Intense midyear negotiations toward a new climate change agreement ended this weekend in disappointment, with governments and activists openly worrying that countries did not make enough progress.
One bright spot in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change talks -- at least for some -- was the approval in Brussels of a new E.U. package to slash greenhouse gas emissions. While reaching the target of at least 40 percent cuts across the European Union by 2030 won praise in many quarters for helping launch the new global deal, others criticized it as setting a low bar for climate action.
In addition to the 40 percent target, the European Union agreed to boost the share of renewable energy and increase energy efficiency each by 27 percent. Yet the renewable energy goal, while binding on the European Union as a whole, does not specify what each country must do, and the efficiency goal is optional.
"A binding 40 percent CO2 reduction effort domestically in Europe is not an easy task," European Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard said in a statement. She called it an "ambitious and important step forward" domestically and internationally.
"We have sent a strong signal to other big economies and all other countries. We have done our homework, now we urge you to follow Europe's example," she said.
"There was a clear disappointment among civil society about the European Union, because at the end of the day, the targets need to describe the phaseout of coal and the phase-in of renewable energy," said Martin Kaiser, head of international climate policy for Greenpeace.
"The E.U. has given up on a joint European policy to drive the transformational change, and it's up to individual member states to determine its own transformation route. It was recognized here as a clear step backward," he said.
Elina Bardam, chief climate negotiator for the European Commission and speaking in Bonn, Germnay, acknowledged that member states will ultimately have to agree on how to carve up the the targets. But, she said, "I'm very confident that we will be in a very good position to start implementation of the 2030 package in due course and that an agreement will be reached on the detail among all member states."
A 'positive signal' for other nations
The new global climate agreement is expected to be signed in Paris in 2015. It will, for the first time, include mitigation commitments from all nations -- not just a handful of wealthy countries as under the current Kyoto Protocol. Governments have agreed to unveil their new greenhouse gas targets for the years after 2020 by early next year, making the European Union the first bloc of countries to officially make its plans for the new agreement known.
"The European Union has sent a positive signal to the world, showing that it is still serious about tackling climate change. Despite facing a dismal recession and difficult internal debate, European leaders still demonstrated their resolve by staying the course," said Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate and energy program for the World Resources Institute.
Market-watchers also welcomed the climate package as good for investors. International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) President Dirk Forrister called it "the political signal that business has been looking for."
Yet many also criticized the European Union for not aiming higher, as well as for putting forward a 2030 target when a shorter-term goal might allow it to be more ambitious.
The timetable, or "cycle of commitments," for emissions cuts in fact is emerging as a major sticking point in the talks and one that saw a good deal of attention in Bonn, diplomats said. Countries have agreed to offer up mitigation contributions for the years after 2020 but have not yet agreed on how many years that window should encompass.
The United States, in part at the urging of small island states like the Marshall Islands, has proposed a target through 2025. In doing so, it argued that a shorter-term goal would be "advantageous" for mitigation ambition.
"If the end date were 2030, parties might be unsure about how ambitious they could be and we might end up locking in ambition at a lower level than would have been possible had we first chosen 2025 and then made new contributions for 2030," U.S. officials said in a recent submission.
The European Union, on the other hand, has argued that a 2030 target will send the signal that investors need to pour money into renewable energy and curb corporate emissions. But the week saw some movement in an idea put forward by Brazil to have countries announce a rolling cycle of five-year mitigation commitments along with 10-year "indicative" targets.
Outlines of Paris talks still hazy
Yet what was left fundamentally unclear after a week of discussions was what exactly will be the nature of the 2015 agreement. Diplomats had hoped at least to work out what information should be included in the post-2020 contributions put forward next year, and didn't even come close.
"It's really kind of bogged down," said Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "They didn't get any of that done."
One serious split is between the United States, the European Union and other developed countries that want the new targets to be entirely focused on mitigation and developing countries that want their pledges to describe the finance and other aid they will need to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Similarly, many poor countries want the commitments from wealthy countries to detail how much climate finance they will deliver.
A group of progressive Latin American and Caribbean countries called for a global goal on adaptation, with collective and individual commitments from countries ranging from insisting that all countries devise national strategies to including adaptation efforts in the post-2020 contributions.
Another unresolved hot topic was whether, or how, the United Nations should judge the collective efforts of countries' contributions. That is: What if, when nations announce how far they plan to scale back emissions in the post-2020 era, those cuts are not enough to put the world on a path to averting catastrophic climate change?
According to Meyer, a proposal requiring a full technical assessment of what will be needed to ensure that the targets are consistent with the international goal of keeping global rising temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels was watered down. Instead, the language now calls for a workshop to discuss the pledges.
"It was a collection of developed and developing countries that didn't want people looking over their shoulder," Meyer said. "It's going to be a big fight in Lima."
Meanwhile, in the margins of the negotiations, the United States received pushback to its embrace of a deal that would not be fully binding at the international level. Many called the U.S. proposal -- which would obligate countries to submit to monitoring and reviews of their carbon cuts but not legally bind countries to their numerical targets -- a "glorified Copenhagen Accord." That's a reference to the voluntary agreement that was panned almost universally because it lacked teeth.
"We've gone very hard at the Americans and said that is not a credible" idea, one developing country negotiator told ClimateWire.