What do COP23 climate negotiators really talk about behind the scenes of the UN climate conference in Bonn—apart from the muffins.

People stroll around wearing badges with the title “Party overflow” below their name, but this isn’t a a booming knees-up. The reality of the COP, which stands for Conference of Parties, is much more sombre. The “parties” are party to the United Nations framework convention on climate change, and the “party overflow” badges are handed to people who didn’t fit into the initially registered official delegation a country sends to the talks. So what are all these people really talking about?

What was there to negotiate at COP23 in Bonn in early November, after the plan for fighting climate change was seemingly settled with a historic agreement in Paris two years ago?

A lot, apparently. While the Paris Agreement presents the first every universal climate deal, turning it into action is where the real work starts.

Take the unfinished business from COP18 at Doha, for example. Midway through the conference, Germany, Spain, Belgium and Sweden deposited their documents ratifying the Doha amendment to the Kyoto Protocol with the UN secretariat. The Doha amendment lengthened existing commitments to tackle climate change until 2020, after which the famous Paris agreement targets begin to apply comes into force. Apparently the EU had been putting pressure on its member states to get their paperwork in order, so that their negotiators at the conference wouldn’t be undercut by other countries which might point to a lack of commitment even to existing, softer targets, let alone the more ambitious Paris accord.

How to implement Paris—and what it really means—is also still being hammered out. For example, the Paris agreement foresaw that developed countries would provide USD100 billion per year (from 2020 onwards) to developing countries for mitigation and adaptation measures. Does this mean aid? Or investment? Also, what do you count? Is it only investment by the developed countries? Or should it also include private financing that’s encouraged to follow this public investment? For example, if the European Investment Bank invests EUR 100 million in solar-power in India, and private investors thereafter put up an equal amount, should this count as EUR 100 million or EUR 200 million towards the goal?

What’s the difference between Korea and Korea?

No less contentious was the question of which countries count as developing countries. The division, based largely on OECD membership 25 years ago, puts South Korea in the same category as North Korea. That makes for some unintended consequences, as one observer from a developed country told me.

“Basically, if we were to stop financing climate action in Bulgaria and Romania, and would instead channel that money to Saudi Arabia and South Korea, this would count as a plus for us,” the observer told me over some excellent apple-cinnamon muffins in a corner of the Bonn conference centre.

And while no one expected all these issues to be resolved by the end of this COP, these were the things people continued to discuss at length over the muffins (they also had chocolate ones) and the coffee (if you stood in line at the German pavilion, you could get one for free).

COP23 climate negotiators only need a small piece of the infrastructure pie

COP23 climate negotiators in Bonn cited an estimate that we are currently at around USD 65 billion a year, which is a good start on the USD 100 billion target by 2020. If these all seem like huge numbers, a World Economic Forum representative put things in perspective with a presentation in which he calculated that the world annually needed to invest USD 5 trillion in infrastructure anyway, much of it in today’s developing world. With “just” USD 700 billion additionally, all that infrastructure could be made sustainable and adapted to climate change.

OECD estimates put the figure at around USD 6.3 trillion annually, from 2016-2030 – and USD 6.9 trillion to make that infrastructure (including energy, transport, water etc) “2 degrees C-compatible”. Therefore many questioned where the USD 100 billion figure came from (some recalled it was proposed by former UK prime minister Gordon Brown before COP15, in 2009 in Copenhagen, most likely simply because it was a “nice round figure”), and whether it would actually be enough – or whether we should be talking about mobilizing USD 600-700 billion per year instead, as the WEF and the OECD seem to suggest.

“It is not that much more over what you would invest anyway, but you need to make sure that climate considerations are mainstreamed in all of these investments.” That was the take-away, according to one attentive listener.

COP23 climate negotiators selling policy

For many, COP23 was a way to meet up with colleagues from various institutions around the world, united around a common goal. A guy who had been to each conference since COP4 in Buenos Aires in 1998 told me, “It’s like a big fair where no-one is selling anything – except for policy.”

The policy, though, is key.

“This COP, and the next couple, are critical in determining how we operationalize the decisions that, in principle, were agreed to in Paris,” one participant summed up.

China's hubbub

COP23 climate negotiators expected this to be the conference when China would pick up the global climate leadership sceptre dropped by the US under Donald Trump.

Before COP really got under way, this is what I heard: “China has a huge motivation to really step up in the area of fighting climate change. They fear a genuine revolution because of the pollution levels there. The industry, the government is very motivated.”

But at the event itself, next to World Wildlife Fund’s pavilion called #Pandahub (without any pandas, though), China erected a nice pavilion for itself, but otherwise didn’t stand out. “China was nearly absent, very quiet,” one observer summed up. He also remarked that the Chinese positioned themselves firmly in the corner of the developing countries, demanding larger contributions from developed countries. In this context, developed countries are those whose industrialisation largely caused the CO2 emissions peaks in the first place.

Even though China has declared it will cut the number of coal mines from 10 800 in 2015 to 7 000 by next year, COP23 climate negotiators were sceptical of how to check whether China is making good on its promises. One participant recalled a story of how, despite a ban on new golf courses some years ago, more than 400 “illegal” golf courses still sprouted in China, illustrating the scale of the challenge of enforcing and reviewing commitments.

Some Americans provide some relief

Even though all but absent on a federal level from the event itself, the United States was very much the talk of the town. A America’s Pledge, a group chaired by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Governor Jerry Brown, appeared at the conference. This alliance unites 2300 US states, cities and businesses, which make up more than half of the economic power of the country. Therefore, they’re able to fulfil a large portion of the US national commitment to climate action.

This, along with the unifying effect Donald Trump’s rejection of the Paris agreement had, allowed everyone else to breathe a sigh of relief.

No political sabotage

Some COP veterans were relieved that political leaders didn’t actually sabotage the process. “In Paris, the political leaders came in at the beginning, kind of giving a boost to all the civil servants involved to prepare an agreement,” one said just before the high-level plenary with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron and others was about to start. “More work gets done without ministers here. They are not here long enough for actual negotiating. This is done by the country delegations.”

As rumours started circulating about plans for essentially two ministerial-level climate conferences next year, he for one was sceptical this would add to the speed of progress, or the ambition.

Either way the real business of the COP23 climate negotiators was not done yet. Near the end of the conference, Belgium and Slovakia also deposited their Doha amendment ratification documents, further relieving EU anxieties. On the very last day, the United Kingdom deposited its papers.

Poland, the host of next year’s COP in Katowice, still hadn’t done so.