5 things to watch at COP23

A view at this year’s United Nations Climate Conference in Bonn, Germany. Photo by: Max Thabiso Edkins / Connect4Climate / CC BY-NC-SA

BONN, Germany — The table is mostly set at the 23rd Conference of Parties, or COP23, as technical working groups prepare for the arrival of high-level ministers — and hope that a year of ugly politics won’t break a fragile spirit of climate cooperation.

These U.N. climate talks have been advertised as “technical.” Their purpose is to add the fine print to an historic Paris Climate Agreement that stands as something of a miracle of diplomatic acrobatics. In that process of getting more specific, there is plenty of politics to go around. Questions of financing, liability, responsibility, fairness, and commitment weigh as heavily on this treaty as the legalese and acronyms that cover it.

Many of these issues speak directly to the evolving relationship between developed and developing countries — and to the evolving role global development cooperation must play in responding to a changing climate. Some of the tools at the leading edge of climate action, such as climate risk insurance, public-private partnerships, refugee and migrant rights, and innovations in transparency, are also transforming the work of development organizations.

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Devex is reporting from Bonn, where an estimated 25,000 politicians, civilians, activists, and protesters will write the latest chapter of one of the biggest stories in the world. Next week COP23 enters its high-level segment, with the arrival of ministers from across the globe, and more than a few big names. Here are five things we’re watching as the climate talks ramp up.

1. The “Trump effect”

Last year in Marrakech, on the third day of COP22, participants woke up to the news that Donald Trump, an avowed opponent of international climate change cooperation, had won the U.S. election. With that news came a much more uncertain future. A year later, Trump’s shadow continues to loom large, as delegates fight to maintain a fragile spirit of unity, despite the United States’ imminent departure from the Paris Agreement.

The U.S. delegation is still present here. Due to the structure of the Paris Agreement, Trump’s plan to withdraw will take a few years to complete. After Devex inquired, a State Department official said the delegation has not planned any media availability or interviews during their time in Bonn. But they are expected to represent U.S. interests in expanding access to fossil fuels, hosting a side event during COP23 that promises to be among the most controversial.

In light of Trump’s position, and with concerns that U.S. delegates could use their remaining time as party to the Paris Agreement to sabotage it from within, some developing world activists have openly questioned whether the U.S. delegation ought to be at the table at all. A coalition of African civil society organizations earlier this week called for the U.S. to vacate its seat in the negotiations. “The time has come when we should ask ourselves whether the U.S. official delegation is necessary in the negotiations when its top leadership is playing an obstructionist role,” said the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance in a statement.

Others have observed that in the early stage of these talks, the U.S. is playing a similar role to the one it has played for years — generally siding with other developed countries on issues such as climate finance as negotiators work toward finalizing the minutiae of the Paris Agreement. The big questions are: When the high-level segment of these talks takes over next week, will higher level U.S. officials deliver a more aggressive defense of U.S. opposition to this process? And how much of their time at the podium will other country leaders devote to slamming the Trump administration?

While the official U.S. delegation has been dramatically pared down, U.S. representation at this COP is as loud as ever. Politicians, civil society groups, and business leaders who still support American efforts to combat climate change are headquartered at the U.S. Climate Action Center, a huge pavilion that serves as a renegade alternative to the official delegation’s nondescript office space. In opposition to the Trump administration’s fossil fuel push, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Thursday a $50 million commitment to help other countries shift away from coal power.

2. The Paris ‘rulebook’

The central task at COP23 is to make progress on implementing the Paris Agreement — by agreeing to a set of rules and procedures for how countries should fulfil their obligations under that treaty. This is often referred to as the Paris Agreement “rulebook,” and it is supposed to be completed by the end of 2018 — at COP24 in Poland.

There are a number of issues that need to be worked out when it comes to the nitty-gritty details of implementing the Paris Agreement. Since the treaty is built on a foundation of national commitments and national action plans — called nationally determined contributions — many of those “rules” relate to how countries should measure the actions they are taking at home, and how they should report those actions back to each other. In some cases, such as measuring and reporting carbon emissions, that is challenging, but relatively straightforward. In other cases, such as measuring and reporting climate change adaptation, there is a lot of work that needs to happen for countries to mutually agree about what that means.

Other rules and procedures that need to be worked out include: how should non-state actors such as the private sector participate in Paris Agreement implementation? What should be the accounting rules for climate finance? What can be done to enhance transparency so countries can hold each other accountable for fulfilling their commitments?

3. Fijian leadership — with a German twist

While COP23 is happening in Bonn, German, its official host is Fiji, a Pacific island state that is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Developing country advocates hope that Fiji’s presidency of this year’s COP will translate into a focus on issues that are high on the priority list for climate-vulnerable countries — including adaptation, finance, climate-driven displacement, and how to compensate countries that suffer “loss and damage” due to climate change impacts.

In the early days of COP23, some of those countries are already frustrated that their pleas to talk about committing to immediate climate action — which needs to happen before the Paris Agreement takes hold in 2020 — are being ignored. Some of them worry that even with Fiji at the helm of these talks, developed countries are still setting the agenda.

On Thursday night, the civil society coalition Climate Action Network gave its “fossil of the day” award — presented to countries that perform the worst at the U.N. climate talks — to “all developed countries.” Civil society groups and developing country delegates have blasted a group of rich countries for blocking a proposal to discuss pre-2020 climate change action on the official COP23 agenda.

4. The money issue

A perennial lighting rod in climate negotiations, finance will no doubt take center stage again this year in Bonn — at least, climate vulnerable countries hope that it will. In 2009, developed countries agreed to commit $100 billion a year in climate financing for developing countries by 2020. The United Nations estimates that by 2030, developing countries will face costs of $140 to $300 billion a year to adapt to climate change.

Last year, the OECD released a roadmap to achieving the $100 billion commitment, which projected that by 2020 a combination of public and private finance would amount to roughly $90 billion. Developing countries, meanwhile, have strongly objected to some of the accounting methods richer states have used to quantify their contributions. They charge that official development assistance is being “double counted” as climate finance, and that “leveraging private investment” is not a substitute for delivering public funds.

COP23 opened on a positive note, with a pledge from the German government of $50 million for the Adaptation Fund. This is a climate finance institution beloved by many developing countries because it focuses on the often neglected task of funding adaptation projects — and because it provides project implementers direct access to funding, whereas the much larger Green Climate Fund and Global Environment Facility deliver money through accredited partners.

However, the Adaptation Fund faces an uphill battle. It was set up to receive funding through carbon trading markets, which have since collapsed. With no clear system in place for capitalizing this fund, its future will be a big agenda item in Bonn next week.

5. Pushing for greater ambition — a ‘Talanoa dialogue’

Just before this COP kicked off, the U.N. Environment Programme released a sobering assessment of the gap between what countries pledged in their initial Paris Agreement commitments — their nationally determined contributions — and what they will need to do in order to keep global warming below their stated goal of 2 degrees celsius.

“The NDCs that form the foundation of the Paris Agreement cover only approximately one third of the emissions reductions needed to be on a least-cost pathway for the goal of staying well below 2°C. The gap between the reductions needed and the national pledges made in Paris is alarmingly high,” the report reads.

None of this came as a surprise to COP attendees, but it did serve as a compelling reminder that if countries are going to come anywhere close to achieving the Paris Agreement’s topline goals, they will have to scale up their efforts dramatically and immediately.

With that in mind, the Fijian leaders of these discussions have also been tasked with convening an effort to scale up the ambition of countries’ NDC commitments.

Drawing on a cultural principle of “talanoa,” which refers to a spirit of listening, participation, and empathy, Fiji will lead a “Talanoa Dialogue” in 2018. Many attendees at these talks consider that dialogue the last opportunity countries will have to commit to actions that will actually put the world on a path to meet the Paris Agreement goals and prevent levels of global warming deemed unacceptably dangerous.

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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.