Vol. XLI No. 48 November 26, 2017

COP23 at Bonn – An Assessment

T Jayaraman


THE 23rd edition of the annual global climate summit, officially known as the Conference of Parties (COP23) concluded at Bonn in the early hours of November 18, several hours past its scheduled conclusion. This delay, as has happened on past occasions too, was the consequence of last minute confrontations between the developing countries and the developed ones. Notwithstanding the hype surrounding the signature and early ratification of the Paris Agreement by 170 countries, the developed countries continue their well-known tactics in relation to the developing world. Nevertheless the developing countries succeeded in obtaining a number of procedural advances, with some losses. The most significant perhaps in the longer term is the return of the question of equity to virtually the centre-stage of implementing the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement, it must be recalled, already constitutes a substantial weakening of the developing countries' position in the fight to have an equitable and just solution to the challenge of global warming. The Agreement allows developed countries to commit to voluntarily-set emissions reduction targets, targets that are well below any scientific and equitable reckoning of what they should in fact be doing. The Agreement effectively undermined the concept of the “historical responsibility” of developed countries for the amount of greenhouse gases that they have already put in the atmosphere and that severely restricts the ability of developing countries to use even a modest amount of fossil fuels in their transition to a low-carbon future, a restriction that places serious limitations on their developmental choices. The question of developed countries abiding by their duty, under the terms of the original United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to provide adequate climate finance and technology transfer to the developing countries was left largely unspecified and vague at Paris. This was unfortunate considering the track record of the developed countries in delivering on both these issues and their backsliding on keeping up the specific promises made at Copenhagen on finance.

Despite the pressure of the developed countries, the developing world however succeeded at Paris in keeping on board both the principle of equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities in specific passages, in writing, in the Agreement. This is not insignificant. Even though the Paris Agreement is under the terms of the UNFCCC of which these principles are an integral part, the developed countries have been using any absence of the specific restatement of these principles as an invitation to try and undermine them. So their specific restatement in the Paris Agreement was a major gain. At the same time, the measure of commonality that was instituted in the Agreement, by allowing voluntary emission reduction targets by all countries (even though the content of these targets varied between developed and developing countries) has been clearly interpreted by developed country experts and policy makers as a welcome weakening of the principle of differentiation.

Donald Trump's announced withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement,  initially undoubtedly made those developed country leaders who argued for remaining within the Agreement, appear to be bold warriors for a sustainable future, so-called “climate leaders”. However the proceedings of COP23 have definitively exposed the reality of extensive collusion among the developed country parties such as the EU (not to mention countries like Australia, New Zealand, Japan, etc) with the US, a fact that has not gone unnoticed even by international NGOs and sections of the global media. 

What is the basis for this collusion? There are a number of key strategies on which a wide range of political opinion in the developed world is agreed upon, ranging from Trump, his Republican friends and administration strategists to Angela Merkel and her so-called “climate leader” Germany. These include: i) denying, undermining and eventually setting aside differentiation; ii) pushing the burden of climate mitigation on the large developing countries or developing regions, especially those that are in the ranks of the “emerging economies”; iii) keeping their emission reduction commitments to a minimum, relying on future offsets under some global carbon market mechanism; iv) putting up a strong stand to limit the claims to climate finance by the developing countries and v) eventually relying on markets and the private sector to take care of climate action. Whatever be the variations in the way this basic agenda is articulated, the developed countries are broadly united in this.

An additional tactical move that became apparent at COP23 at Bonn was the constant pressure mounted by the developed countries to keep on changing the goal posts in the discussion, even before existing commitments are properly implemented. So even though it was agreed that the developed countries would sign on to continuing the Kyoto Protocol till 2020 through the Doha Amendment, discussion on this issue was sought to be sidelined in setting the agenda of COP23. Instead all attention was sought to be focused on the implementation of the Paris accord that enters into implementation only in 2020. Even more dramatically, on the issue of the implementation of the Paris Agreement (the “rulebook” for the agreement), this became evident in the discussions on the terms of the “global stocktake”, that is to take place in 2023. Some developed countries suggested that this exercise should commence in 2021 itself. As Indian negotiators sharply pointed out, this was ridiculous since one could not initiate a stocktaking of an agreement whose implementation had commenced only in 2020!

It may be argued that these pressure tactics partially backfired since it brought on a consolidation of the ranks of the developing countries during the summit itself. On the three issues of the pre-2020 commitments of the developed countries, the question of climate finance and its accounting in the short as well as medium and longer term and the nature of the “facilitative dialogue” of 2018 , the developing countries mutually supported each other, despite the fact that the Fijian presidency began COP23 with positions on these and a range of other issues that favoured the developed countries outright.  The presidency however, over time, had to take account of the pushback from developing countries. In the outcome documents of COP23 the successful interventions of the developing countries are clearly reflected. The facilitative dialogue has now been brought more within the ambit of the negotiations rather than acting outside it, the pre-2020 will be on the agenda and be an integral part of the “dialogue” next year and the issue of the accounting of developed country climate finance will remain actively on the agenda of discussion.

Despite the Fijian presidency, a severe setback was the lack of advance in the discussion on loss and damage due to natural disasters, an issue particularly dear to island nations. While in the Paris Agreement, the island nations made a strategic giveaway in  dropping any demand for compensation, even the diluted provision of “action and support” is being sidelined by the developed nations. It was not even guaranteed at COP23 that the question of loss and damage, now  acknowledged as the third pillar of climate action (alongside mitigation and adaptation) would remain a permanent agenda item at future COP meetings. 

But the most significant procedural advance was the return of the question of equity in the discussions of how to implement the “global stocktake” of the Paris Agreement in 2023. This stocktake is meant to evaluate the implementation and effectiveness of the agreement and developing countries, at  least for now, were determined that equity must be an essential part of the basis for such an evaluation. This will be definitely a subject of ongoing negotiations in the coming years.

In many ways COP23 at Bonn had a limited scope and the negotiations are likely to be much tougher over 2018 to 2020. Developed countries are always looking to latch on to seemingly minor technical issues from one summit and then using them subsequently to drive matters in their favour. And as final decisions on the Paris “rulebook” come closer, the unfortunate coalition of developed nations and a number of small developing countries, as in Durban and Paris earlier, may still re-emerge.

In these circumstances, countries like India need a clear, long-term strategy that can then determine the significance of minor twists and turns in the negotiations as well as the necessary levels of flexibility that may be required later in situations that call for  some compromise. Unfortunately such a strategic outlook has neither been discussed domestically nor was it visible in the articulation of our climate action strategy at COP23. India's commitments in the Paris Agreement alone do not amount to the elaboration of such a strategy. Sections of opinion from India are also beginning to echo the developed country hype that it will be largely private and non-state action that will drive mitigation and adaptation even domestically.  The present government needs to reaffirm the leading role of state-led and state-directed public action on the question of climate change.