The annual Bonn Climate Conference ended yesterday having teetered on the brink of collapse until the final 24 hours. Although tensions ran high, ultimately a spirit of much-needed, albeit relative, compromise prevailed.
Spectators at Bonn’s World Conference Centre could be forgiven for scratching their heads in bemusement at the proceedings. For those more familiar with the political and media buzz of the annual climate COP summit, the rooms, full of negotiators going back and forth on procedural matters and agendas, would have seemed opaque and ill-paced given the pressing urgency of addressing the escalating climate emergency. But there’s an oft-repeated saying in the world of climate change diplomacy: process is substance. The discussions taking place in those rooms inform not only the technical work to be achieved at COP28 but also surface whether countries are approaching the talks from a position of trust and compromise, or one of doubt and intransigence. This dynamic is key to both the success of the year’s COP summit and understanding what will be decided when that gavel comes down in Dubai.
This year, disagreement about which issues should appear on the formal agenda meant that it wasn’t until the day before the conference came to a close that the agendas were adopted. In short, developing countries wanted a greater emphasis on addressing the continued shortfalls in promised climate finance and developed countries wanted a greater emphasis on mitigation efforts.
While this disagreement ultimately didn’t prevent discussions from taking place, it does lay bare the challenge ahead for COP28. If countries cannot even agree on the inclusion of specific issues on the agenda, reaching a compromise agreement on the substance of the issues seems even less likely.
Despite these challenges, the science is increasingly clear: we are running out of time and we must work together at pace to overcome inertia and embrace the opportunities of the required transition. This year is particularly significant in the climate calendar as COP28 will see the conclusion of the first Global Stocktake (GST) – a formal process to identify shortcomings against achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. The GST will confirm that we are falling behind in areas such as finance, adaptation and mitigation. Worryingly, this century, we are currently on track to hit 2.7°C of warming compared to pre-industrial levels and are likely to breach 1.5°C, if only temporarily, within the next five years.
This sets the stage for a reckoning at COP28 for countries, regions and businesses to face calls to go further, and faster, in pursuing climate action. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has already launched his Acceleration Agenda calling on developed countries to commit to reaching net zero as close as possible to 2040, rather than the broadly accepted 2050 target that holds sway at present. Although, in Bonn, the Net Zero Tracker project highlighted the continued momentum evident amongst corporates in setting net-zero targets, the need for business to play a key part in this increased transition ambition is made clear by Gutteres speaking at the launch of the Synthesis Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “governments need the assurance that business leaders will help them deliver on extra effort”.
As the goalposts move for countries keen to show global leadership, so too will those for responsible businesses. The transition from net zero being an immutable, far-off target to one that is dynamic, near-term and pressing requires a shift in both mindset and action amongst politicians, business leaders and citizens.
The science is clear that COP28 must be an inflection point for climate ambition. For those business leaders looking to demonstrate they are responsible actors in the low-carbon economy, a repositioning may soon be on the cards.
 IPCC, 2023: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report. A Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
 World Meteorological Organisation, WMO Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update (Target years: 2023-2027), 2023
 Net Zero Tracker (2023) Net Zero Stocktake 2023: NewClimate Institute, Oxford Net Zero, Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit and Data-Driven EnviroLab