Two weeks ago, my girlfriend and I left Washington for two very different dates with international climate action. She headed to Indonesia to work with women farmers who are reintroducing native, drought-tolerant crops in order to build resilience to climate change. I, on the other hand, went to Bonn, Germany for the most recent round of UNFCCC climate change negotiations . The contrast could not have been starker. I spent 10 days watching with astonishment as countries bickered over committee chairs, agendas, and footnotes. There were highs in Bonn, too, as I outline below, but overall the atmosphere at this session was one of mistrust and reluctance. For years we in the climate negotiations have struggled to connect with the so-called “real world.” We are now in danger of becoming disconnected from development practitioners, municipal leaders, energy specialists, and corporate decision makers who will ultimately lead the transition to sustainable development. At its best, the UNFCCC can be a vital catalyst for climate compatible development. At its worst, it becomes an irrelevance to people like those working with my girlfriend, who are delivering climate compatible development on the ground. The momentum generated during COP 17 in December was lacking, and negotiators now face a real challenge to restore confidence in the fragile but important Durban Package .
The “Lows” and Their Underlying Causes
One of the greatest outcomes of the last climate change negotiation, COP 17, was the Durban Platform . Failure to make real progress on implementing the Durban Platform was the greatest disappointment of the Bonn session. As my pre-Bonn blog post  stated, electing chairs to the various governing bodies and finalizing the agenda needed to be balanced with forward momentum on the substance. Regrettably, that didn’t happen. Bonn was supposed to establish a work plan for closing the emissions gap between developed and developing nations and foster wide cooperation. Instead, we emerged with an incomplete provisional agenda rife with opposing visions that lacks the clarity needed for the rest of this year.
At the heart of this deadlock lies the pivotal duo of ambition and equity. Too many countries feel that they are being asked to take an unfair burden of responsibility for reducing emissions. One side argues that the world has changed since 1992, and that at a time of growing worldwide emissions, increasing deficits, and rising unemployment, the industrialized world cannot shoulder the climate change mitigation responsibility alone. The other side claims that the right to development remains as true today as it did 20 years ago, and that the urgent need to tackle widespread poverty must remain the principal focus. Many vulnerable and progressive countries have found themselves caught in the middle as this debate has raged, and the delicate balance established in Durban appears dangerously close to unraveling.
The “Highs” and What They Mean
Although much of the session was consumed by agenda fights, the negotiations established plans to enhance mitigation ambition both before 2020 and in the new agreement that will come into effect after 2020. There were also other less visible signs of modest progress in several areas, such as:
The Kyoto Protocol: Parties advanced on adopting amendments that would allow a second commitment period to begin on January 1, 2013.
Mitigation: There was further discussions on how to set-up the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) registry , which gathers individual country plans for emissions reductions; on national communications; and on methodologies, practices, and design elements of the International Consultation and Analysis (ICA) , which provides for transparency and accountability in meeting emissions reduction goals.
Finance: The session involved progress on transparency in Fast Start Finance funds, which provide for mitigation and adaption investments in the short-term, and harvested the most appropriate lessons for improving finance reporting. In addition, countries discussed ways to increase mid-term finance covering the 2013-2020 period. On long-term finance covering the period beyond 2020, countries concentrated on finding ways to ensure predictability of finance and establish the right balance amongst financing sources.
Technology: Negotiators were able to follow the timetable agreed to in Cancun/Durban and agreed on the ranked short list of entities to host the CTCN. The CTCN is designed to bring together a broad mix of national and regional organizations, networks, and initiatives aiming to support developing countries with technology development and transfer. If it can combine with the financial mechanism and mobilize the private sector, it has the potential to become a game-changer by helping communities de-couple growth and emissions and become more resilient. The first ranked organization is UNEP, leading an alliance of 12 other organizations.
Moving Beyond Agendas to Implementation
This decade is decisive. UNEP’s Bridging the Emissions Gap report  has identified the gulf between business-as-usual emissions and reductions needed to hold global average temperature increase to 2˚ Celsius above preindustrial levels. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, we are still left with substantially more to do on mitigation as well as on the vital finance and technology that comprise the means to mitigate.
The key message is that we need to get busy. The events of these two weeks in Bonn were at best an unfortunate diversion from the real business at hand. When negotiators convene in Bangkok at the end of the summer, they will find that the clock is ticking. They will need to wrap up the procedural aspects, avoid the perennial bickering on the agenda, and make real progress on substance.