What is the Bonn Climate Conference and why you should care

by Daniel Jasper
A group of climate negotiators with Bonn, Germany in the background

Unless you're deeply involved in climate policy, you may not be aware that crucial international climate negotiations recently wrapped up in Bonn, Germany. These annual talks laid the groundwork for issues to be discussed at COP29 in Baku, Azerbaijan. Despite their importance for global climate action, however, these mid-point meetings don’t get nearly as much attention as they deserve. 

Every year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)  hosts a meeting of the “Subsidiary Bodies” in Bonn, Germany. The sessions focus on the scientific and technical elements of climate negotiations and the implementation of climate agreements. This year was the 60th meeting of the Subsidiary Bodies, referred to as SB60, and with each passing year, the stakes are being raised as emissions climb and commitments pile up. Thus, understanding how these discussions operate is critical to moving climate action forward.

Below are some things to know about the conference and this year's takeaways.

What’s the difference between COP and SB?

The major annual climate conference, COP, which stands for “Conference of Parties,” is the primary place for world leaders to decide on international climate agenda items. It is often the last step in the process of climate negotiations. Hence why there is so much fanfare around COP every year – it’s the place where last-minute deals are struck and final agreements are announced.

SB, on the other hand, often flies under the radar as it is a midway point in climate talks and prepares decision items for COP. Crucially, SB is also the venue in which implementation of past decisions is discussed. 

SB is where a lot of follow-up occurs on agreements like last year’s COP28 commitment to transition away from fossil fuels. Getting the technical aspects and implementation programs right is obviously paramount to substantive climate action. Therefore, SB is a critical juncture for the world as the details of the agreements are hashed out. As they say, “The devil is in the details.” Or, in this case, the pathway to stopping climate change is in the SB negotiations. 

Differences between the Bonn Climate Conference and the Conference of the Parties. 

Table showing differences between Bonn and COP

What’s the history of SB, and what has it achieved?

In 1992, 154 nations agreed to the UNFCCC. (Today, 198 countries have ratified the convention.) The treaty provided the scaffolding for further climate agreements and helped routinize negotiations. In 1995, the first COP was held in Berlin, Germany, and the first SB took place the same year a few months later. 

That’s nearly 30 years of climate negotiations! So, what, if anything, have these talks achieved?

As the UNFCCC Executive Secretary Simon Stiell pointed out in the opening session of SB60 this year, without international climate diplomacy, the world would be headed toward 5°C of warming. After nearly three decades of climate treaties, the world is now on a trajectory toward 2.7°C of warming. In other words, talks such as those at COP and SB have effectively bent the curve in half.

While that change in trajectory is impressive, it is nowhere near enough. In 2015, the UNFCCC process produced the Paris Agreement which set the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C or well below 2°C. So far, world leaders are failing to meet the objectives that they agreed on. 

...the scrutiny that comes with public attention is essential to realizing a more robust agenda and, ultimately, more effective climate action.

The uncomfortable conclusion is that the UNFCCC process is working – just not as well or as quickly as the world needs it to. That’s why it is so critical that the public is aware of and engaged with every part of the climate negotiation process, not just the flashiest conferences; the scrutiny that comes with public attention is essential to realizing a more robust agenda and, ultimately, more effective climate action.

What happened this year and what’s ahead?

This year, the Bonn climate talks provided another reminder of the need for further public and press involvement. Negotiations did not make much progress on key issues such as transitioning away from fossil fuels and mitigation efforts or a new climate finance goal; the talks produced only modest progress on adaptation, but much work remains to be done.

At the conference's conclusion, Simon Stiell warned that “we’ve left ourselves with a very steep mountain to climb to achieve ambitious outcomes.” Similarly, Ann Rasmussen, representing the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), remarked that "we really can’t afford these failures. We have failed to show the world that we are responding with the purpose and urgency required to limit warming to 1.5 degrees."

Going forward, it’s clear that consistent, high-pressure public involvement will be essential in moving climate negotiations.

With so little progress, SB60 has set the stage for a complicated COP29 in Baku. Some diplomats will have opportunities to convene at various high-level meetings, such as the G7, which began just as the Bonn talks ended, and a July meeting of state delegations, which will include finance ministers. However, not much progress is expected to be made until this fall as agendas are packed with other geopolitical concerns. Additionally, some key decisions, such as funding levels, may need to wait until national leaders and ministries meet at COP29.

Countries are also expected to start submitting their national climate plans or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) this year. These documents provide the details of how countries expect to meet their climate targets; however, planning for low- and middle-income countries remains difficult as there is no sense of how much or what type of climate finance will be available. 

Climate diplomats will have a lot to sort through at COP29 — so much so that it’s difficult to expect much progress from the conference. Significant public attention and pressure, however, have moved negotiations in the past, during the Paris Agreement negotiations, for example, and, more recently, during deliberations for the Loss and Damage fund at COP28. Going forward, it’s clear that consistent, high-pressure public involvement will be essential in moving climate negotiations. 

Dan Jasper is a policy advisor at Project Drawdown with a multidisciplinary background in public policy at the intersection of climate change and poverty alleviation.

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