Understanding COP23: On the international politics of climate change

The following article is a resource produced by members of Demand Climate Justice to provide background on the global politics of climate change and the latest U.N. negotiations in Bonn, Germany.


Planetary Emergency: The World at 1°C

The current decade has already seen three consecutive record-breaking years for global temperatures. While 2014, 2015, and 2016 coincided with the El Niño phenomenon, 2017 does not — yet is still on course to end as one of the three hottest years on record.

The impacts of current levels of climate change were felt throughout 2017 as a spate of hurricanes tormented the Caribbean on their way to causing further destruction in the United States. Elsewhere, climate change supercharged the monsoons in India, resulting in flooding across the subcontinent that left thousands dead and tens of thousands displaced, while forest fires raged in Europe and across North America and a severe drought brought famine to East Africa, affecting over 20 million people.

Today’s climate change impacts are severe and scientists warn that much more warming is inevitable: it is 95% likely that average global temperatures will pass the 2°C threshold set by countries only two years ago in the Paris Agreement. The window to avoid breaching the aspirational 1.5°C threshold is closing fast — less than four years remain before the likelihood rises above one in three — and the efforts countries have pledged to undertake, if delivered, are instead estimated to result in up to 3°C warming.

Even with the Paris Agreement in place, CO2 levels are the highest they have been in 800,000 years and keep rising: 2016 saw the largest increase on record.

The Paris Agreement: An Ongoing Process

Since gavelling through the Paris Agreement in December 2015, the international community has met only three times under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to negotiate the details of how to put it into practice. Although the Agreement quickly “entered into force” legally, negotiators are still working towards a December 2018 deadline to finalise the implementation guidelines, or “rule-book,” of the Agreement, which they are doing in a working group called the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA), jointly chaired by Saudi Arabia and New Zealand.

At the most recent meeting in Bonn this May discussions evolved from conceptual to concrete as the facilitators of negotiations on unresolved issues prepared papers (“informal notes”) which lent some structure and direction to the talks. Since the May meeting, Parties have expressed their views on each agenda item via dozens of focused written submissions, all of which facilitators will have to consider and include as they move forward.

From November 6–17 countries will gather once again for the 23rd annual Conference of the Parties (COP 23). Several “roundtable” discussions will take place prior to the meeting proper, where the APA co-chairs hope Parties can get on the same page in terms of understanding each others’ views before the real negotiations begin. A host of other meeting tracks will also convene, including the permanent subsidiary bodies on implementation (SBI) and on scientific and technical advice (SBSTA) and the governing body of the Kyoto Protocol (CMP).

Critical Issues for COP 23

Major divergences remain over key questions which were not wholly addressed in the May session. One recurring issue is how to treat differentiation between countries, which affects all other agenda items. Another issue is what information exactly are countries required to note in their Nationally Determined Contributions, with developed countries seemingly intent on re-negotiating the Paris Agreement so that these pledges — and the transparency framework being built to monitor them — only relate to mitigation efforts, rather than all efforts.

Developing countries have been very concerned that developed countries are advancing some issues far faster than others in order to benefit from an “early harvest” of their priorities. The desire for a balanced approach is nominally shared by the APA co-chairs, who have said they will ensure more symmetry in the process.

As well as the regular features common to all climate change negotiations, COP 23 will also be notable for a number of specific reasons.

The United States Vs. The World

In June Donald Trump announced that he would pass legislation to take the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. Legally, the U.S. must wait until 2020 to actually withdraw, meaning that for the duration of Trump’s term in office the U.S. will continue to have a seat at the table. Naturally, the meeting in Bonn will be riddled with concerns about how this will affect the geopolitical dynamics at a time when ambition must be ratcheted up.

Some Parties and sections of civil society have made noises about allowing more flexibility in order to tempt the U.S. to remain, and have sought to pressure China to take on more responsibility. This misunderstands the reality on two fronts.

Firstly, China is already a climate leader, broadly meeting its fair share of the collective effort and investing $100 billion in domestic renewable energy each year. The second, rather more glaring mistake is to believe that the U.S. was ever a leader — in fact for the entire history of the negotiations it has acted as one of the principal blockers of progress.

With the U.S. still technically a Party to the Paris Agreement, it remains to be seen what role they will pursue. Secretary of State and ex-CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, has indicated that the U.S. will engage in order to protect its ongoing interests in the talks, so the possibility remains of the U.S. acting disruptively on behalf of fossil fuel industries.

Along with its allies in the “Umbrella Group,” the U.S. is likely to frustrate progress on issues such as adaptation, loss and damage, finance, technology transfer, transparency of support, compliance, and the global stocktake. The motivation for doing so is clear and will be exposed by a major civil society report on corporate interference in the climate negotiations. Due to the close ties between the Trump Administration and major polluters some advocates have called for the U.S. to be isolated and ignored in the process.

A “Facilitative Dialogue” in the Last Chance Saloon

With the treaty-negotiations of the Paris Agreement out of the way and with the price of renewable energy continuing to fall just as the devastating impacts of climate change continue to stack up, there are no more excuses for low ambition.

Since the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol ended in 2012 we have essentially lost a decade to inaction, meaning the challenge ahead is even greater as so much warming is already locked in. Developed countries have dragged their heels on ratifying the Doha Amendment which set them mitigation targets for the period 2012–2020.

To make matters worse, the voluntary “Nationally Determined Contributions” to the Paris Agreement aren’t much better. However, a mechanism exists to ratchet up ambition. The first phase will take place in 2018 with a “Facilitative Dialogue,” followed by a “Global Stock Take” in 2023.

Developing countries are cautious, however, as developed countries are pushing that the Dialogue does not take into consideration whether or not they have received the support they require from developed countries. As with the transparency framework being negotiated, they fear an undifferentiated system in which they will be burdened with additional requirements which they are not able to meet without requisite finance.

In Bonn, negotiations will proceed on the design of both the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue and the 2023 Global Stock Take. Of note to civil society should be a new report containing recommendations on how the Dialogue should assess countries’ pledges on the basis of equity and in light of what support they have been offered.

No Champion in Government for Impacted Peoples

COP might be held in Bonn this year, but Fiji is actually the host of the meeting and will assume the role of the Presidency. They are the first Pacific nation to do so, and many in society and the developing country bloc hoped that they would champion measures that address the devastating impacts already being felt around the world. However, the Fijian Presidency has indicated that it intends to put aside its interests and the interests of small islands and the developing world at large in order to play host.

Nevertheless, with worsening impacts worldwide, the issues of adaptation, loss and damage, and climate-induced displacement are becoming harder to avoid. The Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage has a 5 year work plan in place which the COP should approve, but it has not yet been designated a permanent source of finance.

Developed countries are still extremely unwilling to discuss financing for loss and damage as they see this as an admission of liability for climate change disasters occurring around the world. The unwillingness extends into finance for adaptation: though Parties agreed that the Adaptation Fund would serve the Paris Agreement, developed countries have been dragging their heels by requesting another full review of the Fund before they will agree on the exact institutional arrangements. Some are also insisting that market mechanisms be tasked with resourcing the Fund, which has not previously proven a successful way to raise this badly needed money for communities.

Many governments are also guilty of or complicit in severe human rights violations around the point of extraction and the endemic of violence against land-defenders and indigenous and environmental activists has worsened in recent years. In this context, climate justice movements and frontline communities have no expectations of finding champions in government.

WTF: Where’s The Finance?

Lack of adequate finance is not entirely contained to efforts to address loss and damage or adaptation. Even with the focus shifting towards implementation of the Paris Agreement, developed countries have not been forthcoming with a plan for how to reach the $100 billion per year minimum funding they are obliged to mobilise by 2020. Details of what scaled-up funding will be on offer after 2025 are completely lacking.

On top of this, the methodology used by developed countries to account for the support they are already providing is highly inflationary. Developed countries claim to mobilize around $25 billion per year, but this is largely through existing bilateral channels and is not properly new and additional. The Green Climate Fund has so far received only $10.3 billion. This amount is far short of the tens of trillions of dollars it will cost for developing countries to fulfil their pledges, and the world will be on track for upwards of 4 or even 5°C warming.

The Movements for Climate Justice

Ofcourse, the official negotiations are not the only events taking place in Bonn over the coming weeks. As well as with a major demonstration on November 4th, activists will target the German coal industry in the Rhineland with direct actions by the Ende Gelände network.

Additionally many discussions on how to transform energy systems and shift build political power from the bottom up will be held at the alternative People’s Climate Summit.

As the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice we will be active across all these spaces, convening climate justice assemblies, carrying out protest actions, following and analysing the negotiations, and collaborating with other groups and networks to articulate clear demands and build power to affect change.


Further resources:

COP23: Climate Justice Events - We are who we’ve been waiting for - Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice

#COP23: Climate Justice Update 1, Bonn again - Storify by the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice.

What to watch for at the UN’s climate change conference, COP23 in Bonn - Oxfam International

The Fiji UN Climate Summit 2017, COP23: what is at stake in Bonn? - Heinrich Böll Foundation

UN climate conference aims for greater ambition as 2017 set to be among top three hottest years - UN News

The Paris Climate Accord Didn’t Go Nearly Far Enough—Can Bonn Do Better? - The Nation

Original source: Demand Climate Justice at medium.com

Image credit: flickr creative commons, BUND Bundesverband