COP23: Truth Without Consequences?

If you were a mosquito on the wall of one of the several dozen meeting rooms in the sprawling complex of buildings and tents that hosted the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), you would probably be smiling. Despite the moderately cold temperatures in Germany’s former capital, you’d probably understand that the planet will continue to warm to about 3 ̊C pre-industrial temperatures. As a result, your natural habitat will expand the poorest sub-Saharan countries and over most of the world. More people would live in warmer temperatures, especially in developing countries, and your choice of food sources ad depositories for diseases you carry would become more plentiful.

But what is good for mosquitos is not so good for human beings. Global warming or the adverse effects of climate change poses significant risks for human health, something which the UNFCCC recognized more than 25 years ago in its very first paragraph of its operational part. This treaty has been ratified by 197 States and the European Union. Paragraph 1 of article 1 defined the “[a]dverse effects of climate change” to mean “changes in the physical environment or biota resulting from climate change which have significant deleterious effects on the composition, resilience or productivity of natural and managed ecosystems or on the operation of socio-economic systems or on human health and welfare.” In other words, serious consequences that will make life on our planet very difficult for many people or even impossible.

This treaty was intended to protect us from such harm by ensuring States take responsibility for, in the words of article 2, the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” These words remain devoid of real meaning as States have not taken their responsibilities seriously to date. Instead, the Baby boomer, Millennial, and X-generation of negotiators have treated the text as a puzzle to be fought over with little attention for its actual intention.

To further obscure their unwillingness to act, States in 2015 at COP21 in Paris, adopted the Paris Agreement. This agreement does very little to demand any action at all towards achieving the goals stated in article 2 of the UNFCCC above. The Paris Agreement does require States to report information to various forms of clearing houses who will store it or provide it to the public. It also encourages more dialogue. But neither scientific information or dialogue are the solution. It is only action that can “save the world” in the way children from Bonn’s international School meant as they shouted to delegates before singing them nice songs at the opening of COP23.

The tropical Island of Fiji was the formal host of COP23, but it was ironically held in the frigid city of Bonn, Germany, apparently because the Island State was not in a position to host it at home. The irony was not apparent to most delegates who had never ventured Pacific Island, but many of Fiji’s Islands may disappear or be subject to such turbulent weather conditions that not only COPs can’t be held there, but many in their permanent population will have to flee for their lives.

Nevertheless, when State delegates from almost every country in the world sat down to negotiate a solution to these problems they did so with the pedantic attention of an intellectual applying him or herself to a Sunday newspaper crossword puzzle. The big picture seemed to disappear. Negotiations were largely secret and lacked real participation by civil society, which was kept at an arm’s distance. More distressingly the larger picture seemed to be lost to the individual challenges of filling in the correct words here and there. Even a seasoned treaty negotiator would have wondered at how the climate negotiators were able to often ignore the larger picture.

While most examples did not appear to the public eye the few that did were troubling. When discussing how to deal with unavoidable damage calls for more dialogue and workshops replaced concrete obligations to come up with resources that are needed to save lives. Again, when discussing the reports of funds that might provide those resources the arguments were about how much to congratulate States that had pledged, not even yet provided resources, that by the pledge alone were only a fraction of the need. Concrete action to increase ambition around resources was rejected off-hand. In fact, any attempt to create concrete mechanisms to deal with resources, obligations to cut emissions, obligations to protect people, were meet with meaningless concession of more meetings, more workshops, or more dialogue. One older Italian Observer intimated that it was like watching a fiddler play a beautiful melody as Rome was burning to the ground.

Some of the complacency may have been due to the laidback approach of the Fiji Presidency. Fijians portrayed themselves as some of the friendliest and most welcoming and cooperative people. The Fijian Presidency of COP23, under the auspices of Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, was characterized by empathy for the plight of such friendly people. COP23 open and closed with touching songs of thanksgiving. Throughout COP23 Fiji tried to impress the values of Bula (friendly welcome) and Talanoa (listening to each other) on the process. Indeed, it made it more humane and at times very pleasant.

But while South Pacific hospitality was on display, a good number of the State Parties were drilling holes in the canoe, as one delegate put it referring to the Fijian traditional canoe in the entrance hall that the Presidency frequent referenced as the symbol of the voyage that had to be taken collectively. In the preparations for COP23 the Fijian Presidency graciously accepted the support of richer countries who paid for foreign consultants who displaced even Fijians on the host country’s delegation. Reliable sources indicated that the chief Fijian negotiation Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan, the country’s ambassador the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, had been told what she could and could not emphasize at COP23 by foreign consultants. And developed States, just as they had done in Durban, in very polite tones threatened to make the meeting a failure if the Presidency was not compliant.

Similar to COP21 in Paris when the French Presidency created a celebratory feel-good sensation with the adoption of the Paris Agreement in December 2015, two years’ later the same differences that made that Agreement so weak remained obstacles to action in Bonn. Once again developed States generally refused to give up advantages they have claimed for themselves through centuries of over-exploitation of the planet’s atmosphere. Developing States, who are already doing more than their richer counterparts, refused to continue to shoulder the burden of addressing climate change without significant financial support that they require to sustain their own economic development, but could not muster the unity that might leverage action.

By the time COP23 adjourned at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning 18 November 2017, almost 24 hours overtime and with many items left open and unresolved, there was a general fatigue ostensibly from the repetition of differences that just seemed not to go away as much as from the all-night session that followed 15 hours of frenzied negotiations.

During COP23 and the several negotiation streams concerning the Paris Agreement it became apparent that the Agreement was seen by delegates as a concession to the status quo, rather than the step forward that it had be touted as being. Indeed, it became clear that the value of the agreement depends on how it can inspire the action that is needed through its multiple reporting requirements and general voluntary review processes. Neither the reporting requirements or general voluntary review processes were agreed, however, and discussion wil continue on them at the next COP and interim meetings.

Virtually no progress was made on taking action. Both the provision of resources and the mitigation of greenhouse gases must come from developed countries, but they showed no willingness to live up to this responsibility. The consequence of this abrogation of responsibility is increasingly seen in the damage it does to human beings and their environment, but nothing was done to provide remedies.

On 28 June 2017, before the 23rd edition of the global climate summit got underway, a group of scientists and prominent actors in the climate negotiations published a comment in Nature that warned that we only have three years left to reverse the adverse effects of climate change. One of the co-authors Sharan Burrows told Popular Science that, “We’re already seeing climate devastation changing seasons, changing people’s livelihoods, and even their lives.”

During COP23 a commentary entitled “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice” appeared in the scientific journal BioScience, signed by 15,364 leading scientists from 184 countries. The scientists warn that we are “not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperiled biosphere.” It concludes by acknowledging that “[s]oon  it  will  be too  late  to  shift  course  away  from  our  failing  trajectory,  and  time  is  running  out,” and consequently, “[w]e  must  recognize,  in  our  day-to-day   lives   and   in   our   governing   institutions,  that  Earth  with  all  its  life  is our only home.”

As COP23 began there was sober feeling of urgency among Observers or non-State actors. State delegates, however, seemed reconciled to business as usual. The annual pre-COP discussion among groups of States delivered no creative solutions for bridging the impasse that prevent the climate action and seemed to merely entrench State’s policy positions. The Fijian Secretariat appeared overwhelmed amid rumours that it had a team of Baker & Makenzie consultants showing it the way and sometimes pressuring Fiji to act against its own best interests. An example was the Fiji Presidency’s refusal to fight for a robust loss and damage text.

Undoubtedly, one of the most disappointing decisions concerned loss and damage, which provides support to countries for the adverse effects of climate change that can no longer be avoided. Developing countries had called for a permanent agenda item on loss and damage and an expert group. Again, developed countries blocked anything having the possible consequence of raising adequate funds and merely agreed to a paltry single expert dialogue in 2018.

Failure to agree on precise form. Even linking Loss and Damage to finance was not agreed. Developed countries did not want to commit to giving resources to address the loss and damage suffered by developing states. This raised serious questions about the good faith of developed states in even including loss and damage, which was a condition of many developing states agreeing to the Paris Agreement.

The new Global Stocktake (GST), transparency and compliance negotiations ended with weak compromises that ether promised action, nor fully encouraged it.  A more than 180-page document formed the basis of the rules for implementing the Paris Agreement including the GST, the nationally determined contributions (NDCs), and the compliance mechanism. This document will have to be significantly trimmed down, but that will be a monumental task on which there are divergent views.

On adaptation, the action to react to the adverse effects of climate change before they could harm the population or at least before they became too dangerous, little was agreed. In the end, the advance that was made was merely to bring Adaptation onto the Paris Agreement agenda, when most States already believed that it was there.

Noting the relationship between loss and damage and finance, Harjeet Singh of ActionAid International writing in on 16 November 2017, noted that “[f]inance remains the most important as well as the [most] contentious issue at the table since the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage was established.”

Indeed, in Bonn finance appeared to be both the central issue and a topic prone to open old wounds between developed and developing countries that even Fiji’s Talanoa dialogue could not overcome.

The most heated debates boiled around finance at COP23. From the mere adoption of a report on the Green Climate Fund (GCF) to providing guidance to the long-existing Global Environmental Fund (GEF), States and groups of States bucked heads over both minor and major finance issues. The adoption of the GCF Report was held up for days over how much to congratulate the European Union from promising money that they had both not yet actually given and which was far short of the projected needs. The COP’s guidance to the GEF stalled over language encouraging the GEF to ensure financing for climate change, only one of several matters its funds.

Perhaps most striking of the finance debates was the fact that the United States emerged from it rather passive positions on other issues to frequently block consensus. Little concern seemed to be given to the United States’ record of berating developing States for blocking consensus when they thought the action agree was too weak. Instead, the United States seemed proud to defend its standing in the way of stronger action by blocking language that was agreed by other States.

As a result, the decisions on finance are among the weakest to emerge not merely from this COP but since COP21 in Paris when a decision was taken to avoid finance decision altogether. At the same time, the urgency of implementing action pushed questions of finance to the forefront.

On long-term finance the COP seemed to be running in circles authorizing workshops dialogues, but making little progress securing the US$100 billion per year for climate finance that was promised or the estimated as high as 6 trillion that is needed per year.

Some advances were made as a decision was taken to include issues related to agriculture and food security in the work the COP’s subsidiary bodies. The short decision leaves much to still be decided, but it is the first time that issues of agriculture and food security have made it on to the agenda after years of lobbying by indigenous and framers groups.

Women also booked a well-deserved win as COP23 advanced and adopted a Gender Action Plan after years of discussion about how to address gender and climate change. Similarly, the indigenous peoples and communities’ platform was adopted, which operationalized the concern for indigenous peoples that was agreed a few years ago. And for the Pacific Islands and something close to the heart of the Fiji Presidency as loosely related ‘Oceans Pathways’ was announced as an effort to protect our oceans from the adverse effects of climate change. Also inspired by the ‘Island COP’ was the Talanoa Dialogue. It was agreed this dialogue would discuss ambition in two stages: a preparatory phase and a political phase.

The Final COP decision also refers to “a stocktake on pre-2020 implementation and ambition” to be held at COP24. This stock will also consider financing, although the modalities will be based on the rather lightweight modality of the facilitative dialogue that took place at COP22 in Marrakech.

Perhaps the brightest stop during the otherwise usually dreary rainy days in Bonn came from the youth. For years, the youth constituency has been perhaps the most honest and committed of all Observers. They saw through the façade of the Paris Agreement and used their 1:30 am speaking slot at the end of COP21—well after all the celebrating had died down—to roundly condemn the weak global leadership of national governments. It was the only time that the President and French Foreign Minister, who had just stepped back on to the podium, seemed visibly shaken by public criticism of the instrument he had orchestrated.

Just prior to COP23 the Youth held their 13th Conference of Youth (COY13) with more than 1500 youth from over 110 countries participating in meetings from 2 to 4 November. The youth constituency or YOUNGO were also out in force at COP23.

The German youth led the way aiming resolutely at the just re-elected German government of Angela Merkel and her cozy ties with the fossil fuel industry. On the last Tuesday of COP23 the Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations held a press conference demanding that the German government phase out of coal by 2030.

Youth from the US both joined with US politicians who supported climate action and criticized them for not doing enough. Their main target seemed to be the American President Donald Trump who was bellowing CO2 from fossil fuel into the atmosphere as he jetted around the Far East in the massive gas guzzling Air Force One, a Boeing 747 converted to luxury hotel, situation room and press room in the air.

It wasn’t his immediate pollution the American youth were worried about as much as the Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement and state publicly that he was go to do little about climate change.

When the youth finally received the chance to offer their general statements at the end of all the State and intergovernmental interventions in the plenary, youth representative Etinosa Ebinor called for States to take more honest and stronger action on finance. She also criticized the COP for limiting access of civil society saying youth needed to be in the rom to keep States honest.

Despite hosting the climate conference and being the permanent seat of the UNFCCC Secretariat, Bonn was not hesitant to boast of Germany’s polluting practices. Conference delegates arriving at the nearby metro station were greeted by large photos of German brown coal quarries and displays mocking the government’s alleged commitment to climate action with documented stories about how it was failing to take action.

At the same time, German technology seemed to fail when it was being showcased. Deutsche Telkom’s Wifi service was almost unusable for the first seven days of the Conference, although it marginally improved after hundreds of complaints from frustrated delegates. Similarly, while trying to show off carbon-neutral means of transportation the local transport authorities couldn’t seem to keep even a semblance of a timetable. Riders were left to wait for sometimes more than an hour for late trains or buses in near freezing temperatures at night and often forced to resort to usual fossil-fueled means of transport to get around.

Inside the conference venues, temperatures fluctuated between almost freezing and tropically warm. Little thought seemed to be given to the army of Aggreko diesel generators that were providing the poorly regulated heating.

The traffic and communications chaos perhaps underlined the fact that god intentions are not enough even when the capacity to act competently is present. Most delegates and the two dozen or so world leaders who attended are probably starting to wonder whether the climate action we need will ever been taken.  After 25 years of negotiations, they know with their colleagues that action could be taken if there was just the will to look the truth in the face and act with consequences.

Curtis FJ Doebbler is a visiting professor of international law at the University of Makeni, Webster University (Geneva) and the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations. He is attending the climate talks in Paris on behalf of International-Lawyers.Org, an UN ECOSOC accredited NGO.