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The Year’s Big UN Climate Negotiations Are Starting … Now, Actually

It’s the unofficial start of COP28.

Bonn, Germany.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Today marks the start of international climate negotiations in Bonn, Germany that will set the stage for COP28, the much splashier, more decisive U.N. climate meeting in Abu Dhabi this November.

The Bonn talks are an annual affair, something like a prep meeting for the main event. Heads of state don’t typically attend, and the meetings don’t attract crowds of climate activists the way COPs do. But the rest of each country’s team of experts and negotiators will be there to pick up where the previous COP left off and start to hammer out how to continue the progress at the next one.

“This is when the work gets done,” explained Mandy Rambharos, the vice president of global climate cooperation at the Environmental Defense Fund. Rambharos was a negotiator for the South African government for 20 years before joining the U.S. nonprofit. “You get down to the nitty gritty of it, in preparation for further negotiations at COP — the idea being that we should get to as much agreement as we can between the parties.”

The main item on this year’s agenda has a grandiose title — the first global stocktake. As part of the Paris Agreement, countries decided to come together every five years, starting in 2023, to do a comprehensive assessment of how much progress has been made toward its goals on climate mitigation, adaptation, and finance. The Bonn sessions will finish up what’s called the “technical dialogue” on the global stocktake.

“It really is like standing up in front of the class and presenting your homework and getting criticized on it,” said Rambharos. Delegates will discuss what policies they’ve implemented, what emissions reductions or adaptation solutions they’ve achieved, and what can be done to close the gaps.

You may have come across reports from the United Nations or groups like Climate Action Tracker that evaluate just how behind countries are on the Paris Agreement goals every year. Rambharos said the global stocktake is much more granular, with countries reporting not just what they have or haven’t accomplished, but what they need in order to go further. In that sense it could create a more precise picture of the financial and technological needs of developing countries, which are still waiting for the $100 billion per year they were promised by rich countries for climate solutions. Last week, Reuters published an explosive investigation finding that some of the funds distributed thus far have gone to irrelevant projects like chocolate shops, a hotel, and a feature film.

Ultimately, if the Bonn talks are a success, negotiators will leave having identified gaps in implementation, and will be able to bring recommendations to the table at COP28. When the global stocktake officially ends in December, it will hopefully conclude with a new set of goals and decisions about what to do next, said Rambharos. But it could also end with nothing. The outcome will largely be determined by the president of COP28, Sultan Al Jaber of the United Arab Emirates, who will be under pressure to produce concrete results.

Al Jaber, who is also the CEO of the UAE’s state-owned oil company, one of the largest in the world, has been the subject of intense controversy since he was picked for the job. More than 130 members of the European Parliament and U.S. Congress recently issued a joint letter calling for the removal of Al Jaber from the post. He risked “undermining the negotiations,” they wrote.

The Bonn talks will be a litmus test for the UAE and Al Jaber, and some expect it to reveal climate advocates’ worst fears. Germanwatch, an environmental nonprofit based in Bonn, issued a press release Friday warning that the conference is likely to “ring in challenging months of negotiations” where the UAE “will try to massively push its agenda to prolong the oil and gas age.”

The global stocktake is just one of many agenda items in Bonn. Delegates will also be working through next steps on the momentous “loss and damage” agreement reached in Egypt at last year’s COP. Rich countries finally agreed to provide funding to developing countries to cope with the catastrophic climate damages they have already experienced, like the drought in East Africa and the flooding in Pakistan. But there’s still a lot of details to work out, like the amount of funding to be distributed, and when and how and to whom.

The same goes for the carbon trading agreement reached at COP26 in Glasgow. Delegates have yet to nail down a system to make sure that when one country pays another country to plant trees or switch to electric vehicles, for example, those emission reductions are accounted for accurately and are not counted by both parties.

Bonn isn’t the last chance to make progress before COP28, but it is an important benchmark.

“If we don't get a breakthrough at the Bonn session,” said Rhombaros, “then you can be about 80% sure that we will have a really difficult six months in order to achieve something at COP. If we achieve something at COP.”


Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

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A coral reef in color and black and white.
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