5 questions ahead of Morocco's 'COP of action'

By Michael Igoe 04 November 2016

The Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, Morocco, where the 22nd Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will be held. Photo by: Nathan Meijer / CC BY-NC-ND

COP22 — the 22nd Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, for the uninitiated — is being dubbed, somewhat hopefully, the “COP of action” when it comes to halting global warming and staving off environmental disaster.

Last year’s Paris climate agreement put in place the procedural framework and timeline countries will adhere to as they try to keep global temperatures from rising past the “dangerous” benchmark of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Now, COP22 is supposed to start translating those agreements into concrete action, money and more ambitious commitments.

Marrakech, Morocco, is hosting this year’s conference from Nov. 7 to 18, against a backdrop of record global temperatures, a U.S. presidential election that features a candidate who pledged to back out of the Paris agreement, and a general sense of insecurity about how much countries are really willing to cooperate with one another anymore.

Even with Paris pledges, though, the world is still heading for a temperature rise of 2.9 to 3.4 degrees Celsius this century, the United Nations Environmental Program announced Thursday, as it released its annual Emissions Gap report.

“We are in a very destabilized period, environmentally, and we are in a very destabilized period, politically,” said Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, speaking during a climate change and natural resources conference in New York.

“Climatologists are telling us, and the ecologists are telling us that within another generation we could lose millions of species, or destroy the conditions on the planet for hundreds of millions of people or more through our own thoughtlessness,” he said.

But there’s also some good news.

The Paris agreement, brokered in December 2015, enters into force today, Nov. 4 — more quickly than even the most optimistic supporters hoped. It represents a diplomatic success story negotiators and activists can point to as they move into the implementation phase of climate action. Nearly 200 countries agreed to an ambitious plan to cut emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, which alone could prevent up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming. And the international aviation industry has recently endorsed steps to implement market-based emissions reductions and offsets.

Climate cooperation is a bright spot for the international community right now, and COP22 attendees will fight hard to keep the winning streak going.

Devex will be on the ground in Marrakech, zeroing in on the issues that have the greatest bearing on development professionals as they look to navigate a complex international treaty and the uncertain climate finance and policy landscape it will usher in.

Here are five key questions we’ll be asking during these two important weeks in Morocco:

1. Will politics spoil the party?

A few unexpected events have happened since negotiators brokered the Paris climate agreement in December.

Britain shocked the world with its surprise Brexit vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump, an “anti-globalism” climate change denier, emerged as the U.S. Republican presidential nominee. Colombia voted against a peace treaty to end its half-century war with the FARC rebel group and Syrian refugees continue to flee a perilous situation at home, and the war there rages on.

Coincidentally, America will elect its next president on the second day of the COP22 proceedings, and — while climate change has been a notably absent topic in this U.S. election — Tuesday’s outcome will likely set the tone for the remainder of the two weeks.

Trump, who said on Twitter that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive,” has pledged to pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement if he wins the presidency. Most expect Clinton would maintain U.S. leadership at the climate negotiating table, press for increased investment in renewable energy, and support financing for developing countries to transition to low-carbon economies.

Obama administration officials are striking a note of confidence that the momentum that’s already built up around the Paris agreement and other commitments will carry climate action forward — with or without U.S. leadership. Just this week China’s top climate negotiator criticized Trump’s pledge to pull out of the agreement.

“I think the question may be what role and how quickly the U.S. moves, but the international community is moving forward,” said John Morton, director for energy and climate change for the White House National Security Council.

That may be so, but on Nov. 9, many COP22 participants will either breathe a sigh of relief, or they will have to think hard about how to shore up support for a climate action agenda that the incoming president of the world’s second largest carbon emitter publicly opposes.

2. Will climate finance be new money, or just repackaged development assistance?

In Copenhagen in 2009, developed countries committed to providing $100 billion a year by 2020 to developing countries to help them adapt to climate change and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. That commitment is a symbolic cornerstone of the climate treaty that developing countries have fought hard to put in place. It’s also, by most estimates, a small fraction of the total expenditure that will be required to adjust to a new climate reality — and to make sure that reality is not overwhelmed by extreme droughts and supertyphoons.

Some COP22 participants — such as the Least Developed Country Group — see cause to worry that countries will respond to pressure to put up $100 billion in climate finance by drawing from their development assistance accounts. In other words, without transparency and monitoring, developed countries could take money they planned to give to developing countries anyway, label it “climate finance,” and say they’ve fulfilled their obligations.

The LDC representatives argue this would be self-defeating, since climate change is expected to exacerbate existing development challenges. If climate finance isn’t additional finance, they worry, then it will hardly help countries deal with the additional threats posed by a more volatile climate.

Expect to hear more discussion about about accountability, transparency and monitoring climate finance over the next two weeks.

3. What counts as adaptation?

Just as it can be hard to differentiate “development assistance” from “climate finance,” it can also be tough to describe what exactly counts as “climate change adaptation.”

This is a debate that can get arcane and academic, but it also has real implications for what kinds of projects and investments will fall under the “adaptation” category, and therefore be eligible to receive climate finance support.

Climate change is leaving more people more vulnerable to bigger natural disasters. It’s changing disease dynamics, and upsetting crop cycles. These kinds of impacts warrant investments in disaster risk reduction, public health and food security. Each of those could be an example of “climate change adaptation,” but each of them could also be an example of “development.”

A significant task for the discussions now is to create some more specific parameters around what some of these terms mean in practice, so that those actions can be monitored, reported and assessed.

The development of a Paris agreement “rule book” will try to draw some clearer lines around what countries mean by “adaptation” and other categories of action and investment they’ve included in their nationally determined commitments and various national development plans. But while that will be under discussion in Marrakech, it’s not likely to happen until 2018.

4. Can climate change donors move from projects to programs?

Some implementing organizations have complained of inefficiencies in actually delivering climate finance to institutions and projects ready to receive it. The Green Climate Fund, for example, is known more for its rigorous accreditation process, than for moving money quickly to climate change projects.

“Whether the Green Climate Fund could become more efficient, certainly the answer is yes, it certainly could be depoliticized further and I’m certain that it could increase its path towards professionalization,” said Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute.

Climate finance is also distributed between a number of different funding channels that can be difficult to parse.

“At the moment in climate finance, there is a sort of spaghetti feeling,” Steer said.

WRI is producing a climate finance “navigator” to try and clarify what the various sources of funding are and how to apply for them. But, Steer noted, climate finance donors still have to figure out a way to move beyond ad hoc support for individual projects into a much more programmatic approach.

“The big win is going to be if we find a way to move towards more programmatic financing,” he said.

5. Can COP22 chart a course for higher ambition?

The international community needs to at least find a way to hold countries and nonstate actors accountable for the commitments they have made so far. The need for a measurement, reporting, and verification system is a particularly urgent challenge, said Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister of Australia.

“At end of day when there is no global system for effective comprehensive measurement, reporting and verification, how do we know that people are doing what they’re saying. Or as we say in Australia in an inelegant fashion — how do we keep the bastards honest?” he said.

But it’s also no secret that the commitments made under the Paris agreement will fail to keep warming below the dangerous 2 degrees Celsius threshold, as the UNEP report showed, and parties to the agreement plan to meet again in 2018 in a “facilitative dialogue” about scaling up their ambition. Marrakech presents an important opportunity to set the stage for that dialogue.

That will, in part, depend on whether negotiators can maintain a spirit of trust that they helped to build by forging the Paris agreement last year, said Heather Coleman, climate change policy manager at Oxfam.

“There was just an incredible level of international diplomacy that occurred between countries that I think helped to build trust, and I think we absolutely need to see that deepen,” Coleman said.

Adva Saldinger and Amy Lieberman contributed reporting.

Devex Senior Correspondent Michael Igoe is reporting live from COP22 in Morocco this week. Stay tuned to Devex and follow him @AlterIgoe for on-the-ground coverage.

About the author

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Michael Igoe@AlterIgoe

Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.


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