Bonn Voyage – Time to set sail to a new Climate Archipelago

In my last set of observations (see Kill Bill V2 and the Cancun COP), I tried to make the case that the 20 year old UN system that manages intergovernmental climate affairs is increasingly archaic.  Rather than just complain and wander off muttering under my breath, these next blog blasts represent a few ideas might  enable the UNFCCC to enhance its  relevance, while not asking it to undertake tasks it is ill equipped and underpowered for.  And I think it’s clear that we need to shake some things up – somehow or another.

As they say in real estate, location is everything.  The German government offered Bonn as the home for the UNFCCC Secretariat back in 1995 at the first Conference of Parties in Berlin.  Which, as an aside, was attended by all of 1000 people – fewer than 3% of those who attended Copenhagen last year.   Bonn was, of course, the capital of West Germany during the Cold War, but the reunified government had quickly committed to repatriating to its historic home of Berlin.  In a blink of an eye, Bonn moved from being the capital of the strongest economy in Europe to a city that probably doesn’t  even crack top ten in its own country.  Just for comparison sake, my list would be Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich, Cologne, Stuttgart, Hamburg, Dusseldorf for certain – and Bremen, Dortmund, Essen, Hanover, Leipzig, Heidelberg, Aachen, Karlsruhe and the like jousting with Bonn for the last three slots.

If the world community wants to send signal how important climate change is, housing this crucial function in Bonn is like sending a Lada with a broken exhaust to pick up the CEO at the airport after a 12 hour flight.  People get fired for doing things like that.  Staying with Bonn at this point just because it is there is a firable offense in my mind.  It shows we are not serious.

This goes beyond just the perception – there are functional problems in the fact that Bonn’s is little more than an innocuous northern European city.   Talented people choose not to apply for UNFCCC jobs simply because they involve Bonn postings.  Every time a meeting in Bonn crops up, one invariably finds multiple Facebook posts groaning about having to go to Bonn.  For most hard core climate negotiation participants, the idea of yet another stay at the Maritim hotel brings on thoughts of ritual seppuku.  OK, that’s a bit strong, but suffice to say few people get a perk in their step when receiving notice of yet another need to come to Bonn

The results are exceedingly problematic.  In the most interconnected issue the world has ever faced, our lead agency on the issue is inherently isolated and insular – largely due to the tyranny of geography and a choice made at a very different time.  Profound developments are occurring in low carbon technology, finance, business models and policy.  Yet the globetrotting class that is moving heaven and earth to develop these tools has utterly no reason to ever just schedule a side meeting and have a cup of coffee with the Secretariat to mutually learn.  One must always justify  a dedicated trip see the UNFCCC secretariat in its home environs  – a fundamentally irrational situation.  Because in the climate and cleantech space, there is utterly no other reason to ever go  to Bonn.  The result is a dysfunctional entente, in which the outside world and the UNFCCC have substantial mutual incomprehension of eachothers capabilities and roles.

While Bonn is undoubtedly the wrong place, that certain does not mean that there is a single right place.  The scope of the climate issue and mission has grown enormously over the past fifteen years and ideas are flowing from all corners of the globe.  Perhaps we need to rethink the UNFCCC Secretariat as a global archipelago of issue focused units.  One can imagine a half dozen plus of regional bases, bristling with high end video conferencing and other telecommunications.  Grab the the conceptual framework  of Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room (think about the situation room in 24) and ask Apple, Cisco, Google, IBM and SAP outfit the archipelago with every bit of relevant technology and database IP to make them an example of a truly global best working practice.

Current meetings that Bonn hosts could become partially virtual (with small groups of participants convening at the local regional hub).  We’d even probably save some greenhouse gases, though we might have the problem of Lufthansa demanding compensation for lost revenue.

What might this archipelago look like?  We’d probably want to look for cities that are already in the midst of key green transformations and have certain green reputation.  Purely off the top of the head, one might think Masdar City (sustainable cities), the San Francisco Presidio (R&D) Rio de Janeiro (biofuels)  San Jose, Costa Rica (development issues), Melbourne (clean coal), Shanghai (transportation)  and probably still Bonn (coordination and governance).   The real fight would, of course,  be for the finance seat.

Of course there will be overlap and turf battles – that happens in any dynamic work area.  But frankly, the UNFCCC could use a bit of dynamism and I’d rather have units stepping a bit on eachother’s toes for ideas and people, rather than abetting the idea that fighting climate is about setting up the right comprehensive bureaucracy.    Make it an exciting place to be – not another UN agency backwater.

To the good people and civic leaders of Bonn, I ask your forgiveness for my blunt words and I truly mean no disrespect.  Like many of my colleagues, I have walked your pleasant streets many times and had my fair share of your delicious fresh beer and streetside currywurst.  You are a good place and I believe you should continue to be a spoke in the climate world.  But it’s time to step up, be big and let the rest of the world share the burden – and the opportunity – that managing global climate change represents.  From Bonn, we must sail forward.