“Fiji-on-the-Rhine”: Four things to expect from the COP 23 UN climate talks

By Alex Hanafi, Senior Manager, Multilateral Climate Strategy and Senior Attorney, and Soren Dudley, Program Assistant, Global Climate

A confluence of factors sets the stage for what to expect from this year's climate meetings, the first since the U.S. announced its plans to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Above: The Bula Zone at the UNFCCC headquarters in Bonn. Photo: UNFCCC/ Flickr.

The first UN climate talks since the United States announced its plans to withdraw from the Paris Agreement start this week in Bonn, Germany. Chaired by the island nation of Fiji, the meetings are the second-to-last Conference of the Parties (COP) before the Paris Agreement’s implementation “rulebook” is scheduled to be finalized in Poland next year.

This confluence of factors – Fiji’s presidency of the COP, President Trump’s announcement (and the ensuing groundswell of domestic and global support for the Paris Agreement), and the need to advance progress on the technical details of the Paris Agreement’s infrastructure – sets the stage for what to expect from this year’s climate meetings.

1. Islands’ COP, islands’ issues

As the President of the 23rd meeting of the COP, Fiji will aim to highlight both the needs of vulnerable parties as well as island nations’ climate action leadership. This year’s COP presents an opportunity to spotlight necessary adaptation to a changing climate, as well as the loss and damage experienced by islands due to the impacts of climate change. These concerns are especially important to low-lying island nations because their very existence is threatened by the rising sea levels triggered by climate change.

Many island nations, Fiji among them, have made ambitious renewable energy pledges central to their participation in the Paris Agreement. Leadership by small island developing states will shine an even brighter spotlight on the Trump Administration’s retreat from climate action.

2. Trump’s intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement isolates the U.S…. and triggers a groundswell of support for the Paris Agreement

President Trump’s June 1 announcement that the US intends to pull out of the Paris Agreement left the U.S. isolated. This isolation became even starker with the recent news that Nicaragua will join the Paris Agreement, leaving the U.S. and Syria the only two nations in the world refusing to join.

Although the Trump Administration has been working to roll back existing federal climate policies and will continue to do so, its initial efforts have encountered delays and legal setbacks.  The Administration has yet to successfully suspend, weaken, or repeal a major climate protection

While the U.S. government attempts to backtrack on common-sense efforts to reduce U.S. climate pollution, nations around the world are already taking concrete steps to meet their Paris pledges. Perhaps most notably, China plans to roll out a national carbon market in the coming weeks, demonstrating China’s continuing commitment to climate action. China is now increasingly seen as filling the leadership void left by the U.S. With news of recent trilateral climate meetings between China, the EU, and Canada, COP 23 offers the first chance for a this potentially powerful alliance to prove itself as a force for accelerating the transition to the clean-energy, low-carbon economies of the future.

3. U.S. subnational actors show commitment on the global stage

In direct contrast to Trump’s announced pull-out, U.S. subnational actors are eager to communicate to the global community that they are still committed to moving ahead despite federal backsliding. American businesses and state-level officials plan to use COP 23 to showcase concrete examples of their continued climate leadership. Notably, several U.S. governors, including those from California, Virginia, Washington, and New York, will attend to demonstrate the depth and breadth of U.S. state-level action.

4. Negotiations and progress on the Paris Agreement Rulebook

This COP will be important for keeping the ship sailing in the right direction on implementing the Paris Agreement. Countries decided last year that they will finalize the nuts and bolts of the Paris Agreement’s implementing infrastructure (its “rulebook”) by COP 24 in Poland in December 2018. Parties have a long list of tasks to complete, and negotiations on key tools Parties can use to cooperate in driving down climate pollution, like carbon markets, are moving slowly.

While agreement among all Parties on these carbon market standards is not necessary before “bottom up” cooperation on carbon markets may begin, up-front clarity on key issues (like how Parties can avoid “double counting” of emissions reductions) can reduce uncertainty and help catalyze additional investment in high-integrity emissions reductions around the globe.

This will be an important COP to watch for signs of how much work will remain for next year, and how likely it is that countries will stick to their tight timeline for delivering an effective roadmap to guide Parties in achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement.

This post was updated Nov. 5 with more detail in #2.

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