How to make a success of COP23: Q&A with Barbara Hendricks

Barbara Hendricks (center), Germany’s federal minister for the environment, speaks to the press at the start of of COP23. Photo by Benjamin Bathke/Devex

BONN, Germany — The 23rd Conference of the Parties, better known as COP23, is underway in the city of Bonn in Germany. Over the next two weeks, 23,000 delegates and 500 nongovernmental organizations from 196 countries will try to clarify a "rulebook" for the Paris Agreement on climate change negotiated at the conference two years ago.

The first U.N. Climate Change Conference was held in Berlin in 1995 to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol. Now, it returns to Germany as the largest intergovernmental conference in the country’s history, chaired this year by the small island nation of Fiji.

The Paris Agreement aims to keep global temperature rise this century significantly under two degrees Celsius, but preferably under 1.5 degrees. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the average global temperature from January to September 2017 was approximately 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era. The agreement has been ratified by 169 countries, but the United States controversially decided to pull out earlier this year.

“The Paris Agreement is irreversible, and we have to do everything in our power to implement it. We do not have much time left.”

— Barbara Hendricks, Germany's federal environment minister

Ahead of the opening of this year’s conference, Devex travelled from Berlin to Bonn with key stakeholders, including Germany’s federal environment minister, Barbara Hendricks. During the journey, and later at a meeting with the press, Hendricks spoke about her expectations and priorities for the conference, including the importance of implementing accountability mechanisms for the Paris Agreement, her own country’s efforts to support international climate action, and why the Paris deal is “non-negotiable” — describing “a point of no return for humanity.”

The conversations here took place over the course of two days. They have been translated from German, and edited for length and clarity.

What are your expectations for COP23?

Devex will be on the ground at COP 23 in Bonn next week. Sign up for our special daily briefings for all you need to know about emerging trends at the biggest conference on climate action.

It is clear that individual countries’ efforts up until now have not been enough. The Paris Agreement mandates that we become ever more ambitious and assess how we can improve further every five years.

We have to make significant progress in implementing the Paris Agreement here at COP23 and remind ourselves of the big picture.

Firstly, climate change is scientifically proven, and the impacts are already being clearly felt today. To some countries of the world, it is an existential threat.

Secondly, the Paris Agreement is irreversible, and we have to do everything in our power to implement it. We do not have much time left.

Thirdly, every dollar that we invest today in climate action pays off in cleaner air, better health and new economic and social opportunities for the future of our countries. We can, and in fact we must, shape a world in which our children and grandchildren can lead good lives. Moving away from fossil industries is difficult throughout the world, but we have to persevere.

I also expect COP23 to provide a platform for numerous stakeholders to demonstrate that greenhouse gas reductions and transformations to sustainable societies are already well underway.

“We need to send a strong signal to the whole world that all parties pull together, united in our climate protection efforts.”

What message are you sending from COP23?

We need to send a strong signal to the whole world that all parties pull together, united in our climate protection efforts. The Paris Agreement is non-negotiable. That’s a message we’re also sending to the United States.

A small island state, Fiji — a representative of countries that are particularly vulnerable — is chairing the climate change conference for the first time. That’s a good thing. Fiji, its Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, and Germany have been working together very closely in recent months. It’s important that the situation of the most vulnerable states is the center of attention during our debates. Fiji will remind us all what that means when we negotiate the intricacies of implementing our goals. Rising sea levels, the acidification of our oceans, and increasing numbers of storms are endangering the livelihoods of many islanders around the world. The international community needs to focus to a much greater extent on the situation of these countries, and we all have to support Fiji’s presidency to this end.

In Paris, we agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius. That’s a compulsory goal. Lower, however, is preferable. All countries in the world have to step up their efforts to reach the agreed national targets and to increase the ambition of these targets.

There is a point of no return for humanity, and we will reach this point if we disregard the upper temperature limit agreed at COP21 in Paris.

Delegates, including Barbara Hendricks, on the “climate train” from Berlin to Bonn speak to Devex ahead of COP23. Via YouTube

How concerned are you about the headwind coming from the United States since Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement?

Fortunately, the headwind so far hasn’t picked up in the sense that we succeeded in preventing other countries from leaving Paris as well. Our worry about a domino effect luckily didn’t materialize. Even countries like China and India, whose exit from nuclear and fossil fuel energy as well as electrification is anything but easy, are staying on course. India is still investing in coal-fired power stations, but a lot less than they had initially planned, and the region is now predominantly investing in renewable energy. A third of the country’s 1.2 billion inhabitants don’t have access to electricity, so electrification remains a priority. But we can help them follow the path of renewables to deliver energy in a decentralized way, which makes sense in a nation as vast as India.

China has come a long way from the time when they very often blocked [negotiations] or simply sat and listened. Now, China is one of the really active players, and has continued to be even after the change in U.S. policy. We had this coupling, the U.S. and China — the G2, if you want — but China has continued to play a leading role. We see the new collaboration between Canada, China and the EU as a follow-up to the former Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate Change, which was run by the US [under President Barack Obama]. China is doing a lot on the international level, but they are also changing the logic of their own economy. They are still investing in fossil fuel facilities, but even more into renewables. This is very strategic for China, because they know that fighting climate change is a precondition for their economy to grow in the future.

What will make the climate conference a success?

“We see the new collaboration between Canada, China and the EU as a follow-up to the former Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate Change, which was run by the US”

We need to reach an agreement on how we evaluate each other’s progress so we don’t cheat each other. The Paris Agreement is like a completely new, global law that requires consensus on how to interpret and implement it. That’s what we’re doing now; we are writing a new rulebook that determines how we measure our efforts and how we make them comparable. This may sound unspectacular, but it’s a precondition for mutual trust, to guarantee that we follow through on what we have assured each other.

Another yardstick will be our ability to come up with guidelines on what kinds of infrastructure to invest in. That’s crucial to achieving success in our fight against climate change. Investments in the wrong industries and technologies can be irreversible for decades to come. For example, we need to invest more in railway projects and mass urban transit rather than roads, but of course it’s more nuanced and complex than that.

What does Germany need to do to achieve its own ambitions, and to support the global fight against climate change?

We need to meet the goals of our own 2050 “Climate Action Plan.” [Among other things, this aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 percent.] It’s doable. We have an excess of energy production from fossil fuels, so the lights in Germany won’t go out.

The fossil fuel phase-out is a major part of our efforts. Although it’s no longer a question of if, but how fast we can roll it out, it can only work if we do it gradually and take employees in affected industries like coal mining into consideration. We need to manage this structural change in a sensible and inclusive way. Climate protection needs the support of all citizens in Germany, which is why we must explain and promote climate action to those who, at least initially, don’t seem to benefit from the shift.

Germany is a highly industrialized, affluent nation. That enables us to make significant strides in the fight against climate change, both financially and technologically. It also means we have a responsibility to make progress.

Adaptation measures will be required in many countries, which is why adaptation to climate change is an important second pillar of the Paris Agreement. Germany has been very committed in this area in the past and will remain so in future. We just announced that we will once again support the Adaptation Fund with an additional 50 million euros to help developing countries adapt to climate change.

Moreover, the federal ministry for economic cooperation and development has earmarked 50 million euros to the “Least Developed Countries Fund,” which specifically supports the poorest countries in their adaptation measures. Germany is standing in solidarity with those people and countries most affected by climate change.

What has Germany done to ensure COP23 won’t be a burden on the environment?

We have taken a number of measures. We are working with the EMAS scheme [Eco-Management and Audit Scheme], which identifies all substantial environmental aspects of the conference and helps reduce our environmental footprint as much as possible. Concretely, this means we try to avoid printing and distributing material whenever we can and share it electronically instead. Every participant receives a reusable and recyclable water bottle, which they can refill at water fountains throughout the conference venues. We also provide 600 free bicycles and electric shuttles for delegates to commute between the conference zones, and to and from their hotels.

We will offset the greenhouse gas emissions caused by delegates’ travels through the purchase of COP23 certificates, which support climate protection through projects like solar plants in Asia. COP23 will be a climate neutral event overall.

We need to reach an agreement on how we evaluate each other’s progress so we don’t cheat each other.

What will the negotiation process look like over the next two weeks?

We have set up two zones: the Bula Zone, where the negotiations will take place, and the Bonn Zone, which will showcase projects under the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action and host side events and exhibitions. Having two zones enables us to invite many more civil society representatives than has been possible at previous COPs.

Meeting over 12 days in total, negotiators will get together in bilateral and multilateral negotiation groups to discuss specific issues relevant to certain states, which will simplify the search for compromises. Germany will act as a member of the European Union. On November 15, the “high-level segment” with political chief negotiators will begin. These are usually specialized ministers who will help find solutions for protracted negotiations.

Devex will be on the ground at COP 23 in Bonn next week. Sign up for our special daily briefings for all you need to know about emerging trends at the biggest conference on climate action.

About the author

  • Benjamin Bathke

    Benjamin Bathke is a freelance journalist covering media innovation, startups and intractable global issues for Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, as well as several other international publications. In 2015-2016, Ben was a Global Journalism Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and a multimedia storyteller for Washington University in St. Louis.