3 takeaways from the COP23 negotiations

Participants at the venue of COP23 held in Bonn, Germany. Photo by: UNFCCC / CC BY-NC-SA

BONN, Germany — Early Saturday morning, after a series of false alarms and premature scheduling announcements, negotiators at the 23rd Conference of Parties in Bonn, Germany, found enough common ground to bring these latest climate change negotiations to a close.

For two weeks, delegates from nearly 200 countries pored over the technical details that govern what responsibilities countries will have to one another under the historic Paris Agreement. In addition to looming deadlines and changing politics, they faced the daunting pressure of a year dominated by devastating weather events, which seemed to touch every region of the globe — and which lent a sense of personal urgency to the negotiations.

COP23’s host — the Pacific island of Fiji — sought to impress upon the 25,000 people assembled in Bonn that small island developing states and other climate-vulnerable nations do not have decades to fashion an international response to climate change. With storms bringing unprecedented damage, and sea levels threatening to rend the lowest lying places unlivable in the immediate future, the Fijian COP23 presidency represented a view of climate change from the frontlines.

In some areas, that perspective translated into concrete progress in the negotiating halls; in others, there will still be plenty of work left to do at COP24 in Poland next year.

Here are three takeaways from two weeks in Bonn.

1. The US government’s ambiguous role

U.S. negotiators at the United Nations climate talks operate in a strange limbo. They still represent a powerful voice in international climate negotiations, but one that has signaled its intention to leave the table. This was the first Conference of Parties featuring a delegation representing the Trump administration, and the weeks and months leading up to COP23 saw plenty of speculation about the role U.S. officials would play. The president still plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, and he remains hostile toward international climate change cooperation. Trump’s policies prompted an entire “alternative delegation” of U.S. political and business leaders to travel to Bonn and push for continued U.S. engagement.

It came as some surprise that U.S. delegates held to a similar negotiating course as they have for years. They continued to co-chair a group on transparency in the Paris Agreement. On a range of other issues, the Americans took positions in keeping with previous administrations and in line with other developed countries. The U.S. delegates were not alone in opposing new commitments on climate finance. They also continued to join with wealthy nations in rejecting language around “differentiation” — the idea that developed and developing countries should be held to different obligations under the Paris Agreement.

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COP23 highlighted a distinction between the technical role career diplomats play in these talks and the administration’s political face. While American negotiators did their best not to rock the boat, Trump’s political representatives did the opposite. David Banks, Trump’s special assistant for international energy and environment, convened a panel focused on the role of fossil fuels in achieving climate change mitigation — a move that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg likened to “promoting tobacco at a cancer summit.”

At times, Trump’s political representatives made clear that the administration’s position on climate issues is still evolving. Asked by Devex whether the White House believes developed countries have a responsibility to provide financing to developing countries facing the impacts of climate change, Banks replied that “those issues have not landed.”

2. A big moment for climate risk insurance — but no clear answers on loss and damage

COP23 was always going to be a “technical COP,” with negotiators primarily focused on the nuts and bolts of implementing the Paris Agreement. That said, this Conference of Parties will likely be remembered as a moment when climate risk insurance entered the mainstream in developing countries’ efforts to deal with the impacts of climate change. The German government and a range of other partners launched InsuResilience — a new platform aimed at kickstarting climate risk insurance models by building a better evidence base, piloting new models, and building countries’ capacity to narrow the “coverage gap.”

COP23 highlighted some of the initiatives that have come the farthest so far. The Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility has issued payouts to countries reeling from a devastating storm season, and the African Risk Capacity has raised tens of millions of dollars from a group of countries that are pooling their risk together in anticipation of worsening droughts.

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Despite the enthusiasm around risk insurance, both supporters and skeptics alike warn that this is one tool, not a silver bullet, in helping countries prepare for and respond to the impacts of climate change. A perennially challenging topic in COP negotiations is “loss and damage,” which refers to a package of support that climate-vulnerable countries want to see as they look ahead to a future of more frequent and more costly climate-related disasters. Negotiators from those countries are adamant that while climate risk insurance might be a valuable piece of the puzzle, it cannot replace a more concerted effort to find sustainable ways to provide resources to countries facing increasingly dire climate projections.

3. Deadlines looming in 2018

It was not until the wee hours of the morning on Saturday that negotiators finally found enough common ground to bring COP23 to an official close. Their basic aim was to make progress on a number of issues that need to be resolved by the end of 2018, but there will still be plenty left to negotiate when delegates reconvene in Katowice, Poland, for COP24. The Paris Agreement “rulebook” is meant to be finalized next year. Doing that will require sorting out a number of issues that have frequently divided developed and developing country constituencies at these international climate talks. Those negotiations will remain difficult, and the decisions that finally brought COP23 to an end will only provide a new starting point for the next round of debates.

Two issues in particular stand out. Developing countries want their wealthier counterparts — which also tend to be the countries that have contributed the most to climate change — to be much more specific about the climate finance they plan to provide to help vulnerable nations mitigate emissions, adapt to, and cope with the impacts of climate change. The rules for how this money gets counted and reported still have to be decided, and civil society groups have charged that so far, developed countries are prone to overcounting the money they are putting forward.

Countries also still need to reach a final decision about the Adaptation Fund, which lost its funding stream when the international carbon market collapsed, and has been living donation to donation ever since. At COP23 delegates decided that this fund — which is very popular among developing countries — will have a place under the Paris Agreement, but they still haven’t decided where consistent money will come from, or if the Adaptation Fund will have to see some structural changes, for better or for worse.

Read more Devex coverage on the COP23.

About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.