COP23: Reflections on Bonn

Reading time: 5 minutes
21 November 2017

Damian Ryan, Director, Strategy and Impact, The Climate Group, blogs from Bonn where the UN COP23 climate talks have just concluded. He says that with the right diplomatic footwork, strong support from non-state actors and climate action in the real economy, coalitions and other efforts can fill the gap created by the Trump administration – and ratchet up climate ambition. 

The 23rd annual UN climate conference (COP23) concluded in Bonn, Germany last Friday on a positive and cautiously optimistic note.

To a large extent, the conference’s modest objectives – namely moving forward with developing the rules for the Paris Agreement and agreeing how to conduct the first post-Paris stock-take of collective climate action – were met.

Concerns about how President Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement would affect the talks were also allayed, with the rest of the international community (largely) continuing discussions as normal.

On top of that, a significant US observer community of business, state and city leaders unequivocally demonstrated their commitment to bold climate action.

But such progress, should not disguise the fact that much heavy lifting remains to be done to deliver the goals of the Paris Agreement. If countries are to close the ‘emissions gap’, the pace of talks and level of ambition must step up a gear or two in the next year.

Modest progress tees up a busy 2018

Negotiators will have left Bonn largely content with the progress they made (at least as measured by the sedate pace of UN climate talks) and the overall atmosphere of the meeting.

On the so-called Paris ‘Rulebook’ negotiations, Parties now have a set of informal papers for all the key issues (i.e. mitigation, finance, transparency etc) and will spend next year turning these lengthy documents into formal negotiating text – with the aim of adopting the final rulebook at COP24.

The informal nature of these documents, however, means they are open-ended. They have no official status, allowing Parties to continue to add, subtract or disagree with any of the text. This was not an unexpected outcome, but it does mean that negotiators have set themselves up for a busy and intense 2018.

The other key outcome from Bonn, was agreement on the terms of the so-called ‘2018 Facilitative Dialogue’. This is the first of what will become a regular five-yearly stocktake of Parties’ collective climate action and ambition.

Now officially renamed the ‘Talanoa Dialogue’ (in honour of Fiji which, as COP23 President, led the consultations), this year-long process will culminate at COP24 with a high-level political event intended to kick-start the next round of ‘National Determined Contributions’ (NDCs) that Parties are meant to submit in 2020.

Importantly, the Dialogue provides input during a preparatory phase from “stakeholders and expert institutions” as well as Parties. This will allow businesses, states and regions and other observers to help shape and strengthen the process.

The Dialogue will be structured around three essential questions:

  • Where are we? (in terms of achieving the Paris Agreement goal of well below 2C of warming)
  • Where do we want to go?
  • How do we get there?

Defined under Fijian tradition as an inclusive process to share stories and build trust and empathy, the Talanoa Dialogue will be one of the most important international climate processes and forums in 2018.

For more detail on the Rulebook and Talanoa Dialogue, the relevant COP decision can be found here.

A US shaped hole in the process

Going into COP, the big question for many was what role, if any, would the US delegation play in the process. As the first COP for the Trump administration, would US negotiators be disruptive, disengage or simply keep a low profile? (NB: the US remains a party to Paris Agreement until 2020).

For the most part, US officials seem to have taken the final option; defending longstanding (and bipartisan) US lines on certain core issues (eg transparency), but otherwise not rocking the boat.

The only notable exception to this was the US’ only official side event, which attempted (unsurprisingly without success) to promote the benefits of coal and nuclear energy to a highly sceptical COP audience.

The absence of any Trump-induced crisis for COP could be interpreted as a sign the UN process can continue just fine without active US engagement. On the surface, this certainly seems to have been the case in Bonn.

It would, however, be the wrong conclusion to draw.

The reality is that the lack of a powerful US voice at the centre of the negotiation process has left a leadership void that is yet to be filled. While the ‘We Are Still In’ coalition  demonstrated in Bonn that ambitious climate action will continue at state, city and business levels, regardless of what happens in Washington, it cannot speak for the US in the negotiating room. This will have consequences.

Indeed, Bonn witnessed the first fraying of the post-Paris consensus when a group of leading developing countries (including China and India) requested that the issue of ‘pre-2020 ambition’ – something which most developed countries felt had been addressed at or before Paris –  be added to the agenda. This became the dominating point of discussion for much of the first week of COP.

Encouragingly, developed countries ultimately responded positively to this request. The issue will now be dealt mainly through a series of formal stocktakes at COP24 and 25 and also through the Talanoa Dialogue. But the key question is why did this issue re-emerge in the first place? The answer lies in large part with the loss of US leadership and engagement.

With the right diplomatic footwork, strong support from the non-state actor community and clear progress on climate action in the real economy, these coalitions and other efforts have the potential to fill the gap created by the Trump administration.
Damian Ryan, @ClimateGroup

Post-Paris, many countries assumed (or rather hoped) that the next US President would follow in some way the path set by the Obama administration. In the interests of the greater good, and in the expectation that the US would continue to push forward the agenda set by Paris, developing countries in particular were prepared to give the agreement the benefit of the doubt, despite its lack of initial ambition.

President Trump’s decision to leave Paris effectively made this implicit bargain null and void, providing space for pre-Paris issues and positions (both legitimate and questionable ones) to re-emerge.

The extent to which Parties will seek to re-open previous discussions remains to be seen, but it is clear that the absence of a strong US presence – and just as importantly no clear alternative champion –  means that the momentum and ambition of the UN process is now under pressure.

The clearest evidence for this has been indications from some Parties that they may not submit revised NDCs in 2020 – the first critical ratchet point for ambition under the Paris Agreement.

An active and engaged US administration would have acted as a break on such talk, but with President Trump, many major emitters (both developed and developing) are likely to feel less pressure to line up with the 2020 deadline.

It is true of course that many countries are still seeking to push forward with greater ambition. The High Ambition Coalition (HAC), which includes both developing and developed countries (and previously the US) sits at the centre of these efforts in the UN process. Outside of the UN, China, the EU and Canada have recently set up the Ministerial on Climate Action (MoCA) as a successor of sorts to the US-lead Major Economies Meeting (MEM).

With the right diplomatic footwork, strong support from the non-state actor community and clear progress on climate action in the real economy, these coalitions and other efforts have the potential to fill the gap created by the Trump administration. In the meantime, US disengagement casts an unhelpful shadow over process.

A COP of two parts

While the role of the US in Bonn was undoubtedly a key subject of interest, it was not the defining point of COP23.

Another striking feature of the conference was the contrast between the two COP zones. Separated physically by nearly a mile, the ‘Bula’ (negotiations) and ‘Bonn’ (events) Zones were also a world apart in terms of atmosphere and focus. Indeed, the difference between activities in the two zones illustrated a growing gap between progress and ambition in the negotiating process – and what is happening in the real economy.

The Bonn Zone could best be described as a cross between a trade fair and a jamboree celebrating climate action. Packed with people every day, it showcased a huge variety of events on all aspects of climate action, from mitigation, to finance and climate justice. The atmosphere in the Bonn Zone was one of opportunity, excitement and a sense of action. A summary complied by the UNFCCC Secretariat of major announcements from Parties and stakeholders alike, highlights the sense of positive change witnessed in the Bonn Zone.

The Bula Zone by contrast was more convent than convention centre. To be fair to negotiators, their work is defined by closed-door discussions, so there was little on show for the casual observer to follow. Nonetheless, the modest progress and the re-emergence of pre-Paris issues underlined that many negotiators continue to see their work through a traditional burden-sharing (or indeed burden-avoidance) lens, rather than the opportunity framing that clearly animated activities in the Bonn Zone and sits at the heart of the Paris Agreement.

This divergence between real-economy action and progress in the negotiations was remarked upon by many observers. It is also leading to situations where countries are set to over-achieve on their existing NDCs but have yet to indicate any willingness to reflect this in the formal process – and help drive it forward.

2018 will be a critical year for reconnecting the UN process with the enthusiasm and dynamism of climate action within the real economy.
Damian Ryan, @ClimateGroup


The question is, does this matter? If action on the ground speeds ahead of the political negotiations, isn’t this a good thing?

On the one hand, it is – we would be foolish, given the closing window for action, to decry meaningful progress wherever it is occurring. On the other, it remains politically important for the Paris Agreement to maintain its position as the focal point for international climate action.

The Agreement sets the long-term global goal and provides the mechanism for all countries to ratchet up ambition. This is an essential role. There is a danger that if Paris is seen as a retro-active, rather than pro-active vehicle for climate action, countries may conclude that it has lost its value in driving change, unravelling its role as a point of focus and ambition.

Thankfully, we are a long way from such a scenario. But if there is one key lesson to take from Bonn, it is that 2018 will be a critical year for reconnecting the UN process with the enthusiasm and dynamism of climate action within the real economy.

Businesses, sub-national governments and other non-state actors will play a vital role in ensuring this happens. It is set to be a busy year for the climate community!

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