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How U.N. Climate Negotiations Are Like Splitting A Bar Tab

Imagine a bar without the booze. Delegates wrangling in Bonn, Germany, this week have to figure out soon how to cover the world's climate bill.
Oliver Berg
Imagine a bar without the booze. Delegates wrangling in Bonn, Germany, this week have to figure out soon how to cover the world's climate bill.

When you go out with friends to a bar or a restaurant, there's always this awkward moment when the waiter shows up with the check and you've got to figure out how to split the bill. Well, something similar is happening right now in climate change negotiations.

The United Nations is trying to get nearly 200 countries to agree on a plan for how to fight global warming. This week negotiators are in Bonn, Germany, for their last meeting before the final summit starts Nov. 30 in Paris.

And while a lot of the U.N. negotiation is pretty dry, technical stuff — there's diplomat-speak and bickering over the exact wording of documents — some of the dynamics would be familiar to anyone who has ever been out drinking with their buddies.

"It's like all these countries have been at the bar drinking for the afternoon, or for the day, or just showed up recently," says Andrew Jones, co-director of Climate Interactive, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. "And some people showed up in the morning, and some people just showed up 10 minutes earlier. And then the bill comes."

How To Split The Climate Bill Fairly?

The U.N. talks aren't about drinking beer, but rather burning fossil fuels. And although there's no literal bill, there is a price to pay. Just like with your friends, everyone is supposed to chip in their fair share.

It's almost like "a few people throw down some euros, some people throw down some coins, some in other denominations people don't even know, and then someone's got to put it all together and say, 'Does it really add up?' " explains Jones. "You add it all up and then you say 'Hey, everybody — everybody needs to throw in 10 more,' or 'John, you had a little bit more; you should throw in 20.' It's like that kind of process."

Climate negotiators have not been throwing crumpled bills down on a bar. Instead, countries have been making pledges for what they'll do to help limit global warming to just 2 degrees Celsius. That's the goal nations agreed to years ago, to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

The deadline for countries to make their pledges was this month.

"They're called 'intended nationally determined contributions,' " says David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative at the World Resources Institute, a nonprofit global research organization.

"They're 'intended' because it's what countries are proposing, it's not their final thing," Waskow says. "They're 'nationally determined.' And they're 'contributions' in the sense of what countries are going to contribute to the global effort to reduce emissions."

The plans are all posted on the UN website. They tend to be between five and 15 pages. Countries usually set targets for how much they'll cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and say how they're going to do it.

"Many countries have also included information on what their renewable energy plans are going to be," Waskow says, "or what they're going to do on energy efficiency, or how they are going to handle forest protection."

More than 150 countries have made these pledges — that's almost the whole world. But the bottom line is, as of now, if climate change were presenting the planet with a bar tab, there's not enough on the table to cover it.

Pledges Made So Far Aren't Enough

"Using my analogy, we have not paid the full bill," Jones says.

His group calculates that if countries do just what they have pledged so far, global warming by the end of the century would be about 3.5 degrees Celsius. So there's still a ways to go.

"But the way that this process is coming together for Paris makes us believe that it is actually possible to get further, and get all the way down to 2 degrees," Jones says.

That is, at some point in the future, maybe, if the summit in Paris can just get the world headed down the right path.

Another group used countries' climate pledges to calculate that the world could limit warming to 2.7 degrees Celsius, if countries continue to improve on their pledges and make more ambitious reductions in greenhouse gases over time.

"The big move for countries to put forward plans is actually quite impressive," says Bill Hare, head of Climate Analytics, a nonprofit institute in Berlin, Germany. "The very fact that they are doing it is a positive story."

What countries does Hare think are like drinking buddies who haven't put in enough?

"Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand," he says. "Russia as well, actually, could afford to do a lot more than they're doing."

He thinks China and the European Union have pledged an OK amount.

"The U.S. is a bit like that guy who always was a bit slow to pay at the bar and then somehow got a few negative messages from their mates," says Hare, "and then starts to say, 'OK look, right — now it's time to catch up a bit, and I'm going to buy a round here and a round there.'"

These pledges are only part of the U.N.'s overall effort to get the whole world acting together against climate change. Questions about fairness lie at the heart of the whole process, as nations big and small, rich and poor argue over how much they really owe.

Hare says poorer countries that are trying to develop are pushing back against the richer nations, saying: "You guys got all the chance in the world to burn as much carbon as you wanted and you're telling us 'Hey, time to stop?' " Those developing countries are worried about their future economic growth.

Meanwhile, countries especially vulnerable to climate change say they need help to cope with droughts, extreme weather and rising seas.

"Some countries are beginning to feel like they're standing outside a very noisy bar looking for a taxi to get home and some drunken people wander out into the street and get aggressive and push them around," Hare says.

The final summit in Paris is just weeks away, and tension is building. At the start of this week's negotiation session in Bonn, developing nations complained bitterly that a draft agreement for the negotiations was unfair — basically, that the rich nations were trying to stiff them.

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Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.