Jochen Flasbarth is state secretary in the German federal environment ministry. Source - BMUB 2017.

COP23 - 'Bonn talks will be about the heart of the Paris Agreement'

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Negotiations at the upcoming climate conference in Bonn are about “the heart of the Paris Agreement”, because the delegations will shape the transparency rules on how states measure and report their progress in climate mitigation, says Jochen Flasbarth, state secretary in the German environment ministry. The Clean Energy Wire talked with Flasbarth about the broad support for Germany’s international climate ambitions, the country's own lack of progress at home and its role in filling the gap in international climate finance, left by the new US administration.

Clean Energy Wire: What would be a good outcome of the negotiations in Bonn?

Jochen Flasbarth: The conference in Bonn is a preparatory meeting for the next COP in Poland, where the fine print of the Paris Agreement will be decided. In a nutshell, it’s about shaping the transparency rules on how states measure and report their progress in climate mitigation. The Paris Agreement is built as a bottom-up structure, where the states themselves decide the contributions they can and want to make. This is why it’s most important to make sure that every party abides by their own targets and honestly reports about their efforts and results. So even though it’s very hard to communicate this to the public, the negotiations in Bonn are actually about the heart of the Paris Agreement. We want to get as far as possible this year so that things can be decided in Poland in 2018.

Is it still possible that the negotiations will water down this important fine print so much that the whole Paris Agreement becomes a toothless tiger?

JF: No, I don’t think so. What will be important in Bonn is whether the logic behind the negotiations will be like the one before Paris, or whether Paris has changed something substantially in the way we negotiate. We will be able to tell what is the case when looking at the texts – will it be full of brackets, so that there is a wealth of negotiating material, or will it be more target-oriented. What we will definitely see again after [US President Donald] Trump’s decision is that the discussions about climate finance will be intertwined with other topics, and that is something that always makes discussions more difficult.

You mentioned climate finance, which is a very important subject for the developing countries and those already under threat from climate change. Do these countries have to fear that funds will freeze up now that the US is pulling out of the international climate action?

We are following through with our commitment to jointly mobilise 100 billion US dollars in climate finance that we have pledged. We are confident that we will reach this target also without further commitments by the US. But one thing we will definitely not do: we will not fill the gap that the Americans leave behind by going back on their climate finance promise. We follow the principle that one mustn’t reward a lack of solidarity by saying “okay, in that case we do it”. I don’t want to rule out that Germany will do more with regard to climate finance than it does now. I even hope that the new German government will indeed do more, but not with the motive of filling the gap left behind by someone else, but rather of our own accord. And I have seen many partners in the developing countries accept this principle.
What I have noticed since Paris is a change in the understanding of climate finance. It is now much more widely understood that it’s about far more than just the 100 billion US dollars, that shifting the trillions is about channelling money into green and clean investments.

That means it will require quite a balancing act to substitute for the missing financial input from the US?

Luckily, President [Barack] Obama transferred a large sum to the Green Climate Fund before the end of his presidency. And the US will not completely stop contributing to climate finance, in particular in the area of adaptation. That’s interesting because they have this focus on adaptation in common with many developing countries, who often say that not enough is done in this area. The US will fail to provide the contributions they promised, that much is clear. I am certain that we will try our best to reach the 100 billion US dollar target without these payments. Don’t get me wrong, we’re more than just disappointed with the United States. Renouncing the Paris Agreement and the promised climate finance, that’s basically breaking with a good tradition on an international level. Normally, governments around the world have adhered to the obligations that previous administrations have entered – maybe not with as much zeal, or they haven’t developed them further, but not abiding by their own promises, that’s a unique development.

Has this and the general announcement by President Trump to eventually leave the Paris Agreement changed the dynamic of the climate talks?

It has done so, but in a different way than one might think. There is much more solidarity and an almost defiant attitude of “we can make it without you”. What’s a pity is that the relationship between the US and the climate negotiations had become so much better under Obama, something that really wasn’t the case before his presidency. Now the US administration is again viewed disparagingly. But at the same time we see much more clearly now that the US is more than the White House. There’s not only Governor [Jerry] Brown in California who has become the new hero of the international climate community, but also states, cities, businesses, NGOs, churches, and other actors.

The ambition mechanism of the Paris Agreement stipulates that countries have to increase their mitigation targets every time they hand in a new NDC [nationally determined contributions]. What happens if a country fails to follow this rule?

The no-backtracking rule is an essential binding part under international law of the Paris Agreement. But the question remains: what happens if someone doesn’t adhere to it, because there is no mechanism for sanctions in the Paris Agreement. One could say that this is a weakness, but I think we’re at a different stage now. The Paris Agreement relies on the building of trust and collective learning, and this idea is much more widely understood and followed now than ten years ago.

How is the EU coping with these challenges? Can the whole Union be slowed down in its mitigation efforts by the least ambitious members?

Climate targets within the EU are distributed following the same understanding as under the international climate regime: the rich countries do more to ease the task for poorer countries. Of course, we struggle within the EU. But once we agree, internationally we are in a good position. The EU does not have to hide. The US and China used to be the shining examples, but when you look at their targets, they are not that ambitious, or at least not ambitious enough for the EU to be outshone entirely. The difference was that everything that they did looked dynamic, and what we did looked extremely boring. This perception partly still lingers on. And as the EU has become bigger and more diverse, it has been separated into two parts when it comes to energy policy: those countries that are dependent on fossil fuels and those that have decided to go the non-fossil way.

Does this make it difficult to find common ground in the COP negotiations, or when reforming Europe’s climate mitigation instruments?

I think we’ve done a good job in the past few months. We’ve almost concluded the reform of the ETS [EU emissions trading system], which will by the way turn out better than often expected. I think we will see rising prices there. And we’ve also reached an agreement regarding the non-ETS area, including unanimity on the national climate targets. This shows that the EU can speak with one voice on climate. I think we simply have to talk and listen to each other more, that’s my advice at the end of my time in the ministry. I have spent much time talking with countries from the Visegrád group, and that’s one of the reasons the environment ministry has introduced the European Climate Initiative that develops projects especially with our eastern European neighbours. It’s not only about providing financing for projects, but it leads to more understanding - and that’s what we need. Constantly pointing fingers at the Poles saying you are the coal mucky pups doesn’t get us anywhere. I have been to Poland several times and I think such visits bear fruit because we have seen more common ground during the past months.

How do you explain to a country like Fiji, which is already suffering from the effects of global warming, that Germany, which has excess capacities in the power sector and clear climate targets, is still emitting more CO2 than it should?

What’s interesting is that I never get lectured on this by countries like Fiji. And that’s not out of politeness, but because Germany is still perceived as very dedicated. It’s true we’re not where we want to be with our emissions, but with the 28 percent reduction we have achieved so far and the growth in renewables one can see that much has changed in Germany. The reason for this is that ever since the late 1990s, the focus has been on the new technologies, particularly on renewable power. But this should normally coincide with saying goodbye to the old technologies. But, obviously, that’s a lot harder politically, so you procrastinate and procrastinate. We’ve had it on our table again this last term, and the economy, energy, and environment ministries have tried to do their best, but in the end the coal lobby got the upper hand and stymied progress. What we can learn from this is to always think ten to 15 years ahead, because otherwise in democracies you easily fear that you will lose the majorities for the policies you want to introduce. But in the end our options are getting fewer and fewer, which is why I think a coal exit will succeed now. The time has come when we don’t just need a symbolical coal exit, but when we have to reduce the capacities considerably. I hope the next government will achieve this, and would have wished that we could have accomplished it during the last term. But what will remain is the change in the discourse, because when I started here four years ago quite a number of politicians kept saying we would use coal long beyond 2050, and that idea is now not advocated by anyone anymore. Germany’s coal exit is not a technical problem and not an economic one but a social one, and here we can’t pose as a good example but other countries can learn what mistakes to avoid in the future.

At a personal level, how does it feel to be at the COP as a member of the outgoing government – will you be more daring or relaxed because afterwards there can be no national repercussions for you?

Oh, I’m always relaxed, it’s in my DNA [laughs]. But no, because despite the national debates about climate action that we have there is very broad support for our international climate ambitions. And that’s why internationally it has never been problematic to negotiate on behalf of Germany, neither for us nor for the previous governments. There’s always been a cross-party understanding that national differences in climate policy approaches would not be discussed on the international stage. So in Bonn we will do our job for Germany just as we’ve always done. With the additional challenge to be a good host to the summit, so that that our guests will leave with good memories.

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