Sebastien Korwin, an international environmental lawyer and senior legal and policy advisor for Climate Law and Policy (CLP), reports on the outcomes of the 23rd meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change UNFCCC, including how the UK contributed to developments.
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How has the political landscape changed since the previous Conference of the Parties (COP 22) and what were the main challenges faced by the delegates?
COP 23 of the UNFCCC was held from 6 to 17 November 2017 in Bonn, Germany, under the presidency of the government of Fiji. So far, 170 parties have ratified the Paris Agreement, which was agreed at COP 21 in Paris in December 2015. Syria, embroiled in a civil war since 2011, became a signatory on 7 November 2017.
In June 2017, US President Donald Trump announced that he would pass legislation to take the US out of the Paris Agreement. Legally, the US must wait until 2020 to officially withdraw, meaning that for the duration of Trump’s term in office the US will continue to be present during the UNFCCC negotiations. Secretary of State and ex-CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, has indicated that the US will continue engaging in the talks in order to protect its interests.
In reaction to the US federal government’s stance, American governors, mayors and business leaders have recently formed a sub-national coalition, referred to as the ‘We Are Still In’ coalition. Informally led by Governor Jerry Brown of California, Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, and Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, the group has vowed to uphold the Paris Agreement and move ahead with policies to fight climate change.
Since President Trump’s declaration, others have taken up the climate leadership role. In Europe, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Emmanuel Macron of France have vowed that the Paris Agreement will flourish without the US. President Xi Jinping of China and the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, are promoting their countries as climate change champions.
The Paris Agreement established the principles and framework of the new international climate regime, and over the coming years the details that will make this framework a reality need to be fleshed out. The Paris Agreement is based on a bottom-up approach to emission reduction commitments, with individual countries making pledges to cut their respective carbon emissions, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).
However, current pledges, even if fully implemented, would still result in at least 3°C of global warming. Although COP 23 was largely technical in nature, many of the discussion were highly sensitive politically. Key challenges for delegates include making further progress on pre-2020 climate actions, increasing the ambition of NDCs and developing the Paris ‘rulebook’. Additional challenges included how to make progress on the issue of ‘loss and damage’ and most controversial of all, on climate finance.
What were the key outcomes of this year’s conference?
One of the most significant conflicts emerging in the early days of the meeting is linked to pre-2020 action. This centres on concerns from developing countries that rich countries are not doing enough to meet the emission reduction commitments made for the period prior to the implementation of the NDCs, which apply post-2020. Even if these commitments were to be fully implemented, they would still lead to a pre-2020 am-bition gap (the difference between current commitments and the amount of emission reductions needed to meet the 1.5°C target).
Initially not on the COP 23 agenda, following complaints from developing countries including India and China, pre-2020 ambition and implementation was included in the COP 23 decision text. The decision established a process of review and enhancement of pre-2020 actions, including a ‘stock-taking’ session at COP 24 and again at COP 25 to track and report on the progress of developed countries’ pre-2020 commitments to reduce emissions and to provide finance and technology to support developing countries.
Parties in Paris agreed that there should be a global ‘stock take’ in 2018 to review the progress made on climate action to date, with the intention that this information should be used to inform the following round of NDCs, due in 2020. This global stocktake will lead to the establishment of a mechanism to regularly review and increase ambition every five years. This is known as the Paris Agreement’s ‘ratchet mechanism’.
Under the Fijian COP presidency, the 2018 global stock take (previously referred to as the facilitative dialogue) was re-named ‘Talanoa dialogue’, reflecting a traditional approach to discussions used in Fiji. The COP 23 decision states that ‘the dialogue should not lead to discussions of a confrontational nature in which individual parties or groups of parties are singled out.’ The dialogue will be structured around three general topics:
• where are we?
• where do we want to go?
• how do we get there? Importantly, the dialogue will be informed by the IPCC Special Report on global warming of 1.5°C, which is due to be published in October 2018.
Development of the Paris ‘rulebook’
Negotiations in Bonn heavily focused on trying to make progress on developing the Paris ‘rulebook’, that is, the technical rules and processes needed to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals. These discussions are overseen by the ad-hoc working group on the Paris Agreement (APA). Its work covers several areas, including NDCs, how to report on adaptation efforts, defining the information to be reported in the ‘global stocktake’ in 2023, and how to monitor compliance with the Paris Agreement.
The COP 23 outcome text recognises that additional negotiating time may be needed to ensure the completion of the Paris rulebook by COP 24 and makes provision for an additional session to be organised between May and December 2018. The decision will be made during May’s scheduled intersessional meeting depending on the progress made there (or lack thereof), with August/September 2018 being the likely time for this to take place.
Loss and damage
The Paris Agreement includes a section recognising the importance of averting—and addressing—the loss and damage caused by climate change. The absence of loss and damage from the workstream to develop the Paris rulebook, despite demands from developing countries that new additional finance will be needed for loss and damage (that is, in addition to the finance needed for NDC implementation, adaptation and reporting) was also a sticking point at the COP.
Discussions on loss and damage took place under a technical workstream called the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM). Originally agreed in 2013 at COP 19 in Warsaw, the WIM is separate workstream to the APA discussions, with its own executive committee. At the COP, the WIM agreed on a five-year rolling work-plan but has yet to bring forward any concrete plans on finance, the main difficulty in the loss and damage discussions. A one-off ‘expert dialogue’ was also agreed for the May intersessional in 2018, which will inform the next review of the WIM in 2019.
One notable outcome from the conference this year was the end of a deadlock on agriculture which had lasted for years. Parties agreed to work over the next few years on a series of issues linking climate change and agriculture. They agreed to streamline two separate technical discussions on this topic into one process. Countries have now been asked to submit their views on what should be included in the work by 31 March 2018, with options including how to improve soil carbon and fertility, how to assess adaptation and resilience and the creation of better livestock management systems.
Like at most previous COPs, the issue of climate finance was the source of major disagreements in Bonn, both in relation to pre-2020 ambition and to the implementation of the Paris Agreement itself. Many developing country NDCs include conditional pledges (based on the availability of financial support from developed countries), which means that discussions on the scale and predictability of climate finance cannot easily be separated from discussions on increasing climate ambition (discussed under the Talanoa Dialogue as high-lighted above). This contrasts with the views of developed countries, who prefer to keep the discussions separate.
Unsurprisingly, discussions on how much finance developed countries intend to provide biennially (as required under Article 9.5 of the Paris Agreement) extended into the early hours of Saturday 18 November 2017 (well past the official end time of COP 23). In the end, the COP 23 decision text kicks the can down the road, leaving COP 24 to decide how ex-ante finance will be addressed, with extra time allowed for discussion during the intersessional meetings between now and COP 24.
How did the UK contribute to the discussions and outcomes?
Prior to COP 23, the UK government published its Clean Growth Strategy (October 2017), which maps out how the UK plans to meet its emission reduction goals set out under the Climate Change Act 2008 (a reduction of at least 80% below its 1990 baseline by 2050). The strategy includes a commitment to phase out the use of ‘unabated’ coal in energy production by 2025 and a continued emphasis on increasing offshore wind production.
Building on this key development, the UK, along with Canada and the Marshall Islands launched the ‘Powering Past Coal’ alliance at COP 23, inviting governmental entities from around the world to phase out dirty coal power plants. The new alliance was launched with a letter signed by Claire Perry, UK Climate Change and Industry Minister, Catherine McKenna, Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change and John Silk, Marshall Islands’ Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. Members of the alliance commit to phase out existing traditional coal power plants in their jurisdictions and to restrict legally and financially the construction of new coal plants that will not come with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. So far, 27 countries and states have joined the alliance, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Mexico, New Zealand, Portugal, and Switzerland. The coalition aspires to expand its signatories to 50 by the beginning of COP 24.
The UK government also committed to double its 2017 funding to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at the COP.
What are the next steps following the close of COP 23?
With the conclusion of COP 23, a busy 2018 is anticipated, with the Talanoa dialogue, the completion of the Paris rulebook (including a possible additional intersessional), the submission of views on agriculture, the expert dialogue on the WIM and the continuation of discussions on finance.
Are there any other points of interest worth mentioning here?
In parallel to the governmental negotiations, another conference was held in a temporary structure on the UN campus, bringing together civil society representatives, academia, think tanks, indigenous peoples’ groups and representatives of the private sector.
Of particular note (and of interest to legal practitioners) was a panel organised by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, where climate activists and legal professionals discussed how, in light of the perceived failures of international climate policy, litigation is becoming an increasingly important part of the strategy to hold climate polluters financially accountable for the damage they’ve caused (and therefore accelerating climate action).
Several hundred climate-related lawsuits have been filed in the past 20 years, with plaintiffs having already won significant battles, including in the Netherlands, where a court ordered the government to cut green-house gas emissions to protect a liveable climate in a ruling known as the Urgenda decision. The proliferation of such cases around the world have the potential to fundamentally change the political and economic landscape, driving investment away from fossil fuels and increasing climate ambition.
CLP is a research and advisory organisation that aims to contribute towards national and global environmental sustainability through advances in environmental governance. Sebastien leads CLP’s work in international policy fora, including the UNFCCC and CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). He also provides strategic and technical advice to governments, civil society organisations as well as multilateral institutions such as the UN and the World Bank, particularly in the field of forest and natural resource governance.