At this year’s United Nations climate talks, the official delegations made minimal progress – but fringe events carried the energy of past successes, writes Jeffrey Mazo.
@ UN Climate Change

By Jeffrey Mazo, IISS Consulting Member and Contributing Editor, Survival

This month nearly 22,000 people from 195 countries and more than 1,600 observer and media organisations gathered for the annual UN Climate Conference. The official business of these conferences tends to focus on technical issues and incremental progress, with more significant outcomes (such as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol or the 2015 Paris Agreement) coming only every two to four years. 2017 brought no breakthroughs.

Fiji was in the chair, but lacked the infrastructure and money to host the conference. That task fell to the German city of Bonn, home of the Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The summit included the 23rd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, widely referred to as COP23. But most of the real work occurred through the summit’s other channels, which included meetings of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement, and meetings of subsidiary bodies and working groups.

A key agenda topic was the ‘Paris Rulebook’ – the operational details needed to implement the landmark Paris Agreement. The urgency of the task was highlighted by the UN Environment Programme’s latest estimates of the ‘gigatonne gap’ between current commitments to emissions reductions by 2030 and the level needed to avoid dangerous climate change. The median estimate for this gap has fallen, slightly, from 12Gt in 2015 and 2016 to 11Gt this year, due to improvements in the model rather than any increase in ambition or successful reductions. Certainly, we are not closing the gap anywhere near fast enough.

The UN Environment Programme concludes that ‘the gap between the reductions needed and the national pledges made in Paris is alarmingly high ... if the 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’. Moreover, failure to revise and strengthen emissions reduction commitments by 2020 would make closing the 2030 emissions gap ‘practically impossible’. COP23 saw progress on several important technical issues to this end. But it was the bare minimum needed to maintain momentum towards COP24 in Katowice, Poland next year, when more substantive progress such as the finalising of the Paris Rulebook must be made.

The 9,200 members of government delegations were outnumbered by representatives of pressure groups, businesses and other non-government organisations, with over 500 media outlets covering the events. About a quarter of the participants only had access to the Bonn Zone, where activity included global climate action events, media events and exhibits. This part of the conference did much more than the formal sessions to keep up momentum and maintain pressure on governments. Pope Francis sent a letter to Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, read out to the conference participants, renewing the message of his 2015 environmental encyclical.

Notable among the Bonn Zone participants were the ‘We Are Still In’ coalition and the ‘Powering Past Coal’ alliance. We Are Still In – a group of US state governors, mayors, university presidents, business leaders and others – was feted by many, including the media, as a US delegation in exile. With the current US administration intending to withdraw from the Paris Agreement (it cannot formally announce withdrawal until November 2019, nor fully withdraw until November 2020, unless it also withdraws from the UNFCCC as a whole), this group had both a greater presence and a greater impact than the much-reduced official delegation.

California Governor Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a report highlighting that US cities, states and businesses collectively representing an economy greater than any country except China have expressed commitment to the Paris Agreement. Twenty states, 110 cities and 1,400 companies, including some of America’s biggest such as Coca-Cola, Kellogg, Mars, Microsoft and Walmart, have adopted quantified emissions reduction targets. California’s commitments alone are on a par with that of some individual nations. The report concludes that these sub-national actors could, if necessary, meet America’s current (if inadequate) commitments under the Paris Agreement.

The Powering Past Coal Alliance is a group of 19 countries and six subnational jurisdictions, led by the UK and Canada, committed to phasing out traditional coal power through legislation, policies and sharing of best practice. While more symbol than substance, the launch of the alliance followed on the heels of the US administration’s perverse promotion of coal at another event in the Bonn Zone, and was widely if implausibly perceived as a deliberate rebuke to Washington. More plausibly, the alliance launch may have been a response to an earlier and even more perverse US policy – ending payments of US$2.5 billion to the UN’s Green Climate Fund while simultaneously using America’s seat on the board to support new coal-fired power plants in developing countries.

Every country in the world, bar two, signed the Paris Agreement in 2016. With Nicaragua’s ratification last month and Syria’s during COP23, the United States is now completely isolated in its intent to withdraw from the treaty. (Twenty-seven countries have signed but not ratified the accord, but of these only Russia, with 7.5% of global emissions, is a significant player.) The success of the agreement, and the chances of avoiding excessive global warming, will be determined before the Trump administration leaves office. The stakes could not be higher.

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