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Climate change's devilish detail

In the absence of the US, developing countries stepped forward at COP23, as progress on the “Paris rulebook” inched ahead

For every high-profile climate summit like Paris, Copenhagen or Kyoto, where heads of state gather and treaties are signed, there are usually one or two more prosaic meetings in between. At these, technical issues and rules are decided. COP23 in Bonn this year was one such event.

The ground-breaking agreement reached in Paris in 2015 gave nations three years to craft a set of rules governing how nations should work together to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by the middle of the century. The summit in Marrakech last year gave negotiators a chance to work out what was needed, and Bonn was tasked with getting ideas down on paper.

After two weeks of talks earlier this month under the presidency of Fiji, two things were clear: slow but steady progress is being made on the "Paris rulebook"; and developing countries have gained leverage in the climate process, now that the US is taking a back seat in the negotiations.

This year's COP was given added spice by the fact that it was the first since President Donald Trump announced the US' withdrawal from the Paris treaty. Delegates were anxious to see how the world's second-largest emitter would approach the talks.

As it turned out, US diplomats played a low-key but mainly constructive role within the negotiations, while American politicians tried to boost clean coal at side events. Also on the sidelines, a vocal group of US states, cities and businesses-under the banner of the "We Are Still In" coalition—highlighted the progress that non-federal jurisdictions were making on cutting emissions in the absence of federal policy.

Other nations also made a splash. Canada and the UK launched the Global Alliance to Power Past Coal, hoping to get 50 countries to pledge to wean themselves off the fuel by the next COP. And Norway's central bank said it was recommending that the country's sovereign wealth fund—the world's largest-should divest from oil and gas, to protect itself from potential long-term price weakness as decarbonisation gathers pace.

$100bn/y - Finance target in aid for adapting to climate change

The Paris Agreement requires countries to develop rules and guidelines covering an array of matters. These range from transparency and carbon accounting, to finance, technological assistance and carbon markets. The accord also sets in place a schedule of periodic stocktaking meetings to review progress on achieving emissions reduction commitments.

Delegates agreed on a format for the first such stocktake, to be called the Talanoa Dialogue. This forum will assess progress to date and try to raise the ambition of future pledges during 2018.

Nations couldn't reach a deal on transparency, however. Wealthier countries resisted calls to provide more information on their financial support to climate-vulnerable states. At the same time, developing nations beat back demands for them to provide more emissions reductions data.

Negotiators made progress on establishing rules for international carbon trading. Delegates discussed offsetting and so-called "non-market approaches" to reducing emissions, and produced three "informal notes" that form the skeleton outline of a set of regulations. These papers are to be reviewed and fleshed out next year, in time to be agreed in full at the next COP.

Somewhat surprisingly to many at the talks, developing nations opened up a new line of negotiation by insisting that emissions cuts also need to happen before 2020. And in a sign of the shift in power, the conference agreed to hold a series of reviews next year of developed country pledges and achievements. The lack of a strong US position on this issue, among others, appears to have left the Group of 77 and China—essentially a collection of all developing countries—in the driving seat.

Finance remains a sticking point. In 2009 countries pledged in Copenhagen to mobilise a total of $100bn a year in finance by 2020, to aid vulnerable countries in adapting to the effects of climate change and to develop their own low-carbon paths.

Developed countries are reluctant to provide details of all their contributions to date, while UN-administered funds are also running low. The Bonn COP received promises of additional funding for UNFCCC-administered funds, and "ownership" of some of these was transferred from the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement, guaranteeing their long-term future.

In a year's time, parties to the Paris Agreement will meet in Katowice, Poland's coal capital, to try to finalise all elements of the Paris rulebook. From here it looks a tall order, but the UNFCCC process is used to last-minute deals.

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