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IN-DEPTH: Climate change progress, the US withdrawal and what to expect from COP23

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IN-DEPTH: Climate change progress, the US withdrawal and what to expect from COP23

Romy Chevallier

06 Nov 2017

9min min read
  • Climate
  • Sustainable development

This year's COP23 takes place against a complex geopolitical backdrop, with difficult discussions around developing countries' needs and developed countries' obligations sure to feature once again. Romy Chevallier, a senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, unpacks the key issues that are likely to top the agenda and the significance of this meeting in light of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.


rom 6 - 17 November 2017, nearly 200 countries will convene in Bonn, Germany to advance progress on climate change action. The 23rd meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP23) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an important milestone, within a much longer negotiating process, to finalise the technical aspects for the implementation of the Paris Agreement (PA) – a global framework agreed to in 2016 that set out international climate action in the post-2020 period. 

In order to move forward negotiating parties need clarity on a number of key issues, including assistance with the means of implementation, such as unlocking climate finance, capacity building and technology transfer. COP23 is also an important stocktaking opportunity to assess the cumulative contributions of national actions to date.  

The PA which came into force in November 2016 sets out the overarching goals and framework for international climate action in the post-2020 period. To date, 195 countries have signed the Agreement, while 169 have ratified it – signalling a landmark achievement towards a truly global effort to tackle the climate challenge. Having ratified the PA, countries committed to the decisive actions and policies outlined in their own national climate strategies. These Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) lay the foundation for mitigation and adaptation actions and investment pathways towards clean energy, green infrastructure and climate resilience. In 2016 countries finalised their NDCs, embedding them in national legislation and policy. 

From agreement to implementation

Although the PA was signed in 2015 at COP21, the process of working out the details of its operationalisation began in earnest at COP22, and has continued throughout 2017 in a series of inter-sessional meetings of the UN, and in numerous processes outside the formal negotiations, including non-party stakeholder meetings. 

COP22 in Marrakech intended to galvanise political support and focus on the first steps in agreeing on detailed rules, calling for technical decisions on a wide range of topics, including mitigation, adaptation, finance, transparency, a new ‘global stocktake‘ process, market mechanisms, and implementation and compliance. It was an important transitional moment, pivoting from the years of negotiation that produced the PA to a new phase focused on implementation. 

COP22 thus focused on fleshing out the Paris architecture, delineating areas of convergence and divergence, and adopting a work programme for completing the PA ‘Rule Book’ by 2018. Many of the outcomes were procedural in nature, with parties adopting work plans and groupings for carrying the discussions forward.

COP23, coined a ‘technical COP’, will focus on finalising the implementation guidelines of the PA (to be finalised by COP24 and implementable post-2020), and work towards finalising the pre-2020 action on adaptation and mitigation. Within these negotiating tracks it is important to clarify the details of the PA ‘Rule Book’; who should do what, by when, how and with what financial and other support. This includes how countries should communicate their efforts with regards to mitigation and adaptation, climate finance, transfer of technology and capacity-building; how developed countries will be held accountable for their commitments; and how collective efforts will be reviewed and assessed against the global goals set out in the PA. 

At COP21, anticipating that the PA would not be in force for several years, parties decided to conduct an early stock-take through a ‘facilitative dialogue‘. Countries that have joined the PA are required to report their climate actions transparently and collectively take stock of progress, starting in 2018. The PA builds on a ratcheting up of aggregate and individual ambition over time, with a view to NDCs progressively enhancing ambition. All parties are requested to submit the next round of new or updated NDCs by 2020, and every five years thereafter, regardless of their respective implementation timeframes. COP23 has to make progress on the design of the ‘facilitative dialogue’ – considered a politically significant opportunity for taking stock of collective efforts and communicated pledges ahead of 2020. 

Moving the agenda forward

Like many other consensus-seeking multilateral negotiations of this kind, COP23 negotiators are anticipating some difficult discussions. Clarity is needed on the plan to raise $100 billion per year in public and private climate finance for developing countries by 2020. According to developing countries the current pledges from developed countries are insufficient. Questions also remain around the funding difficulties in the UNFCCC, and the future of the Adaptation Fund (AF), set to end in 2020. Will the negotiating parties extend the mandate for the AF, or will there be another mechanism established that supports small-scale climate adaptation projects through direct access to funding? 

Although many developed countries prefer channelling support through the Green Climate Fund (GCF) in partnership with accredited intermediary bodies, developing countries, including South Africa, want to see the continuation of the AF created by the Kyoto Protocol to serve the PA after 2020. 

Developing countries are calling for mechanisms to enable faster, direct and more effective access and delivery of climate finance, through simplified access procedures and the provision of readiness support and capacity building. Developing countries also hope for balanced finance to support both their mitigation and adaptation activities, including increased engagement of the private sector on the latter. 

The US and the Paris Agreement


President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris deal in June. (Michael Vadon/Flickr)

COP23 takes place within a complex global geopolitical landscape, exacerbated by entrenched national interests and contention around the varying levels of differentiation, vulnerability and requisite obligations. In June this year, President Trump announced the US’s withdrawal from the PA. Trump suggested he would seek a new deal, without offering any details. The withdrawal also includes the cancellation of all US contributions to the GCF. Given that the US is the world's second biggest producer of GHGs after China, its abdication from reducing GHG emissions is likely to make these and other international negotiations more challenging, particularly with respect to trade and economic competitiveness. 

According to the Brookings Institute, the US decision has galvanised global commitments to the goals of climate stabilisation and to the PA in two ways: 1) The international coalition forged to deliver on the PA has strengthened. Immediately after the withdrawal, the other G7 countries, the EU, China and India, all issued strong statements on their continuing commitment to the targets. 2)There has been a broad-based domestic response in support of the PA with states, cities, businesses, and other entities in the US attempting to take independent steps to reduce GHG emissions.

"The US withdrawal has provided space for new leadership from important developing countries such as China, as well as from those most vulnerable to climate change."

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has called on a coalition approach to deliver on the national climate target for 2025. Supporting this, a group of 13 states led by California, Washington, and New York, has established the US Climate Alliance to support the achievement of the US national target of 26-28% below 2005 emission levels by 2025. However, this an audacious goal that will be difficult to achieve without federal regulatory or legislative action.

For a climate agreement that depends on global support, the withdrawal of the US seems to have clarified both the stakes and the global commitment to the process set out under Paris. The US withdrawal has provided space for new leadership from important developing countries such as China, as well as from those most vulnerable to climate change. Those countries at the receiving end of climate change impacts must drive the agenda to protect their vulnerable communities. 

Fiji, as Chair of COP23, must focus on maintaining momentum and ensuring that commitments are delivered under the existing PA. Many countries have highlighted their intention to continue working on the details of the existing text and not to re-negotiate it, regardless of the US withdrawal. 

Promoting a grand coalition for climate action

Recognising that national governments alone cannot perform all the actions required to achieve international climate objectives and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), since COP21, voluntary coalitions and partnerships have emerged that include a number of non-party, non-state climate champions. The private sector, cities, sub-national governments, indigenous and local communities, and civil society, often in partnership with national governments, are key catalysts in the UNFCCC-promoted Global Climate Action Agenda – playing an increasingly important part in mobilising and galvanising climate action on the ground and introducing new initiatives for scaled-up, high-impact solutions.

According to the UN Climate Change Secretariat, "more than 70 initiatives, involving almost 10 000 players from 180 countries, 7 000 local authorities and 2 000 businesses have committed to undertake transformational action in the key economic and social sectors and areas". Initiatives include the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, the Transformative Actions Program managed by Local Governments for Sustainability, as well as Under2 Coalition of sub-national governments. COP23 will seek to harness synergies in the implementation of the agendas on climate change and sustainable development, and look for opportunities to accelerate concrete and integrated action across collaborative partnerships.

Fiji's agenda as chair of COP23

Fiji cyclone damage_Getty

Super-cyclone Winston left over 50 000 Fijians homeless in February 2016. (AFP/Steven Saphore/Getty)

As the first small island developing country to host the negotiations, Fiji will represent the voices of the most vulnerable low-lying coastal and islands states. Being on the frontline of climate change and the early warning system for the global community, Fiji, along with its alliances from the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and vulnerable coastal African countries, is pushing for the completion of the five-year work plan of the 2013 Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage. This mechanism aims at assisting vulnerable countries with the unavoidable impacts of climate change, such as extreme weather events, the slow-onset of sea-level rise or the spread of desertification. 

Over a quarter of the NDCs, mostly from the SIDS and LDCs, make explicit reference to loss and damage and therefore seek clarity on the mobilisation of predictable funding to support both their economic and non-economic losses associated with these residual impacts and climate risk management. This is contested terrain as developing countries want an independent policy track within the UNFCCC on loss and damage, separate from adaptation. 

In contrast, developed countries have sought to limit the discussion of liability and compensation, framing loss and damage as a matter of adaptation and/or risk reduction and insurance. Coincidentally, these discussions take place against a backdrop of a distressing period of extreme weather events: severe fires in California, Portugal and Spain; flooding in Nigeria, India , Sierra Leone, Bangladesh; droughts in Ethiopia; dramatic Arctic melt; ice breaking off the continent of the Antarctic; and recent hurricanes that devastated the Caribbean and the southern US. 

"... there is still a significant gap between political ambition and practical reality – especially in light of the overall aim of keeping the average rise in global temperature to below 2°C, compared to pre-industrial levels."

Ocean governance will also be a prominent theme throughout COP23. Discussions will address the adverse threats that impair the oceans’ role as a climate regulator, as a generator of oxygen and that decrease its ability to absorb and store carbon. Among other important themes, deliberations will continue on actions to reduce marine pollution, to make networks of marine protected spaces more effective and to halt the degradation of key ecosystems. Africa’s 30 500km coastline is already experiencing the negative impacts of climate change affecting important industries such as fisheries, aquaculture and coastal tourism. 

Frank Bainimarama, Fijian Prime Minister and incoming COP President, is looking to promote the Oceans Pathway Partnership thereby bringing action on healthier oceans into the UN climate change process by 2020. Fiji recognises the need for enhanced synergies on climate change and disaster risk through the joint implementation of the PA, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Page Reduction, as well as with the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and relevant UN strategies. 

Towards success

Notwithstanding the climate change commitments made under the landmark PA in 2015, and the progress made during COP22 and in other forums in 2017, there is still a significant gap between political ambition and practical reality – especially in light of the overall aim of keeping the average rise in global temperature to below 2°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. 

COP23, and the period leading up to COP24 in 2018, is critical in laying a foundation for the implementation of the PA and making sure that the necessary tools are in place to facilitate the delivery of these commitments. COP23 provides an opportune time to take stock of the implementation of the PA and to assess the collective progress made towards achieving its long-term goals. The delivery of pre-2020 actions is also important to maintain momentum and trust amongst negotiating bodies, with international efforts coupled with continued progress by countries to deliver on their national climate plans. Key to this process and the success of these negotiations is the inclusion of non-state actors as real implementing partners. 

The strong support for the PA from non-federal US actors, sub-national entities, the private sector and the international community at large provides an important indication of global commitment to the momentum that was generated over recent years. The main challenge is to sustain the cycle of positive action, for countries to maintain their engagement with the process, and to keep a pathway for the US open to re-enter the process at a future date. The strong participation from leaders of the developing world underscores the dramatic shift that the Paris process has initiated in the overall global conversations on climate change and sustainable development more broadly.

Read the full policy brief here

(Main image: Flickr/NASA)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.