by Danny Waite
At 11am local time in Bonn, Germany, on Monday 6th November, the prime minister of Fiji, Frank Bainimarama officially declared COP23 – the first “island COP” of the UNFCCC – open, to kick-start the next wave of negotiations on how to tackle climate change. It was a rousing call to action – a drive to build a coalition of governments and across all sectors of society, to “put everyone first by locking arms and moving forward together”. The science on climate change, said the new COP president, is now clear: climate change poses a multitude of dangers, from floods to droughts, hurricanes to threats to human health and food security, particularly for the most vulnerable peoples of the world. As prime minister of Fiji, this suffering is, of course, something Mr Bainimarama has seen first-hand, and is anxious to protect his people from. In the wake of the recent revelation that 2016 saw record carbon emissions, the COP president urged his counterparts to advance their ambitions and to meet their Paris Agreement commitments in full – in particular, to commit to the most ambitious target of 1.5°C warming relative to pre-industrial levels. After all, Mr Bainimarama reminded the conference centre, “We are all in the same canoe”.
What followed the COP president were similarly passionate responses to the dangers of climate change. Each of the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, the secretary general of the WMO, and the chair of the IPCC cited the fact that 2017 is likely to be the warmest year on record and stressed the urgency of the window for action with which the world is now presented. They were joined in their calls for implementation of action by Barbara Hendricks, the German Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, who urged parties to persevere in moving away from fossil fuels and to address the “scientifically proven” and “existential threat” that is climate change. Every dollar spent, said Ms Hendricks, pays for better health, cleaner air, and more economic opportunities – a world in which our children and grandchildren can thrive.
A pity, then, that the following items on the COP agenda lacked the same degree of harmony. The president had got only as far as presenting item 2(c), the adoption of the agenda itself, before cracks began to appear in the international community. COP President Bainimarama announced that two items had been submitted by parties – the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iran respectively – which, in the president’s pre-COP closed door meetings with blocs and parties, had not garnered a consensus view, would not be considered for inclusion in the agenda, and that instead they would be investigated by the president of COP22 with a report to be written by Saturday. This prompted retorts from both parties, who asserted that their submissions had been deposited months before, and concerned increasing ambition levels for the COP negotiations, in particular for the pre-2020 period before the Paris Agreement comes into effect. Four other parties – India, Switzerland, Costa Rica, and China – urged the president at various points to reconsider, given the importance of starting action as soon as possible, and noted that no other parties had openly explained why a consensus was not achieved before the COP. Nevertheless, the appeals fell on deaf ears, and Mr Bainimarama repeated that the items would be addressed on Saturday. It was evident that, as the Indian delegate clarified, to ignore these requests was a serious issue of trust for developing countries at the COP.
The remaining COP agenda items – the election of other COP officers, the admittance of observer organisations, and the organisation of work for the subsidiary bodies – as well as the CMP and CMA meetings, passed without objection, although this was to prove the calm before the storm. The last event of the morning session, which overran by more than an hour, much to the irritation of the Tuvalu delegation, was the joint plenary between the COP, CMP, and CMA committees, in which blocs of countries set out their initial negotiating positions. What little patience was left by this point began to fray as every speaker bar one easily overran the allotted time of three minutes – indeed, Ecuador, on behalf of the G77 & China bloc, even warned in advance that their speech would exceed the time limits. It became apparent early on that there was a clear divide in the room – developing country blocs, such as the G77 & China, AOSIS, the LDCs, the LMDCs, the African Group, AILAC, BASIC, and ALBA, all reiterating their frustration at the problems with the provision of finance, technology transfer, and capacity building measures to the developing world. A particular source of irritation was the “conditionality” which, it was argued, developed countries had attached to access to finance. In the words of the Brazilian delegate, speaking on behalf of the BASIC group, this was “tantamount to a renegotiation of the Paris Agreement and a departure from the spirit of the UNFCCC.” Loss and damage was equally contentious, and a permanent place for the Warsaw Mechanism within the Paris Agreement was called for repeatedly.
In response, the developed world seemed to have little to say besides generic platitudes. The EU recognised the increased severity of extreme weather and the need to help the world’s most vulnerable communities, and called for the Paris pledges to be scaled up and for draft decisions on all Paris work programme items to be completed next year. The Environmental Integrity Group committed itself to the Paris process, and called for ambitious implementation guidelines. The Umbrella Group was “committed to playing our part” and shared the COP presidency’s desire for a successful high level event. The theme they all shared, however, was a stated desire for enhanced transparency in determining national action plans on climate change, something which is likely to place them at loggerheads with the developing world, especially given their perceived standstill on all things finance-related. The US had even less to say – its delegate spoke for a mere 30 seconds, stating no more than that the Trump administration’s position is unchanged, but that the delegation will continue to participate over the next two weeks.
The moment of greatest drama in the morning session came when it was Saudi Arabia’s turn to speak, on behalf of the Arab League. The Saudi delegate voiced his displeasure at the plenary rule of presenting statements in English only – perhaps with one eye on the clock (!) – and refused to speak in any language other than Arabic, citing parties’ “legitimate right to speak in their mother languages”. He “resented such disrespect”, and even went as far as declaring that “it seems like statements by some groups are not important”, deploring the fact that delegates had been asked to work through their lunches – although, as he also noted, by the time of his speech, the conference room was all but empty. “Absolutely not acceptable” was his final verdict, triggering an apology from the presidency.
All in all, then, a decidedly frosty morning in Bonn on day 1 of COP23. It already appears that the parties will have great difficulty in squaring their disagreements, particularly over finance and transparency, and the entire process will not be helped by the air of tension that the first four hours generated. As the Saudi delegate forcefully expressed with his very first words of the plenary, “This is not a good start for the COP.”
Danny Waite is on the COP-Climate Action Studio this week.