Frank Bainimarama, Prime Minister of the Republic of Fiji and COP 23 President Designate, meets with Ambassador Aziz Mekouar of the Kingdom of Morrocco, which presided over COP22 (Credit: UNFCCC).

The 23rd Conference of Parties (COP23) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) concluded November 18. The two-week session gathered country leaders, corporations, and other stakeholders to Bonn, Germany, to clarify past agreements and future goals. The session was not intended to accomplish major breakthroughs, but was rather an opportunity to check on progress on fulfilling the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. However, the COP23 saw a variety of firsts, illustrating the forward motion at which the world is progressing toward a cleaner, more resilient and sustainable world.



An Intermediate Conference Sees Notable Firsts

The climate talks were chaired by Fiji, the first small-island state to preside over a major international climate conference. This was significant, as small-island states rarely hold leadership positions in global sessions. But it was appropriate for a small Pacific island nation to lead climate change discussions, as low-lying islands are so heavily impacted by climate change—particularly by rising sea levels. As the first country to move an entire village due to rising waters, Fiji was a logical choice. The country’s unique perspective threaded urgency throughout the discussions. Though hosted in Bonn for logistical reasons, Fiji played a large role in the negotiations.

Unfortunately, this year's meeting was the first climate conference in almost a decade at which the United States did not embrace a strong leadership role. On the contrary, the United States is distancing itself from the international process: in June, President Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. But the United States remains a member of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change for the time being, and, in any case, the withdrawal process from the Paris Climate Agreement will take three more years to become effective. The United States, therefore, sent a small group of delegates to the conference. The delegation arrived with President Trump’s past offer: the United States would rejoin the Agreement if its rules become more favorable toward the United States.

Meanwhile, Nicaragua and Syria, the last two holdouts, recently announced they were joining the Paris Climate Agreement, effectively leaving the United States completely isolated.

A Certifiably Sustainable Conference

COP23 was the first U.N. Climate Conference to receive the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) certificate. This award recognizes environmentally-sound organizations based on their carbon footprint, waste management, and overall sustainability. German Federal Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks and U.N. Climate Change Deputy Executive Secretary Ovais Sarmad ensured the conference minimized greenhouse gas emissions and waste generation, as well as the consumption of energy, consumables, and water. More than 650 volunteers were trained to notify participants of steps they could take to reduce their environmental footprints, reminding them to use their provided water bottles and bike to their housing accommodations. The transport of over 28,800 people to the conference was balanced by the purchase of carbon credits.

This was also the first time the United States did not host a pavilion at the U.N. summit, becoming the only developed country not to do so. However, a second delegation represented the United States for the first time. The "We Are Still In" group, led by California Governor Jerry Brown and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, opened a “U.S. Climate Action Center” pavilion. The unofficial delegation announced "America’s Pledge," stating that although the federal government does not currently intend to meet the Paris Agreement goals, other U.S. governmental and business actors will seek to do so.


Goals, Negotiations, and Resolutions

Though the minimal U.S. participation did leave a significant void in the negotiations, the conference continued as planned and covered emissions, adaptation, finance, partnership, and leadership. The goal of the talks was to develop the Paris Climate Agreement guidelines, which are due by COP24 in Poland next year (November 2018). The delegations hoped to finish a draft at this conference to ensure the final product would be ready in time. While progress was made, a secondary negotiating session may need to be scheduled to finish the rulebook.

Pre-2020 emission standards and finance actions were a point of contention during the climate talks. Many of the Paris Agreement's provisions assumed the Agreement would only enter into force in 2020 and, therefore, they do not hold developed countries responsible for any inaction prior to 2020. But the ratification process was much more rapid than expected, with the Agreement coming into force in November 2016. Developing countries, already feeling the devastating impacts of climate change, would like to see action before 2020. After back-and-forth negotiations, the developing countries won the inclusion of some pre-2020 actions into the text.

The topic of climate finance was also intensely discussed. Developed countries have been unsuccessful in providing the $100 billion per year in climate finance they've promised by 2020 to help developing countries lower their emissions and adapt to climate change. Developing countries require significant amounts of funding to implement clean energy programs and infrastructure and are unlikely to raise the funding on their own.

One solution proposed by developing countries was to add the Adaptation Fund from the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement. The Adaptation Fund was established in 2001 to finance climate adaptation projects in developing countries that are part of the Kyoto Protocol. It receives dedicated funding from certain emission reduction activities and is, therefore, an attractive source of financing. However, certain Kyoto Protocol signatories are reluctant to share their funds with the additional countries that have joined the Paris Climate Agreement. Developing countries also proposed the addition of “loss and damage” regulations. The “loss and damage” system would charge developed countries for their contribution to climate change and then fund countries impacted by climate change. Developed countries argued against both of these solutions. A compromise was eventually made to include the Adaptation Fund in the Agreement (the details must be worked out), but to exclude “loss and damage.” It is likely that the topic of climate finance will reemerge in the near future.


Related Announcements

The progress made toward resolving the two above issues was accompanied by announcements regarding a variety of partnerships, financial pledges, and initiatives, including the following (a full list is available in the COP23 press release).

The United Kingdom and Canada are leading a Powering Past Coal Alliance with 20 other countries, including Mexico, Finland and France. The focus of the Alliance is to phase out coal production and stop all new creation of traditional coal power plants without carbon-capture capabilities. The members of the Alliance will share any relevant advice for phasing out coal with countries and businesses wishing to do the same.

The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of cities focused on improving sustainability, resilience, and carbon footprints on a local scale, made several pledges at COP23. In particular, 25 of the C40 mayors pledged to improve and implement city climate action plans by 2020, and to convert all of their cities to be net-zero emission and climate resilient by 2050. Cities that signed on to this pledge include Austin, Accra, Barcelona, Boston, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Caracas, Copenhagen, Durban, London, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Mexico City, Milan, New York City, Oslo, Paris, Philadelphia, Portland (OR), Quito, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Santiago, Stockholm and Vancouver.

The World Business Council on Sustainable Development launched an initiative, Below50, to develop the sustainable, low-carbon fuel market. All the companies involved have committed to increase their production and/or use of sustainable fuels that produce less than 50 percent of the carbon emissions emitted by traditional fossil fuels (one example of a low-carbon fuel is renewable biofuel). Below50 members include United Airlines, Audi, and UPS.

The Global Platform for the New York Declaration on Forests was launched by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to focus on forest restoration and protection on a global scale. The Platform's goals are to cut deforestation in half by 2020 and stop deforestation entirely by 2030. In completing this, annual carbon emissions could decrease by 4.5 to 8.8 billion tonnes of CO2, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of the United States. Currently, there are 191 endorsers of the Declaration, including 40 governments, 16 groups representing indigenous communities, 20 sub-national governments, 57 multinational companies, and 58 non-government organizations.


Fiji as a Leader

The Talanoa Dialogue

One of the key premises of the Paris Climate Agreement is that participating nations should increase their climate actions over time, in order to keep global warming significantly below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial temperature levels. Nations are expected to take stock of their progress and discuss additional actions in what is known as the Facilitative Dialogue. Fiji has recommended that this dialogue embrace the Pacific Island concept of talanoa—a process which refuses the singling out of any party in a confrontational manner and which consists of "sharing stories, building empathy and making wise decisions for the collective good" according to the World Resources Institute. The proposal was accepted, and the Facilitative Dialogue was renamed the Talanoa Dialogue. It will officially launch in January 2018.

Fiji left a mark on the negotiations, pushing for two notable initiatives: the Gender Action Plan and the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform.

Women are at the frontlines of climate change's impacts: they form the majority of the world's poor, who are particularly vulnerable to climate disruptions like droughts, floods and hurricanes. They also tend to be underrepresented in positions of power, preventing their full involvement in climate-related planning and policy-making. Yet they can, and must, play a key role in implementing climate actions. The UNFCCC's Gender Action Plan (GAP) remains a work in progress, but its importance has been emphasized during COP23 and a target completion date of November 2019 has been set. The plan will seek to improve gender balance and increase the participation of women in UNFCCC processes (gender equality is mandated by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), and it will seek to support gender-responsive climate policy throughout the world.

The Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform was requested at COP22 to strengthen the presence and voice of indigenous populations in climate negotiations, and to improve the sharing of mitigation and adaptation practices between indigenous and local communities. In COP23, the platform was officially approved, which will give indigenous peoples a better opportunity to actively participate in future climate talks. Fiji was a strong supporter of the platform and was instrumental in its launching. The platform can take a variety of forms, including a web-based database, annual meetings, and workshops. According to the United Nations, "local communities and indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by climate change impacts because they rely on fragile ecosystems for their livelihoods. Indigenous people care for 22 percent of the Earth’s surface, including an estimated 80 percent of the planet’s remaining biodiversity.”


COP23 shows the momentum from the Paris Climate Agreement has not slowed. This forward chugging along is exactly what the world needs.


Author: Kiara Ryan