Can Fiji deliver a developing countries' climate conference?

Protesters call for immediate climate action outside the 23rd Conference of Parties in Bonn, Germany. Photo by: Michael Igoe / Devex

BONN, Germany — It is an unusual arrangement. The 23rd Conference of Parties — or COP23 — is being led by the tropical Republic of Fiji, but taking place in chilly Bonn, roughly 10,000 miles away.

Developing country advocates hope the small island state’s presidency will shine through the distance and the dreary weather to ensure that climate change-vulnerable countries see their priorities placed front and center in this installment of the annual international climate change negotiations.

Policymakers have spent too little time on the issues developing countries regard as vital to a just and equitable approach to confronting a warming world, according to representatives from those negotiating blocs. In the first days of this climate conference, which runs through November 17, some civil society groups are already worried that the Fijian hosts are allowing rich countries to dictate terms and keep some urgent conversations off the agenda.

While much of the attention since the Paris Agreement’s adoption in 2015 has focused on longer term plans and reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions, developing country representatives have pressed nations to uphold other commitments included in the historic treaty. They want to see more specific discussion of climate change adaptation, and are pressing for clearer explanations of how developed countries will report on the financing they are providing.

Countries that are already experiencing negative impacts from climate change want to see progress in discussions about which resources might be provided to help recover the loss and damages they suffer from climate-related disasters. With 2017 set to be among the three hottest years on record — joining 2016 and 2015 — climate-vulnerable countries are also demanding that parties not wait until 2020, when the Paris Agreement kicks in, to hold each other to more ambitious climate action commitments.

The treaty that binds countries to commitments before 2020 — the 2012 Doha amendment to the Kyoto Protocol — has still not gone into force, resulting in what some consider a lost decade of potential climate action. The world cannot afford two more years of inaction if the Paris Agreement is going to have any meaningful impact, climate activists argue.

“The Paris Agreement risks derailing if pre-2020 actions are neglected,” said Godwin Ojo, program director of Environmental Rights Action Nigeria.

With that in mind, developing countries introduced a proposal on the first day of COP23 to add a discussion about pre-2020 commitments to the agenda, something they had been advocating for months. That proposal set the stage for some early drama in Bonn.

In a move many felt was a surprising abdication of developing country leadership, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, presiding over the negotiations, announced there was not consensus to accept this proposed addition to the schedule. Pre-2020 commitments will instead be the subject of informal discussions during the first week of the COP, to be revisited on Saturday. Civil society groups pressing for more immediate action have lamented a lost week of negotiations on the issue and expressed concern that the topic could be dropped entirely.

“This COP is being led by a small island state … Why is it that pre-2020 and finance and all of that is not at the top of the agenda?” said Mariama Williams, senior program officer at the South Center in Geneva.

Developing country representatives also see pre-2020 action — or lack thereof — as an alarming litmus test for whether Fiji’s presidency will translate into real progress on a range of issues important to developing countries.

“My worry is — and we need to see how it goes — that it’s going to affect all different areas of work,” Harjeet Singh, international climate policy manager for ActionAid, told Devex.

“Some of the challenging issues around loss and damage finance, or even [funding for the] Adaptation Fund, where we want some real concrete decisions, are also not going to be taken,” Singh worried.

In 2018, Fiji will lead a “facilitative dialogue,” which is the first opportunity since the Paris Agreement was forged for countries to take stock of their climate actions to date, and to see if they might commit to more ambitious “nationally determined contributions,” the country-specific mitigation and adaptation plans that form the foundation of action within the international climate treaty. Fiji has rebranded that exercise as a “Talanoa dialogue,” which draws on a concept of participatory, open dialogue aimed at building empathy.

But some observers charge that the presidency’s leadership has already betrayed the participatory spirit of talanoa. They also worry that without pre-2020 action on COP23’s agenda, the issue will now get lumped into the Talanoa dialogue process, which was meant to focus on enhancing post-2020 ambitions.

“I can’t believe that it has to be fought for ... but what we do know at this point is that several developing country parties are quite prepared to fight for making it part of the agenda,” said Lidy Nacpil, coordinator of the Asian Peoples' Movement on Debt and Development.

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About the author

  • 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.