Climate News Network

The devil’s in the COP 23 detail

November 21, 2017, by Mitchell Beer

Coral Coast in Fiji, key player in Bonn. Image: By Maksym Kozienko, via Wikimedia Commons

For a probably final look at the UN climate conference in Bonn, a Canadian writer explains what the COP 23 detail means.

OTTAWA, 21 November, 2017 – A key takeaway from this year’s United Nations climate change conference (COP 23) is that, when it comes to putting a practical foundation under the high-minded pronouncements in the Paris Agreement, the COP 23 detail matters more than the headlines.

That means the Paris process has entered a potentially perilous moment when the urgency of the climate crisis is mounting by the day, public expectations are (quite rightly) high, the commitment to action extends far beyond national governments – yet negotiators have to focus on nuts-and-bolts issues that are numbingly technical for the large majority of us, but will still determine the success or failure of a crucially important global deal.

It means negotiators get to celebrate incremental but hard-fought victories that push the Paris “rulebook” closer to completion, while setting the stage for more obviously significant dialogue at next year’s conference in Katowice, Poland.

And it means the discussions that most immediately match up with the world-wide momentum for climate solutions take place at the margins of the main event, in the hundreds of side meetings that coincide with the official proceedings.

Different kind of deal

A key feature of the Paris agreement is its call for commitments to action from all countries, with financing from developed countries to help the poorest and most vulnerable implement their plans, and monitoring to make sure everyone keeps their promises. The agreement is built on country-by-country statements of voluntary action, rather than the kind of top-down target-setting that characterised the Kyoto Protocol

All of this helps explain the importance of a concept as esoteric as transparency to the effort to deal with a problem as brutally physical and immediate as climate change.

Countries can’t afford to deeply trust each other in a process in which everyone is expected to negotiate for their own perceived national interest, rather than the common good.

And the basic narrative of the climate crisis – a small number of countries benefitting from the industrial revolution, the large majority paying for it by suffering, grievously  – is not the kind of history that encourages anyone to take anything at face value.

So we end up in a formal setting where national representatives can, without the slightest whiff of self-parody, spend hours hashing out the bloodless official language of a COP decision, where the difference between a “should” and a “shall” could direct billions of dollars and change many millions of lives.

For most of us, the first (and next) inclination would be to mock the process. Yet the COP is essential for the survival of humanity on Earth, the best the nations of the world have been able to come up with, where even slow, limited victories hold out the prospect of profound, transformative change for people and communities.

Homebound empty-handed

I had a bad 18 hours or so, was too angry to sleep one night, when it became clear that Fiji’s COP, the first ever to be chaired by a Pacific island state, would send the world’s most vulnerable nations home empty-handed on the life-and-death issue of loss and damage.  

Then a colleague on the Canadian civil society delegation pointed out that it doesn’t much serve climate justice, only shifts the locus of climate injustice, if developed countries accept financial responsibility for loss and damage – then see their historic wrongs paid for by a farmer in rural Britain or a first- or second-generation immigrant family in Calgary who pay their taxes, rather than a multinational fossil that doesn’t.

That means we might need a different “modality” (in COP-speak) to address the issue. Some of that conversation has been going on for at least the last two years

On the edges

As always, the most interesting, most obviously transformative discussions took place on the margins of the official process.

Even with decisions on loss and damage deferred, COP 23 was a moment when Pacific islands and other small island states put the brutal, front-line impacts of climate change at the centre of the discussion.

The conference took steps to make indigenous voices and experience more prominent in COP deliberations, and agreed a plan that brings a gender lens to climate decisions.

The push for a just transition for fossil fuel workers and communities emerged as a central theme for the COP, and for year-round action. It will almost certainly become more prominent in the lead-up to COP 24, which will convene in the heart of Polish coal country.

Informal sessions looked at strategies for speeding the decline of the global coal industry, and for scaling back oil and gas supply rather than waiting for markets to solve the climate crisis by cutting into demand.

And the conference cemented the absolute isolation of the Trump White House in its efforts to promote the US coal industry and undercut the Paris Agreement.

As COP 23 unfolded, more and more participants began distinguishing between the White House delegation that held the country’s official credentials and the real US delegation.

A coalition of states, cities, businesses, and non-profits ran their own pavilion outside the main conference hall, organised a stream of high-profile side events, networked incessantly, and delivered the message that #wearestillin – that mainstream America is still determined to honour its commitments under the Paris Agreement, even if the man currently occupying the White House is not. – Climate News Network

Republished by permission from The Energy Mix, a thrice-weekly e-digest on climate, energy and post-carbon solutions.

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