COP23 Climate Talks, Put Simply

SG On route to Ilulissat

By Blog Writer Karl Dudman

With the year drawing to a close, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) annual conference swung round again at the beginning of November. This bureaucratic frenzy of suits and lanyards rarely gets a great deal of attention in mainstream media, yet this two week Conference of the Parties (COP) is the single most important event of the year for globally coordinated efforts to combat what is arguably the greatest threat to nature and society alike: climate change. Amongst the diplomatic jargon and sleep-deprived delegates, powerful deals are struck and the potential for real action is constantly flirted with. So what have been the priorities for this 23rd annual COP, what has changed (for better or worse), and where does it leave global climate action efforts?

The Paris Agreement devised two years ago at COP21 was a huge step towards a shared vision for climate action among the world’s nations; yet little more than vision it was. Once ratified, the Paris Agreement committed all the countries who signed it to make individually designed efforts to curb their national emissions and thereby prevent a global rise in average temperatures of more than 2 degrees centigrade. The idea is that countries will then update these pledges every 5 years to encompass increasingly ambitious actions, building on the work already done. To reach global consensus on this plan was a momentous achievement, but much of the detail regarding what these pledges entail, and how they are to be monitored, was left ambiguous. With the first of these ambition ‘ratcheting’ exercises due for the year 2020, the intervening COPs will thus be more technical, less grand affairs, aiming to turn the big ideas of Paris into concrete actions pre-2020.

Mitigation and Adaptation

These actions can take a number of forms, but mostly they fall into categories of mitigation (fixing a problem) and adaptation (minimising damage caused by that problem). Imagine a pipe has broken in the attic and your home is being flooded –  mitigation would prioritise finding the source of leak, turning off the water supply, fixing the pipe, whilst adaptation would involve trying to minimise damage – putting out buckets, moving valuables into another room and getting the hairdryer out on those old books. In the climate change context, mitigation means reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, largely through developing and promoting new, clean energy technologies, and focusing on transitioning big economies to more sustainable ways of operating. Adaptation on the other hand emphasises the need to prepare for climatic changes that are already ‘locked in’, usually by supporting the communities likely to be affected soonest or hardest, usually through infrastructural investments such as flood defences. In theory, these approaches should complement one another, but with financial shortcomings being a constant obstacle to progress, mitigation and adaptation efforts often have to jostle for priority.

2017 has been a year of extreme weather and unprecedented warming, and as many (particularly developing) nations start feeling early effects of climate change, emphasis is likely to shift towards adaptation and helping those nations to deal with destruction on the doorstep. Indeed COP23, whilst taking place at the UNFCCC’s headquarters in Bonn, Germany, is hosted by Fiji, making it the first COP with a Pacific island nation in presidency. Dialogue has thus turned more than ever the issue of ‘Loss and Damage’ – a part of adaptation that aims to compensate developing countries like the Pacific low-lying islands to cope with destruction they will bear the brunt of, but have done the least to incur. As one might expect, trying to persuade more developed countries to pull focus away from their own economies and commit funds to small, faraway nations is an ongoing struggle. The EU and Australia have been quick to claim that there is insufficient evidence that recent extreme weather is linked to human polluting activity to justify asking for compensation, reflecting a wider resistance among richer countries to fulfil financial pledges that has caused the most tension this year.


There was some trepidation in the run up to COP23 about the effect on the negotiations of Trump’s recent decision to withdraw the USA from the UNFCCC. The US’s departure, as the world’s richest economy and second biggest polluter, had the potential to jeopardise the success of the talks. Trump’s decision however, if enacted, would leave the USA as the only nation on Earth excluded from the global deal, now that even war- torn Syria has found time to ratify the Paris Agreement. This has left the States somewhat out in the cold, and lent new determination to the rest of the international community to redouble their efforts in defiance of the divisive president. As former secretary general of the UNFCCC Christiana Figueres suggested, “he shored up the world’s resolve on climate action, and for that we can all be grateful”. The mocking continued when the Trump administration’s paltry offering to the talks – a panel session promoting the green potential of coal – became the subject of both merciless satirising and bitter criticism from many in and out of the conference. Indeed, Trump’s bullish rejection of climate action has opened an avenue of resistance for his many critics in the form of strong commitments to sustainability. This COP has seen an unprecedented number of American businesses, states, and cities find their political and legal voice and speak out against Trump; addressing the world with the promise that #wearestillin. Far from hindering progress then, the USA and its controversial contribution seemed to bolster solidarity among remaining delegations, and render itself irrelevant.

So what progress?

For the most part, the climate talks this year have centred on preparing the framework that will codify Paris ambition into tangible rules for monitoring and reporting countries’ progress in meeting their pledges. In this some good progress has been made. With global temperatures currently set to rise 3 degrees centigrade, however, this progress is the tip of an iceberg of necessary action that, unlike its real-world counterparts, can’t melt fast enough. Despite (and perhaps thanks to) America’s unconvincing pitch for the future of ‘clean coal’, a major push against this most dirty of fossil fuels inspired a new coalition of countries to pledge to phase it out altogether. One major ongoing tension has been developed countries’ reluctance to provide promised funds to developing countries, to compensate for past emissions and help them fulfil their own targets. With the end of talks may have come reserved optimism for next year’s ‘stocktake’, but this first Pacific COP has left the world’s richest countries with a lot to prove.



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