the perspectives of all countries, in particular on adaptation and mitigation as discussed in the IPCC Working Group II and III. However, the participation of experts from Global South countries in those groups is still lagging behind, in particular in the assessment of its scenarios and pathways (see Saheb, Kuhnhenn and Schumacher 2022).  

Arguably more worrying and representative of growing distrust within the UNFCCC, Parties could not even agree on a paragraph listing the main conclusions of the IPCC. One particularly telling example, a sentence noting “the importance of the findings in the Sixth Assessment Report for pursuing efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius” (see Article 2 of the Paris Agreement) was intensely debated. With the support of several delegations, the sentence and the particular mention of the 1.5°C threshold had initially been added to emphasize the urgent need for action. In opposition to the phrasing, some Parties denounced “cherry picking” information provided by the IPCC. After several hours of small group negotiations or huddles, it became clear that for many the urgency to act should be accompanied by a reference to the importance of equity. The United States quickly opposed this proposal and, in the end, the entire sentence was deleted. A delegate from South America lamented that developed countries preferred to delete a reference to the need for action rather than accept a mention of equity. Consequently, the final paragraph makes a simple, understated allusion to the increased risk for each increment of global warming.  

This controversy over how to summarize the main conclusions of IPCC reports mirrors the deep disagreements that still characterize climate negotiations, particularly on the issue of equity and burden-sharing between countries and regions of the world. If the IPCC increasingly addresses equity issues in its reports, as developed in an entire sub-section of its latest Synthesis Report, some States refuse to acknowledge principles of justice and fairness as being within the realm of “science.” Such an opposition between “science” and “equity,” however, undermines the contribution of the social sciences to the work of the IPCC. Denying and challenging what the IPCC says about equity is a form of denial as untenable as climate skepticism.

Photo by IISD/ENB – Kiara Worth

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