What They Were Really Talking About At COP23

Over the past two weeks, world leaders, civil society organizations, and bodies of the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change gathered in Bonn, Germany for COP23 – the 23rd ‘Conference of Parties’.

The primary function of this is annual conference is for parties of the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement to assess progress on climate action and to work towards meeting the goals outlined in these international treaties. The fundamental objectives of the Paris Agreement are to hold global temperatures below 2°C warmer than what they were before the industrial revolution, and to increase the global ability to adapt to effects of climate change while fostering development that emits low amounts of greenhouse gasses.

The Paris Agreement was ratified in 2015, but the stipulations within it do not go into effect until 2020.

One of the problems with these conferences, as with most information that comes out of the UN, is how inaccessible they are to the public. Being an outsider to the UN system makes it extremely difficult to understand the dense and highly technical discourse used in the negotiation arena, and in formal documents such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports – the scientific reports which underlie climate policies.

However, as the impacts of climate change ultimately affect every person on this planet, it is imperative that we are informed and up-to-date with the state of international climate policies. This includes gaining access to conference discussions, many of which happen behind closed doors, and are not accessible to the broader public.

I had the privilege to attend COP23 on a Delegation with the British Columbian Council for International Co-operation. All of the information outlined below is based on my observations at COP23.

Failures and Achievements

The conference was hosted by the government of Fiji this year. This was monumental, as COP had never before been hosted by a Small Island Developing State. The two central goals of this COP were to design the global stocktake process, which will evaluate national progress on the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement next year, and to begin developing a “rulebook” which will set the guidelines for the 2020 implementation of the Paris Agreement’s long-term goals.

The most notable shortcoming of this conference was related to finance, and in particular, to funding for ‘Loss and Damage,’ which helps countries recover from serious weather events. It is primarily the responsibility of richer countries to supply this support, as G20 countries are responsible for over 75% of global emissions. This sheds light on an important paradox: while developed countries are predominantly responsible for climate change, it is those in developing countries who suffer from its results first and hardest. It is estimated that by 2030, over 98% of the deaths associated with climate change will be in developing countries. However, developed countries are failing to take on the responsibility of repairing the damage that they created.

No agreements on this financing were reached. In the words of Tracy Cart, the delegation head of Oxfam, an international confederation of non-governmental organizations: “This year, hurricanes ravaged the Caribbean, floods destroyed thousands of homes and schools in South Asia, and drought brought devastation to millions in East Africa. We’re no longer talking about the future; the world’s poorest countries and communities are already fighting for their lives against disasters intensified by climate change. Yet for the most part, rich countries showed up to Bonn empty-handed, and blocked progress on finance for ‘loss and damage’ for those facing the worst impacts of climate change.”

It has been agreed that $100 billion of annual climate finances are needed. However, the fund currently has only received $6 billion in voluntary donations. This is a serious issue, particularly for the poorest countries, whose capacity to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change are contingent upon receiving financial support. Germany attempted to set a precedent for other developed countries at COP this year by allocating an additional $50 million to the fund, but the majority of other developed countries refused to comply.

For comparison, $14.5 billion is spent on fossil fuel subsidies globally daily. There is a clear colossal discrepancy between what developed countries are currently doing and what they need to be doing to combat climate change.

COP23 was far from a complete failure, however. Significant progress was made on human rights, which were formally incorporated into the Paris Agreement for the first time ever. This is a huge step towards a ‘Just Transition’ to clean energy. The bodies of the COP made history by adopting the Gender Action Plan, which institutionalizes gender equality as a guiding principle for climate action. As well, the Local Community and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform was adopted. This platform allows Indigenous Peoples to bring their traditional knowledge to the international negotiating arena as a means of complementing modern scientific solutions for combatting climate change. The COP22 presidency in Marrakech laid the foundation for this platform last year, and countries from around the world, including Canada, advocated for its adoption at COP23.

While these ratifications are noteworthy and certainly steps to be proud of, it is important to acknowledge that the adoption of these long-and-hard fought battles for incorporating the most marginalized and vulnerable voices into climate action negotiations should not be an ending point. Ratifications are only a starting point. It is the efficiency of operationalizing this new platform and plan that really counts. These adoptions symbolize the beginning of a new era in the international approach to combatting climate change – one that is much more rights-based, and justice oriented.

It is evident that a human-rights based approach is logical and necessary, as global warming is not only impacting large-scale economies and vast ecosystems. Climate change is impacting people – their health, their livelihood, and their daily living are all affected by the changing planet.

COP23 came at a critical point in time. When President Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement, many lost hope in the world’s ability to meet the goals necessary to avoid reaching the 2°C tipping point, when the warming effects of climate change will become impossible to stop. However, the international community made clear at COP23 that they would not let Trump’s decision deplete ambition. New alliances originating in the States, which reiterate sub-national commitments to climate action, such as C40, America’s Pledge, the U2 Coalition, and the United States Climate Alliance emerged in response to Trump’s withdrawal.

At COP23, Canada and Mexico also signed onto the United States Climate Alliance – a monumental agreement that is the first of its kind – between national and sub-national governments. Canada, the UK, China, and Mexico – Trump’s biggest allies – also established the Powering Past Coal Alliance along with several other countries, promising to phase out coal. However, agreeing to phase out coal in rich countries cannot be unaccompanied by support for developing countries to do the same.

Partnerships between all levels of government and every sector of society are necessary, especially in cases where strong federal leadership is lacking. Emission reduction pledges by national governments, if operationalized entirely (which they often are not), will only bring us one third of the way to reaching the 2°C goal.

Commitments to fight global warming from sub-national governments, civil society, and the private sector at COP were promising. These commitments and coalitions will be essential to the international effort at stopping the effects of climate change.

The Path Forward

It is evident that in practice, the international community has a long way to go to meet the goals outlined by the Paris Agreement. It is equally clear that negotiating parties have come a long way by acknowledging the social impacts of climate change and transforming the global approach from one singularly focused on greenhouse gasses to one that is more centred on people.

Developed countries who avoided their responsibility of increasing financial support for climate action at COP this year sheds light on a wider issue. Adopting climate-smart policies and action is often framed as a cost that governments cannot shoulder. However, transitioning to clean energy would have close to zero net-effects on the economy, as several studies have shown. It’s only a matter of redistribution from ‘dirty energy’ towards the increasingly profitable renewable energy sector. Places like California, a state that has the 8th largest economy in the world, but contributes less than 1% of global emissions, demonstrate that transitioning to clean energy is not a price that must be paid, but an opportunity for progress with no economic downsides. It is an opportunity to restructure our energy systems, economies, and ecosystems towards sustainability, equitability, and justice.

Climate change was created by humans, and thus it ultimately must be solved by humans. Adopting a human-rights based approach symbolizes an acknowledgment by international leaders that climate change is disproportionately harming the world’s most vulnerable and strengthening existing inequalities. This enforces the understanding that climate change is not just a concern for environmentalists, but also a holistic societal concern.

While this year’s COP was highly technical, important proposals and agreements were adopted. Next year’s COP in Poland will be much more vital for formally establishing the rules for the actual implementation of the Paris Agreement. However, 2017’s tragic climate events thus far, such as the entire nation of Barbuda becoming completely inhabitable and submerged by the ocean, demonstrate that the need for climate action is urgent. The snowballing consistency of natural disasters like this one are signals that climate change is no longer an issue for our children and grandchildren to worry about. It is one that must be addressed now. We cannot wait until next year’s COP to take serious action. The progress made this year was significant, but if we are going to have even a chance of stopping global warming, we cannot leave all important climate decisions and actions to our national governments alone.

Once we can understand what climate negotiators were really talking about, the question becomes, what are we – individually, and collectively – going to do about it?

  1. Play with this online simulation to see how different countries’ emission reductions will affect global temperature rise: https://croadsworldclimate.climateinteractive.org
  2. Check out this website, which assesses each country’s’ goals/plans for reducing carbon emissions. See which countries are on track and which ones are failing to meet their goals: http://climateactiontracker.org
  3. Listen to this short poem to better understand how Pacific Islanders are being impacted by climate change: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJuRjy9k7GA
  4. Check out the most effective personal choices you can make to reduce your contributions to climate change: https://phys.org/news/2017-07-effective-individual-tackle-climate-discussed.html
  5. Celebrate the launch of McGill’s new Climate and Sustainability Action Plan on December 1: https://www.facebook.com/events/128774851098533/

Joelle Moses is a contributing climate news writer. The opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of The Bull & Bear.

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