Bonn: On compromises and inconveniences

Warning: one of my much, much, geekier posts.

After two weeks in Toronto, I went to Bonn, Germany for a UN climate change conference. The primary purpose of this conference was to edit a draft for the Paris agreement which will (hopefully) be agreed upon later this year. I was an observer, and I was writing for an amazing environmental newswire called The Verb. Visiting Germany and France and going to a UN conference are things I have wanted to do for quite some time, and the 3 weeks I spent in Europe did not disappoint.

The conference took place from the 1st to the 11th of June in Bonn, a small city that was once the capital of West Germany. Today, it hosts 19 United Nations institutions including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It is also known as the birthplace of Beethoven – although the composer himself wished only to leave his hometown – and the home of the gummy bear producer Haribo. Bonn is actually closer to Paris than it is to Berlin, so I flew to Paris, then took a train from there, enjoying the scenery as I passed through France, Belgium, then Germany.

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For the first two days or so of the conference, I was jet lagged and lost. There are a million things going on at the same time, from the main negotiations to “side events” – which are events hosted by other organizations, such as the World Bank, Green Climate Fund, universities and NGOs about a specific topic – to press conferences and more. Many people advised me to focus on a specific topic or area, but that, too, was hard because there are so many: financing, loss & damage, mitigation, adaptation, technology, forestry, agriculture, health and every other possible topic that could somehow be related to climate change.

I eventually found some things that interested me more than others. The topic of cities, and how cities are a big driver for both climate change adaptation and mitigation, was one of them. It was a widely discussed topic throughout the conference (along with the contributions of other non-state actors such as businesses. IKEA recently set an example by pledging $100 billion to climate adaptation). ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability held its Resilient Cities congress in Bonn, concurrent with the UN climate change talks, so I was also able to attend a few sessions. Finally, this tied in with the research I am doing for the summer, which is about public transportation policies. What are the motives behind building more sustainable cities? It is typically not sustainability or the environment itself per se, but the great cobenefits – health, quality of life, air quality, economic development, etc… – that come along with it. Which is a really fascinating topic and one that I will be talking about for some time to come.

An aspect of the negotiations that shocked me was just how slowly the negotiations went. It was to be expected, but when one is actually sitting in a room for thirty minutes and parties are still arguing about a single word or punctuation mark, it can get a little ridiculous. The harshest criticisms were masked in obtuse words of diplomatic formality. The process itself is a maze of technicalities, abbreviations, and vocabulary thrown around with the assumption that everybody “gets it”. This is part of what made my first few days difficult, and is a barrier to entry for everybody interested in policy. Bridging the gaps between research, policy, and the public is an important task.

And lastly, despite how sluggishly everything moved along, there was a great sense of urgency about needing to stop climate change. Even when buried in work, the occasional fact about climate science sometimes reminds me how scary and pressing this is – we still have a long way to go to reach the UN’s target of keeping warming below 2 degrees. To stay below 2 degrees, the world has to become carbon negative. More importantly, even 2 degrees rise in global temperatures is dangerous and could lead to several meters in sea level rise. When countries presented their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs -basically emissions reduction goals), the less ambitious ones (such as Canada!) were heavily criticized for their low targets and sneaky mechanisms to “hide” emissions.

On the bright side, Bonn was a beautiful city that made all of this dismal news less discouraging. I stayed in two different towns during my time there, residential areas not too far from the city center. Places feel farther than they are, because the roads are winding and circular. They do not even remotely resemble the orderly grids of Toronto. The growth seems to have been much more organic and polycentric: I noticed many small town centers with shops and restaurants. Houses seem to have been built around these centers, so that supermarkets and stores are within walking distance. The streets are less car-friendly (a lot of them cobblestone, too) and many people bike around. I’ve been reading a lot about sprawl lately for my summer research, and having to take a car to get groceries from a big-box store is decidedly a very different way of life.

On the other hand, I felt that convenience is not much of a priority in Bonn (or Germany? It was the same in Austria, where I went last year). Everything closes early, and on Sundays nothing is open. It is a far cry from the hyper-convenient, get-everything-now culture that I’ve grown accustomed to, where food is delivered to your door faster than you can cook it. But then again, maybe this is what everybody is in dire need of – agreeing to put up with a few inconveniences for everybody’s benefit. (Whether shorter working hours actually is in everybody’s benefit is a debated issue, but I personally believe that it is.) As for climate change, taking action and transitioning from an emissions-intensive society isn’t painless, but it’s an urgent compromise.

And, if this geektivist talk is your thing, I also picked up the skill of livetweeting while in Germany. So @sohyunkateyoon.

A quick highlight of other things that happened:

  • I went to a press conference, thinking I was late, then realized I was the only one that showed up at all (I was eventually forced to ask a question)
  • I got lost in the neighborhood I was staying in and randomly stumbled upon a Korean restaurant, where the staff helped me out. And I ate there several times during my stay! Apparently there is a large Korean population in Bonn.
  • The Rhine is one of the most beautiful rivers I have seen. I will never forget that beer garden!
  • We had a workshop (“Verb Shop Europe”) post-conference at a really nice house we rented through Airbnb. This gave me the false impression that all Airbnbs were this great. Until Paris…

But more on Paris later.

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