Alden Meyer
Former Contributor

As the 23rd meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP23) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—or the annual UN climate talks—opened in Bonn, Germany on November 6, the urgency for much greater action on climate change could not have been more clear.  Just two days earlier, Typhoon Damrey barreled into Vietnam, resulting in 69 deaths and nearly $1 billion in damages.  The storm was the worst to hit the southern coastal region of Vietnam in decades, and came on the heels of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, which devastated communities in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and several Caribbean islands; as well as raging forest fires in western North America and Brazil; heatwaves in Europe; and floods in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal.

The week before COP23 started, the United Nations Environment Program released its annual Emissions Gap Report, which found that the global warming emission reduction commitments put forward by countries under 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 report said that current commitments make a temperature increase of at least 3oC above pre-industrial levels by 2100 very likely, and if this emissions gap is not closed by 2030, it is extremely unlikely that the goal of holding global warming to well below 2°C can still be reached.  The report’s warning was reinforced by analysis released by the Global Carbon Project during the talks, projecting that after three years in which global CO2 emissions have remained flat, they are likely to increase by 2% in 2017.

The UNEP report contains good news as well, outlining practical ways to slash emissions in the agriculture, buildings, energy, forestry, industry and transport sectors, along with actions to control hydrofluorocarbons and other high-potency greenhouse gases.  The report finds that nominal investments in these sectors could help to avoid up to 36 GtCO2e per year by 2030.  Almost two-thirds of this potential is from investment in solar and wind energy, efficient appliances, efficient passenger cars, afforestation and stopping deforestation — actions which have modest or net-negative costs; these savings alone would put the world well on track to hitting the 2oC target.

In the context of these risks and opportunities, the progress made at COP23 was far too modest compared to what is needed.  But negotiators did succeed in laying the groundwork for more substantial achievements down the road, and the fact that countries pushed ahead despite President Trump’s announced intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement is in itself a welcome accomplishment.

Getting the rules right

A major focus of the negotiations in Bonn was on hammering out the detailed rules (or “implementation guidelines”) for the Paris Agreement, on a range of issues including transparency and reporting, accounting standards for both emissions and finance, the new market mechanisms created in the agreement that would allow reductions achieved in one country to be credited against another country’s emissions reduction commitments, how to raise the ambition of national actions over time, and actions needed to cope with the mounting impacts of climate change.

Countries had set a goal in Paris of resolving these and other implementation issues at the 2018 climate summit in Poland next December, so there was no expectation of final agreements on any of these issues at COP23.  Rather, the objective at COP23 was to narrow the differences amongst countries and to clearly frame the options on the key issues involved, so as to facilitate their resolution next year.

Progress was made across the range of rulebook topics, but it was uneven.  A bright spot was on the sensitive issue of transparency and reporting, where differences were narrowed and a fairly clear set of options was laid out.

By contrast, the negotiations on “features” of the “nationally-determined contributions” that countries are required to put forward under the Paris Agreement, as well as accounting standards for these NDCs and the up-front information requirements to ensure their “clarity, transparency, and understanding,” were much more polarized, and the end result was an unwieldy 179-page list of issues and options.

The most charged discussions were around finance, specifically the requirement in Article 9.5 of the Paris Agreement, that every two years developed countries must provide “indicative quantitative and qualitative information” on their future support for developing countries, including, “as available, projected levels of public financial resources to be provided.”  The African Group of countries pushed for more clarity and detail on this projected financial support by developed countries for developing country actions, a move that was strongly opposed by the U.S. and other developed countries.

Developing countries want greater certainty of the financial resources available to them going forward, so they can plan projects accordingly; but developed countries are loathe to make multi-year commitments that they can be held accountable for. This issue will be revisited at the intersessional meeting in Bonn next spring, and then brought to ministers at COP24 in Poland in December, 2018.

We left Bonn not with the draft negotiating text on the Paris rules that some had hoped for, but instead with a set of “informal notes” produced by the co-facilitators of each of the working groups, which capture and organize the proposals put forward by countries.  Much work lies ahead to meet the goal of adopting the full Paris rulebook at COP24, and while negotiators can work out some of the technical details in advance, it will clearly be up to ministers to resolve the political differences on the major crunch issues.

Catalyzing higher ambition

The decision adopted in Paris explicitly acknowledged the substantial shortfall in collective ambition that could keep the world from meeting the aggressive temperature limitation goals embodied in the Paris Agreement, and called for a “facilitative dialogue” at COP24 next year to address ways to close this gap.  Working with last year’s Moroccan COP22 presidency, Fiji put forward its vision of how this process should be conducted, renaming it the “Talanoa dialogue.” As Fiji explains, “Talanoa is a traditional approach used in Fiji and the Pacific to engage in an inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue; the purpose of Talanoa is to share stories, build empathy and trust.”

This will be a year-long process consisting of a preparatory phase starting in early 2018 and a political phase involving ministers at next year’s climate summit in Poland. The dialogue will be structured around three key questions: “Where are we? Where do we want to go? and How do we get there?”  One major input will be the Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change examining the impacts of global warming of 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, scheduled for completion next October.  Additional analytical and policy-relevant inputs will be welcomed in the preparatory phase, not just from countries but from NGOs, businesses, research institutions, and other stakeholders as well.

To succeed, this process must do more than reaffirm the ambition gap; it must spur concrete steps to close it.  A central focus will be on the need for countries to signal, by 2020, their intention to raise the ambition of their existing commitments between now and 2030.  But the dialogue should also examine how states, cities, businesses and other “non-state actors” can contribute to closing the ambition gap, and encourage a range of sectoral initiatives on renewable energy, energy efficiency, forestry and agricultural sectors solutions, carbon pricing and other areas.

The Talanoa dialogue process will be jointly led by Fiji and Poland, as the current and incoming COP presidencies. Given Poland’s heavy dependence on coal-generated electricity, there are legitimate concerns about that government’s interest in generating the specific outcomes from the dialogue needed to enhance ambition.  It is clearly up to all countries to ensure the dialogue stays on track and produces meaningful results.

Dealing with climate impacts

Even if we are able to close the emissions gap and hold temperature increases well below 2 degrees Celsius, as leaders committed to in Paris, the world is going to suffer increasing climate impacts over the next several decades, as a result of the emissions we have already put up in the atmosphere.  Developing countries, together with environmental and development NGOs, pushed in Bonn for faster progress on helping vulnerable countries and affected communities cope with these impacts, both through enhanced measures to adapt to current and future impacts, as well as strategies to deal with the now-unavoidable “loss and damage” they are facing, both from “slow-onset” impacts such as sea level rise and desertification, and from typhoons, hurricanes, floods, and other extreme events.  At COP19 in Poland in 2013, countries established the Warsaw Implementation Mechanism on Loss and Damage (or “WIM”), and explicit provisions on loss and damage were included in the Paris Agreement.

Sadly, not enough was accomplished in Bonn on this front.  Five European countries did pledge a total of $185 million of renewed support for the Adaptation Fund and the Least Developed Countries Fund.  But developed countries blocked a push by vulnerable countries to make the issue of mobilizing the much greater level of financial resources to deal with loss and damage a standing agenda item at future negotiating sessions.  All they would agree to is to hold an “expert dialogue” on this issue at next spring’s subsidiary body meetings in Bonn, which in turn will inform technical analysis on financial resource mobilization for loss and damage activities that is already being undertaken by the WIM.

Expect this issue to continue to be a major topic of debate in the negotiations going forward, including at COP25 in late 2019, where countries have agreed to conduct a full-blown review of the WIM.

The elephant in the room

When President Trump announced in June of this year his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, there was widespread condemnation from other countries, as well as from business and civil society both in the United States and around the world.  Not one country indicated that they intended to follow President Trump out the door; in fact, during the first week of the Bonn climate summit, the only other Paris Agreement holdout, Syria, announced that it intended to join all the other countries of the world in the agreement, rather than be lumped in with the United States as a climate scofflaw.

The U.S. negotiating team in Bonn kept a low profile, hewing largely to past positions on issues like transparency and reporting for developing countries and robust accounting standards.  They were quite tough in the negotiations on climate finance and loss and damage, though, perhaps out of concern that any sign of flexibility risked an unhelpful response from the Tweeter-in-Chief.

White House staff organized a side event on the role of coal, nuclear, and gas technologies as climate solutions, which generated a well-organized and creative protest led by U.S. youth groups.  It was also overshadowed by the launch of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, a coalition of 20 countries led by Canada and the United Kingdom that is committed to phasing out use of coal no later than 2030.

California Governor Jerry Brown, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and other officials at the Nov. 11th launch of America’s Pledge at the U.S. Climate Action Center in Bonn. Photo: By the author.

But the real energy at the Bonn climate summit came from the We Are Still In initiative of university presidents, mayors, governors, business leaders, and NGOs who showcased their steps to reduce climate pollution and pledged their intention to meet America’s emissions reduction commitments under Paris, regardless of President Trump’s efforts to dismantle federal leadership on climate policy.

Through an intensive schedule of side events, press briefings, and bilateral meetings with ministers and business leaders from other countries, this U.S. subnational delegation went a long way to assuring the rest of the world that President Trump represents a short-term deviation in U.S. policy, not a long-term trend.  Of course, until there is a clear demonstration of bipartisan political support at the federal level for climate action, other countries will understandably continue to harbor concerns about the reliability of the United States as a partner in this endeavor.

What lies ahead

Negotiators will reconvene in Bonn on April 30 for a two-week session of the UNFCCC’s subsidiary bodies, working to make progress across the range of issues to be decided at COP24 in Katowice, Poland next December, and Fiji and Poland will convene several informal ministerial discussions over the course of 2018 focusing on the key political decisions that must be reached at COP24.

There are a number of other events where ministers and even heads of state will be discussing ways to enhance climate action over the next year, including:

  • The One Planet Summit being convened by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, with a focus on mobilizing increased public and private sector climate finance.
  • Two more sessions of the Ministerial Meeting on Climate Action (MOCA), a dialogue launched by Canada, China, and the European Union in Montreal in September; the next meeting will be hosted by the EU next spring, followed by a meeting hosted by China next fall.
  • The ninth meeting of the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, a ministerial-level discussion to be co-hosted in mid-2018 by Germany and Poland, as the incoming presidency of the Conference of the Parties.
  • The G7 leaders’ summit, to be hosted by Canada on June 8th and 9th 
  • The Global Climate Action Summit being hosted in San Francisco next September by Gov. Jerry Brown, which will bring together national, state and local political leaders, businesses, scientists, non-profits and others to “showcase the surge of climate action around the world – and make the case that even more needs to be done.”
  • The G20 leaders’ summit, hosted by Argentina and starting just two days before COP 24, on November 30th.  Leaders should build on the Climate and Energy Action Plan adopted at the G20 summit last July under the German presidency, which was agreed to by all G20 countries except for the United States.

All of these events can – and must – contribute to accelerated progress at COP24 in Katowice and beyond in implementing and strengthening the Paris Agreement.  As the UNEP report and other analyses clearly show, we have the solutions we need to the crisis we face. But what we need now is a much greater level of political will.