Climate Conference of Madrid, Spain
By Lucas Frye
For decades, the issue of climate change has been framed as a crisis for the future, a problem that our children and grandchildren will need to solve. The messaging of the climate activists centered around long-term measures like global average temperature change and sea level rise, where changes on the order of degrees Celsius and inches have little meaning or significance to people without scientific backgrounds. Insufficient emphasis was placed on the human impacts that a changing climate is already having on hundreds of millions of people globally. This has allowed the political classes to delay climate action in the interest of short-term economic benefits and minimize the link between greenhouse gas emissions and the livelihoods of those they govern. The great threat to human life and dignity posed by the climate emergency is on our doorstep, and we need strong political will to reduce the damage.
Harms caused by anthropogenic climate change are referred to as “loss and damage” within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and include those resulting from both sudden-onset events, such as extreme weather, and slow-onset events, like sea level rise. Extreme weather events, like heat waves, droughts, cyclones, and storms are occurring more often and with greater intensity as the atmosphere warms. Higher temperatures cause increased evaporation of surface water, which results in drought in some places and extreme precipitation in others. In fact, regions that are generally dry are becoming drier and regions that are generally wet are becoming wetter. This combination of droughts and more intense rainfall are causing the loss of human life and damage to infrastructure in places like the Philippines, where Typhoon Phanfone has killed over 50 people. These changes in weather further promote food insecurity as crop yields decline and grazing land for livestock is lost.
Higher temperatures also cause thermal expansion of seawater and the melting of ice at the poles, resulting in sea level rise which can flood coastal areas and force people out of their homes. Increased flooding also poses threats to water security, as treatment facilities are disrupted and water quality declines. Lives are also being lost to the facilitated spread of diseases like malaria and dengue fever, which thrive in extended breeding seasons promoted by rising temperatures.
Who is most at risk?
The climate emergency doesn’t affect all groups equally. The negative impacts are most severe for members of already disadvantaged communities. First, there is of course a regional dependence on exposure to climate hazards. Those who live in low-lying coastal communities will be the hardest hit by sea-level rise, as their homes will be subject to increased flooding and subsidence. There is also a strong economic tilt to this vulnerability: citizens of low-income countries suffer more than those in high-income countries, despite the latter being responsible for most of the emissions causing these problems. Food insecurity, water scarcity, and human dislocation pose the greatest threat to those without the wealth and mobility to adapt to climate change. Within countries, divisions of race and gender further place disproportionate suffering on the shoulders on those who are already least able to afford the high costs of rising emissions.
The climate emergency was foreseen well in advance, and yet today it takes a skyrocketing number of lives and irreversibly changes many more for the worse. As land shrinks beneath the sea and the land that remains becomes increasingly arid, the wealthy are paying to maintain their way of life, but the poor have little choice but to migrate, beg, and starve. These impacts are already unavoidable for millions in on the front lines of climate change, and it won’t be long before they are knocking on the door of industrialized nations as well. How much longer will it take the countries most responsible for the climate crisis to take an active role in solving it?
by Kristian Gubsch
The 25th annual Conference of the Parties (COP) was held in Madrid, Spain this year and lasted from December 3 – December 15 which is the longest COP ever held. I arrived on December 4th and left December 11th, and was able to attend five days of the conference in total. To be honest, the conference was initially overwhelming as there are multiple schedules of events published, simultaneous presentations, negotiations, and panel discussions going, and on top of that the conference center was very large. Luckily, a few of my colleagues here at Climate Conversations were able to show me around and I quickly learned how to maneuver the COP. Throughout my time at the COP I was bombarded with all kinds of information about climate change, but after processing it all I have broken it down into my three main takeaways below.
What is Article 6 of the Paris Agreement?
One of the main reasons I was excited to attend COP25 was to see international climate policy negotiated in real-time. With so much pressure and expectations coming from the worldwide protests and the rise of Greta Thunberg and her movement Fridays For Future, I imagined this sense of urgency would be reflected in the negotiations. One of the main points of contention throughout the COP was Article 6 of the Paris Agreement which, prior to attending COP25, I was unfamiliar with. Article 6 essentially allows countries with lower emissions to sell their remaining emissions to larger emitters to help them meet their emissions target outlined in their nationally determined contribution. However, Article 6 has been discussed extensively at prior international meetings so there was mounting pressure to reach an agreement at COP25. As I sat through the negotiations, the sense of urgency was palpable among the co-facilitators (co-facilitators are basically moderators of the discussions who are responsible for incorporating countries’ suggestions into a drafted document and urging countries to reach a consensus) of the negotiations as they reminded several different countries be brief in their remarks.
The negotiation that I attended was supposed to only last for two hours; however, it ran an extra hour long and suggestions had only been made for two out of the three paragraphs that were supposed to be reviewed. By the conclusion of the conference, there was still no consensus among countries which means it will not be discussed again until the next intersessional meeting in June 2020. After sitting through three hours of Article 6 negotiations, it was impossible for me to ignore the stark contrast between the young activists at the conference and the lack of cooperation at the international level in regards to legislating progressive climate action. If you are interested in other aspects of COP25 negotiations and what to expect going forward I would encourage reading CarbonBrief’s breakdown of the conference found here.
The U.S. is Still In! (Sort of)
While we are all well-aware of the Trump administration’s intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, some of you may be less aware of the work being done by U.S. Climate Action Center. At COP25, each country has the opportunity to host their own pavilion where people can learn more about how the country is responding to issues that are being caused by climate change. Since the U.S. is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, the U.S. Climate Action Center is a group that attends international climate conferences in the United States’ absence and organizes events to spread awareness of the climate action that is happening in the United States. This center also represents the effort of a broader movement in the U.S. called We Are Still In which is a movement that consists of 2,234 businesses/investors, 287 cities/counties, 353 colleges/universities, 10 states, 68 cultural institutions, 28 health care organizations, 50 faith groups, and 11 tribes across the nation.
Over the course of the week, I attended several panel discussions that included university presidents, business leaders, and policymakers. From the university panel, I learned of an organization called Second Nature that is pushing universities to integrate carbon neutrality and sustainability goals into their futures. So far over 450 schools have declared a carbon neutrality goal and the network of universities that have made a commitment can be viewed here. The next session I attended consisted of CEOs from various companies such as The Dow Chemical Company, Edison International, and Unilever, as well as a representative from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). During this discussion, I was encouraged to hear that CEOs were taking the issue of climate change very seriously and as one of the panel members put it, “there are no jobs or businesses on a dead planet”. The coalition of companies, organized by the group We Mean Business, who are pledging to reduce their emissions was also discussed and more than 87 companies have pledged to go net-zero or reduce their emissions. Finally, the panel discussion composed of policymakers reiterated the importance of the private sector’s action on climate change and emphasized that the environment and business go hand-in-hand. This was a bipartisan discussion with both Democrats and Republicans on the panel and both sides agreed that bipartisan climate action at the local and state level can also be very effective.
Sweden is Home to the First Climate Positive Company
I had never heard of the phrase “climate positive” until I attended a panel of business leaders discussing why they are key partners to keep the global temperature rise to below 1.5 ᵒC. A representative from the Swedish company MAX Burgers explained that “climate positive” is a term applied to a company that meets three categories: 100% of their greenhouse gas emissions are measured, there is a history of reducing emissions, and at least 110% of the emissions is captured. At first, I was skeptical because I am aware that animal agriculture, particularly cows, are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions globally. However, they have made an effort to offset these emissions by planting more than 700,000 trees in Africa and continue to plant trees each year to maintain their climate positive status. Additionally, Mevo ride share, a car sharing company in New Zealand, claims to be the second climate positive company and the first climate positive ride sharing service. Their electric vehicles are charged with 80% renewable energy from the grid and the rest of the energy is offset by 120% through the purchase of certified rainforest carbon offsets. While the phrase “climate positive” is not yet widespread in the business world, it is encouraging to see companies in industries that are typically responsible for a large emissions footprint take action to not only to reduce emissions, but also improve the environment. Overall, I was re-energized through seeing the action being taken by the private sector and am excited to see more and more companies make commitments towards a more sustainable future.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the Opportunity Fund, Office of Undergraduate Research, and Honors College at Washington State University for funding my housing and meals during my trips to Washington, D.C. and Madrid. I would also like to thank Alaska Airlines for covering the cost of my domestic flights.
by Kristian Gubsch
1. What’s with all these acronyms?
When I first started learning about the Conference of the Parties it was hard to keep straight all the acronyms. Governments love to use them but often it can make things difficult to understand. Some of the most common acronyms used when discussing the Conference of the Parties are UNFCCC, IPCC, and COP. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established to limit greenhouse gas emissions to a point that would prevent significant human interference with Earth’s climate. While this goal is very broad, it establishes a baseline for the UNFCCC to establish non-binding emission limits for member countries (member countries are also referred to as Parties) and create agreements or protocols for the Parties to follow. After the UNFCCC treaty was signed, the first Conference of the Parties (COP) was held and these formal meetings serve as opportunities for global leaders to discuss, assess, and push forward climate change action. The science that informs the climate action that is discussed at the Conference of the Parties stems from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC was initially formed in 1988 to prepare a review of climate change science, the impacts of climate change, and to figure out how the world is going to respond to these impacts. Their Assessment Reports, now five in total since 1988, consist of the most comprehensive global analysis of climate change and are an excellent resource to those of us who would like to be more educated on the topic. Now that you have a background in the acronyms, let’s dive into what has happened at previous COPs.
2. What is the Kyoto Protocol and why is it important?
The Kyoto Protocol was the result of the 3rd Conference of the Parties (COP3) in Kyoto, Japan. Basically, this treaty follows along the lines of why the UNFCCC was created: to control anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. This plan was a first attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions around the world as countries that ratified the agreement were given maximum carbon emissions levels. Despite this plan, global emissions overall have continued to increase as the plan targeted developed nations like the U.S. and Canada and did not include other big-emitters like India and China.
3. What is the Paris Agreement?
The Paris Agreement came as a result of the 21st Conference of the Parties with the main goal of the agreement to limit global temperature increase to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, this agreement is non-binding which makes it difficult to hold countries accountable for their promised contributions to the agreement. However, the Paris Agreement was very significant as it was a symbol of almost universal global collaboration towards limiting the effects of climate change as 194 states and the European Union have signed the agreement. I am also well aware that my country, the United States, intends to withdraw from the Paris Agreement which will take effect November 4, 2020. Despite this, there are still many Americans who support global climate action and the stance of our government does not necessarily reflect the review of the public majority. My home state of Washington has been a leader in climate change policy and continues to push forward legislation that aims to limit our contribution to the issue. This goes to show that despite the federal stance on the issue, states and, more importantly, individuals, have the potential to make incremental progress in educating their communities. Through this, they can empower local governments and businesses to make the appropriate changes.
4. What is going to be the focus of COP25?
At COP 25, countries will be tasked with reevaluating each of their environmental commitments with many nations still far from their Paris Agreement goals and even those commitments are not estimated to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. COP 25 gives the world an opportunity to reinvigorate ambitious climate actions. The Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for the Paris Agreement are to be submitted in 2020 so this conference is an opportunity to revamp each member country’s contribution. Another desired critical outcome of COP 25 is enhanced outreach to boost overall climate action. Climate change cannot be solved purely on the governmental level, so it is important to ensure private sectors and citizens like us are on board with pursuing more aggressive climate action. According to Patricia Espinosa, the U.N.’s top climate change official, COP 25, “is our opportunity to make major progress on what people throughout the world are demanding—real and lasting action on climate change.”
5. Why did the conference move from Santiago to Madrid?
You may have heard through national headlines that Santiago had to withdraw from hosting two major international summits due to widespread public protests. As a result, COP25 and the APEC summit had to be cancelled and relocated to another venue. Recently, Madrid has stepped forward to organize and host COP25 which is a daunting task considering there is over 20,000 people are expected to attend. These protests began as the Chilean government increased transportation costs, but quickly escalated as over 400,000 Chileans took to the streets to demand better quality healthcare, living conditions, and education. As the protests turned violent, the unprecedented decision to cancel COP25 in Santiago was made and several days later Madrid stepped forward to host the world’s largest conference on climate change.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the Opportunity Fund, Office of Undergraduate Research, and Honors College at Washington State University for funding my housing and meals during my trips to Washington, D.C. and Madrid. I would also like to thank Alaska Airlines for covering the cost of my domestic flights.
by Yasmin Ajirniar
Last week, on Tuesday, September 23rd, French courts delivered a heavy blow to Dow France, one that cost 99 million euros in frozen assets. The action serves as a preventative measure, should the company attempt to move its money outside of the country prior its January trial in 2020. Workers and workers’ families who have been left uncompensated for damages caused by the product, Nemagon, have filed a lawsuit against Dow Chemical, the multi-national manufacturing parent company of Dow France.
First of all, although the workers rights are now being pursued in 2019, it is necessary to return to the 1970’s when Nemagon, a pesticide, was banned in the United States for the health risks it poses. However, large companies such as Dow Chemical which are headquartered in the United States, continued to produce and distribute the pesticide, particularly in South American countries. For example, in Nicaragua, thousands of banana farm workers were sterilized from using Nemagon.
In spite of legal action taken by the workers in Nicaragua, Dow Chemical refused to compensate the workers who were denied the right a family, a fundamental human right, claiming that the trial had been unfair towards the company. This was decades ago. Today in France, where a large share of Dow operations, Dow finances, and affected workers reside, the case has reappeared.
Dow Chemical is no stranger to French Courts which are known to undertake legal cases involved the rights of an individual. Two years ago, in 2017, products containing sulfoxaflor from Dow Chemical were questioned regarding their toxicity towards bees.
In consideration of the timing, location, and application of the ruling, the decision by the French courts in early 2020 will be significant, and it will be valuable to follow the progression of the lawsuit. How well will Dow France defend its case against the workers? According to European law, the precedent the court sets should apply across the European Union. What precedent will the court establish? And will it be actually be enforced outside French borders?
by: Yasmin Ajirniar
From mid-summer to late fall of 2015, the cosmopolitan city of Milan hosted the World Expo towards the northeast of its city center. There, the sleekest designs and most novel technology was featured to the theme of “Feeding the planet, Energy for life”. Regarding the non-traditional energy concerns, a collaboration between Merck and Belectric, called the solar trees, inhabited the German Pavilion; It was an installation that was not only symbolic in its design but also suggestive in its technological feat.
by Shelby Toles
As a political science student, being a representative for a scientific organization was intimidating at first. I admit that I was nervous my political background would not be sufficient for my representation of the ACS. However, that was not the case. Through our visits to the US State Department, the US Embassy of Poland, and overall participation at the UN conference in Poland, I realized that we ACS students were being exposed to the merging of science and politics, with one being just as important as the other. It is no question that climate change is both a scientific and political issue, and it should be treated as such. However, for years, politicians have jumped through hoops to create solutions to scientific problems without the scientific backing. At the same time, scientists have also struggled to make significant progress with major issues because they lack a connection to the political world. However, with the recent increase of urgency to create a viable, long term solution to what UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, described as “the defining issue of this generation,” these two worlds are coming together more than they ever have before to combat the growing threat of climate change. After the 2019 ACS national meeting in Orlando, my ACS sponsor, Dr. Gregory Foy, told me that what it means to be a chemist is now changing. He says that it is not just about balancing equations and titration anymore, but now scientists have to be politically literate for their work to make a difference. The same goes for politicians, in order for real problems to be solved, they need to be familiar with the scientific explanations of complex problems such as climate change. To me, a United Nations conference about climate change seems to be the perfect scenario where these two worlds can meet each other halfway. At COP 24, that is exactly what I saw.
by Lucas Frye
The inability of any one person to see all of the sights at the COP was never made clearer than on my last full day in Katowice. This was the concluding day of the first week of the conference, and the subsidiary bodies of the UNFCCC were rushing to complete their work before sending it off to be handled by the Parties’ ministers in the second week. As such the bodies were required to hold their last sets of informal consultations and contact group meetings in the morning and their closing plenaries in the afternoon and on into the night, able to adjourn only when the work was concluded. I left around 7:00 P.M. and wasn’t even there for the conclusion of the first of these plenaries!
The end of the first week of the COP drawing near, facilitators were becoming visibly more anxious to produce streamlined documents to present to the environmental ministers set to arrive for week two negotiations. This was evident in the sixth day’s APA agenda item 7 talks, where there was a good bit of tension between the co-facilitators who had produced a second iteration of the draft document and the Parties who weren’t too fond of it. As an attempt to move towards a “landing zone” or a document with fewer options and less bracketed texts which could get in the way of consensus further in the process, the draft conclusion was significantly slimmed down and Parties took turns berating the removal of their respective preferred sections and the general loss of balance in the representation of their views. In addition, many delegates were annoyed by the late release of this document, a mere thirty minutes before this session began. As such, few had had the chance to fully parse the document and the position of the co-facilitators was essentially “you have the room; work on finding solutions until our next meeting this afternoon”. Of course, the hour would instead be spent with the Parties asking for guidance on how to move forward (with many insisting that it simply could not done with such essential elements removed) and asking for the options in the first iteration back in the negotiating text. After each intervention, the co-facilitators attempted to calmly remind Parties of the rapidly approaching deadline for the completion of the working group’s agenda item and pleaded with them to use that time to find common ground with one another. I was unable to attend the second session of the day, but it would become clear that the effort of the co-chairs of the APA to push things forward faster met with similar pushback in the other agenda items.
I attended another side event, this time at the Indonesian pavilion. Several countries and organizations operated pavilions in an area separate from most of the meeting rooms, where side events and exhibits were held to demonstrate those nations’ specific contributions to sustainability technology and climate policy. These spots were also well-populated due to the free food and merch goodies available to event attendees, like cappuccinos at France, exotic meat samples at Poland, and ornate bags and bottles of powdered ginger at Indonesia (I wasn’t just holiday shopping, okay?). The event I attended, which followed a traditional dance routine in an open area of the pavilion, was titled “Traditional Society Actions in the Changing Climate” and detailed the role of indigenous knowledge and rights in reducing domestic carbon emissions. The first speaker was Mina Susana Setra, Deputy to the Secretary General of the Indigenous People Alliance of the Archipelago-Indonesia, who explained her organization’s work in getting the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to recognize indigenous people’s customary lands. According to the ministry’s requirements for this recognition, it is estimated that 5.7 million hectares of customary forest has the potential to be recognized and this organization has worked to map out these areas and assist in the paperwork required for local governments to maneuver the process. This work was underscored by the large carbon sequestration potential from these large swaths of land and the high economic value that their ecosystem services can provide to indigenous communities given proper management.
Next was Agung Wibowo, Senior Researcher at The Association of Community- and Ecology-Based Legal Transformation, who discussed frameworks for dealing with customary forest in Indonesian law. The legal system in Indonesia, in accordance with the third amendment to its constitution, recognizes adat, or the customary law of indigenous peoples within the country. This and several key constitutional court decisions have also created a process for territories and forests to be granted back to these peoples, in a process which has accelerated under the current president, Joko Widodo. In the future, this association hopes to augment the land rights of indigenous peoples by the further reform of land rights law, increased recognition of human rights within the country, and harmonization of policies affecting different sectors. Following Wibowo was Aristia H. Wanjaya, Program Manager for the IDH Sustainable Trade Initiative. If you’re curious, IDH also means Sustainable Trade Initiative, but in Dutch. This presentation focused on the various ways sustainable production and trade can benefit people economically. By assisting local communities with implementing agricultural best practices, capacity-building for production and protection of ecosystem-specific commodities, and access to markets and finance, this organization has sought to benefit the capability of these groups to grow their economic output and prosperity. In Indonesia, these efforts have focused on improving the sustainable production of mangrove honey and coconut charcoal as trade commodities and operation of ecotourism ventures.
Next in line was Vadis Vik, Environmental Counselor at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C., who gave a brief overview of the Indonesia-Norway REDD+ Agreement. REDD+ is perhaps the most marvelous acronym I came across at this conference, because the plus operates like Hermione Granger’s bag, holding far more words than any reasonable initialism would normally allow. The full expansion is “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries”. How neat is that? Anyway, this agreement provides pay-for-performance financing, that is, Norway gives Indonesia up to US$1 billion for achieving verified GHG emissions reductions. After gracefully sidestepping a question about future amendments to this agreement, she gave the floor to the final speaker of the event, Monica Tanuhandaru, Executive Director of Kemitraan: The Partnership for Governance Reform, who spoke of her group’s efforts to work with civil society organizations and government agencies to—you guessed it—reform governance. Her presentation focused on the local wisdom and traditional knowledge held by indigenous groups about preserving forests. Many villages in Indonesia depend on the forest and the services it provides for their livelihood, but have disproportionately less access to that forest and the rights pertaining to it relative to corporations and the state. This discrepancy is made that much more important by the increased vulnerability of these local communities to the effects of climate change. Social forestry efforts in the country aim to legalize access by local peoples to the forest by the issuance of management and use permits. Another major effort is to simplify regulations that pose a barrier to the return of farms to their customary claimants. Social forestry is implemented in national policy as part of Indonesia’s NDC, due to the high carbon value in forested area (deforestation would reduce in huge net emissions growth). In addition, forest upkeep provides income for poor communities and thus fits into the country’s sustainable development efforts. Social forestry also provides a platform for testing possible incentives for sustainable forest management. As an example of the successes of this program, key examples of the improvement of degraded forest by returning the land rights to indigenous peoples were presented. Further, it was shown that long-term facilitated social forestry sites have led to greater economic benefits than new forests. Recommendations from the talk included delegating parts of the permitting process to local governments to accelerate application review, formulation of a multi-stakeholder working group on social forestry to speed up development and verification of proposals, increased financial support from the central government, and stronger cooperation between different bodies within the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. As someone who went into this conference with very science-minded interests, I felt I learned a lot about the role of traditional knowledge in sustainably managing ecosystems, something rarely encountered in the academic study of environmental science.
Later, at an APA stocktaking meeting, where the APA co-chairs checked up with progress on all of the discussed agenda items, I heard more of what the Parties at the APA 7 meeting had expressed earlier: the new iterations of draft proposals went too far in eliminating options. Nearly every single negotiating group went through a laundry list of issues with the work of the co-facilitators, which in their view had thrown concern for reflecting the Parties’ views out of the window. Saudi Arabia and the US went so far as to suggest that their ministers would not even participate in discussing a document that did not meet certain criteria. Even Switzerland, which expressed many of the same concerns as the co-chairs that progress was not quick enough, slipped in a couple of points about paragraphs they needed to see back in the documents. Despite the co-chairs’ best efforts at urging the Parties to be “solution-oriented”, it seemed that for the moment, such solutions were still out of reach. This second-to-last day of the first week of negotiations (and my time at the COP) seemed to be a microcosm of that charge of the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 °C, that we are almost out of time, but not yet out of time.
“Pre-2020 Stocktake on implementation and ambition” by UNclimatechange is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Negotiations on procedures for the committee to facilitate implementation and promote compliance per the Paris Agreement continued on the fifth day of the COP, and I was able to attend another session. This session was open to observers, although between open sessions the working group had met in a number of “informal informals” or meetings totally closed to observers which are, I imagine, rather informal. Legends even tell of a mysterious “informal informal informal” consisting of a small number of delegates engaging in discussions quietly over coffee at an undisclosed location (there were so many coffee stations at the venue; it could be any of them!). Because the open meetings were only a fraction of the total meetings surrounding this agenda item, each time I came into the room, there were a few holes in my understanding of what was going on. Delegates would from time to time reference proposals made and discussions had in closed session, but overall, as long as I was looking at the current iteration of the draft documents, I was never left too lost in the woods.
While the scope of this day’s meeting was broader (Sections A, B, E, F, G, and H were all fair game), the actual discussions taking place tended to focus on more minute details of the working of the committee, compared to the previous day’s proceedings. In fact, the majority of the substantive work took place within Section B, on institutional arrangements, or the legal and procedural mechanisms and agreements allowing the committee to operate effectively. The hot topics of the day included determining who shall develop the rules of procedure for the committee, which are the more detailed version of the modalities and procedures being laid out by this document. The distinction between the modalities and procedures and the rules of procedure is important, if only because Parties, seeking to avoid conflict or too much prescription (a common concern of the Canadian delegation), would often decide certain issues should be left for the rules document, which will be adopted by the larger meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA) at a later time. Most countries speaking on the details of the paragraph addressing the when and how of rules adoption preferred to allow the committee to develop its rules of procedure, subject to adoption by the CMA, with a general consensus, most vocally headed by Tuvalu, Argentina (representing itself, Brazil, and Uruguay—name a better trio, I’ll wait), and China, that this ought to be done by CMA 3 in 2020. Mali, representing the African Group, did express a preference that the CMA both develop and adopt the rules of procedure, but something tells me this isn’t a hill any delegation was anxious to die on.
There was a wider set of views concerning the chairpersonship of the committee, which in the contemporary iteration of the text read as the committee electing from among its members two co-chairs for a term of three years, one each from a developing and a developed country. Mali (African Group) supported this as written, but Costa Rica (Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean) and Japan expressed the desire to remove the requirement for equity between developed and developing countries. China, known to be very mindful of the importance of this label, sought further clarification on which definition of developed country Party would be used. Australia sought to augment the clause by the addition of a requirement to elect these chairs by consensus, and the EU and Costa Rica (AILAC) both expressed a sticking preference for having a single chair along with one or two vice-chairs. What hard work the co-facilitators must have put in each day to write a text they hoped to appeal to (or disappoint) all Parties equally!
The committee’s existing requirement to begin meeting at least twice a year, starting in 2020 met with urging by the EU and Australia to be amended to once per year. The EU, Argentina (Brazil and Uruguay), and Costa Rica (AILAC) also wished for these meetings to begin in 2019, so that rules of procedure could be developed and the committee could begin its work as the Paris Agreement enters into force. What an exciting (and disappointing) surge (and retreat) of ambition?! The countries were more closely split on whether the committee’s meetings would be public or private by default, with the EU and Australia supporting open meetings, Mali (African Group) and Saudi Arabia supporting closed meetings, and St. Kitts & Nevis opposing the inclusion of such a paragraph in the first place. Thank goodness everyone (Tuvalu, St. Kitts & Nevis, Costa Rica (AILAC), China, Mali (African Group), and Norway) could come together to oppose the paragraph allowing the committee to conduct its work electronically. The beauty of international cooperation truly is immeasurable.
If you thought the highlights of that meeting had you on the edge of your seat, just wait until you hear about the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice’s (SBSTA) informal consultations on emissions from fuel used for international aviation and maritime transport. The attentive reader may note that this was the agenda item held up at the SBSTA opening plenary over whether the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) had actually been invited to speak or not. Well, guess what issue took up the entirety of the discussion on this item once again! The session began with Singapore raising the all-important and certainly still unanswered question of whether the draft conclusion on the floor really invites the IMO and ICAO to give their reports at SBSTA 50 in 2020. With South Africa’s insistence on the importance of getting a legal opinion, the co-facilitators sent for the UNFCCC Secretariat legal counsel once again to address the elephant in the room. In the signature caustic style of their delegate, Saudi Arabia quickly took to criticizing the trivial nature of this question and asked for its conclusion, as if it hadn’t been the entire reason for the delay in the first place. The co-facilitator denied this request, due to the apparent lack of consensus, reinforced by the EU insisting that the agenda item remain open and the US insisting that we might as well use the previous session’s draft conclusions. Indeed, while most Parties seemed to agree that the topic had been discussed enough already, their lack of agreement on which set of draft conclusions best represented this fact led, perhaps ironically, to the continuation of said discussion. The legal counsel arrived and reinforced the opinion of the SBSTA chair that there was a standing invitation for the IGOs to deliver their reports at SBSTA meetings, regardless of whether such an invitation was reiterated or not by the draft conclusion. Seeking to expedite the consensus-building process, the co-facilitator asked the Parties in the room to go into informal informals. Observers are often kicked out of the room when this begins, but not this time! Of course, as the Parties at this time spoke to one another in circles without the use of microphones, I have no idea what exactly was said, probably by design. Lo and behold, after ten or so minutes of huddling, an agreement was reached and our planet was forever saved from the scourge of unaccounted for maritime and aviation emissions. Just kidding: they couldn’t agree on which draft conclusions to adopt and so no report was produced on this agenda item, as would be lamentingly reported by the SBSTA chair at their closing plenary.
Don’t worry; they’ll meet again next year.
Today, I got the opportunity to really jump into the thick of things. I volunteered to attend the ticketed negotiations on APA (Paris Agreement working group) agenda item 7, which were informal consultations on procedures for the committee tasked by Article 15 of the Paris Agreement to facilitate implementation and promote compliance. Here, informal doesn’t mean the ties were any looser or the suits any less expensive, but rather that the negotiations were a little more discussion-like and a little less parliament-ish, with a group of co-facilitators preparing iterations of draft decisions for the Parties to comment on between meeting sessions. All of this may sound a little bland, but this was one of my first opportunities to get to see Parties (again, not as fun as it sounds) actually getting down to business and going over the language that could eventually make it into the final documents produced by the conference.
Article 15 of the Paris Agreement deals with the mechanism that actually gets countries to follow through with their promised contributions to emissions reductions, which is important to ensuring that these goals are actually followed through with, considering the treaty is largely only as legally binding as each state wants it to be. Part of this mechanism operates through an expert-based committee which, although explicitly non-punitive, exists to help countries address issues in the way of compliance with the agreement. The exact methods available to this committee were to be discussed at these negotiations, before my very eyes!
The event was ticketed, with a few tickets distributed per constituency of NGOs, largely because it was scheduled in a smaller room with less space for observers. As such, I had to present my little paper ticket in order to be let into the room, as my yellow observer badge could only get me into so many places where anything fun was happening. I hadn’t been present for some of the other meetings of this working group, but I did follow their work from this point on through my time at the conference. It is a common piece of advice given by COP veterans that in order to get a lot out of your time here, you need to pick a specific aspect of the goings-on and focus on it, since there are about ten events happening at any given time and you won’t get as much in-depth understanding if you’re just sampling around a number of topics. Indeed, everyone you have a conversation with will inevitably ask some form of “so what are you tracking?” This was the first day I really took this advice to heart, and I quickly learned the importance of this focus as Parties started referring to paragraph numbers rather than substance and I got lost in the woods without my own copy of the draft document they were discussing. Because the RINGOs constituency asks that members attending ticketed events submit notes to their website, I did have the opportunity to really get into the weeds on implementation and compliance by finding the draft document on the UNFCCC website and synthesizing the morning’s proceedings into an organized set of notes with the other two observers following this agenda item (who had significantly more expertise than I).
What exactly went on in these meetings anyway? The morning session was focused around three questions that had emerged surrounding the contemporary iteration of the draft document. The first asked whether and how to combine a paragraph requiring the committee to take national capabilities and circumstances into account in identifying measures, findings, and recommendations with a paragraph that laid out other considerations including but not limited to “the legal nature of the provision”, the extent to which capacity contributed to challenges faced by the Party in implementation and compliance, the support received by developing country Parties, and the type, degree, and frequency of failure to meet the obligations laid out in the Paris Agreement. The second asked if the section of the aforementioned paragraph addressing “legal nature” would address the option of having a distinct subset of measures available to the committee specifically applicable to consideration of legally binding provisions. The third asked what specific recommendations the committee would be able to make to other bodies under the paragraph giving it the ability to do so concerning support, finance, technology, and capacity-building for developing country Parties. If you’ve ever discussed a set of three paragraphs for more than two hours, let us know in the comments!
On the first question, the majority of Parties speaking up were content to allow the paragraphs to merge, but St. Kitts & Nevis, New Zealand, the US, Argentina (representing Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay), and Australia insisted that specific language about national capabilities and circumstances be retained. Argentina, Norway, China, Costa Rica (representing the Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean), and Indonesia also recommended that the language be kept within the scope of the Paris Agreement. Mali (representing the African Group), Tuvalu (representing the Least Developed Countries Group), and Canada expressed preference for the paragraphs to maintain separate, although Canada’s main stance was to be less prescriptive at this stage and leave details for a later time or to the discretion of the committee.
On the second question, there was significantly less discussion, with St. Kitts & Nevis and Indonesia expressing few problems with the language of the provision as is. Mali recommended that language be revised to be more in line with the Paris Agreement and the EU, Canada, China, and the US suggested leaving discretion on “legal nature” to Parties, rather than the committee. These four Parties frequently expressed concerns about the committee being given too much power to determine which provisions of the Paris Agreement were legally binding, which, they argued, would take away from the nationally determined and differentiated nature of the responsibilities afforded each state. On the third question, even fewer Parties had anything to say, and it was nearly unanimous that it was premature to discuss this item at all.
At the afternoon session of these meetings, discussion turned more broadly towards the section of the document concerning initiation and process, that is, how the committee could go about discussing issues of implementation and compliance with respect to the performance of specific Parties. Here, each Party went paragraph by paragraph addressing its various concerns, and the co-facilitators called upon Parties in turn with little discussion on each item aside from prepared statements. I won’t go into the details of every paragraph (you can read the final document at the UNFCCC website) but the large part of the discussion was centered around a few important provisions.
The first paragraph attracting a significant amount of attention gave guidelines for the committee’s operation, including respect for existing legal character of Paris Agreement provisions, taking account of national capabilities and circumstances as well as flexibility provided to developing country Parties, and consideration of publicly available information. Costa Rica, St. Kitts & Nevis, Mali, and China expressed special concern about this paragraph maintaining and reinforcing its reference to national capabilities and circumstances and flexibility, especially as afforded to developing countries. On the other hand, the US and Norway urged the deletion of the flexibility measure. The US and other developed countries would repeat their concern in a number of instances at the COP that flexibility measures went too far in terms of bifurcating the responsibilities shared by all countries in reducing emissions, that is, that there should be a more equal set of obligations between developed and developing countries. The provision on publicly available information was assailed as unclear and difficult to implement by China, the EU, Norway, and Saudi Arabia. In addition, the common call to keep the language closer to that of the Paris Agreement was heard from Norway and New Zealand.
A number of countries also took issue with a paragraph requiring the committee to undergo preliminary examination of a Party’s written submission to verify sufficiency of the information provided, relevance to implementation and compliance, and that the submission was not “de minimis” (trivial). This examination is not present in the Paris Agreement and was thus argued to be deleted (by Mali) or clarified (by China, the EU, and the US) or streamlined (by Saudi Arabia). A subsidiary paragraph requiring the Party in question to provide responses to the committee’s questions during this examination was also criticized by numerous countries. Tuvalu and Saudi Arabia emphasized the need for further dialogue of a more facilitative nature between the committee and Party, while China and the US argued for the outright deletion of this section.
As this document was still in its draft stages, some paragraphs came with a set of distinct options for a text where there was a stark lack of consensus in earlier sessions on proposed language. In one such instance of this branching, the paragraph concerning initiation of consideration of issues related to implementation and compliance by the committee met with a good deal of discussion. The options laid out here answered the question of “compliance with what?”: 1) mandatory provisions of the Paris Agreement, 2) legally binding, individual, objectively assessable obligations in the Paris Agreement, on the basis of factual information from publicly available sources, 3) obligation to communicate NDCs, to provide mandatory information, or submit a mandatory progress report, 4) a situation where inconsistencies have been found in reports as identified by technical expert review (TER). I wish I could tell you this story ended with everyone coming to a conclusion together, but that’s the kind of thing that happens in the second week, after I was already back in the States and taking my finals. No, Option 1 had its proponents in St. Kitts & Nevis, China, and Mali; Option 2 was favored by Norway and Costa Rica; Option 3 had shooters in Australia, Norway, and Kazakhstan (although each had some language recommendations); and Option 4 found its home in the hearts of Mali, Costa Rica, Tuvalu, Norway, New Zealand, and Kazakhstan. If you think you’re seeing double, it’s because some countries expressed preference for sets of options rather than just one, which seems about as useful as when everyone in your friend group doesn’t care where you’re going to eat, so you just keep asking until someone admits they only really want to go to the place that everyone else hates but look here you are for the thousandth time because nobody has the AUDACITY to suggest otherwise.
…Where was I? Oh, right: Costa Rica, Tuvalu, Argentina, and St. Kitts & Nevis also wanted a paragraph deleted which required the consent of the Party for the committee to consider an issue relating to that Party’s compliance, because it would undermine the work of the committee to have to ask for permission. This would all be well and good if not for the Party which seemed to very much enjoy undermining climate action: Saudi Arabia, which insisted the paragraph be retained. But hey, that’s Hollywood, baby!
In between these two sessions, I attended a side event organized by the Secretariat of the UNFCCC, titled “2050 Strategies — Planning towards a resilient and prosperous future”, which showcased the efforts of a handful of countries in developing long-term emissions reduction strategies. The first speaker on the panel was Jeanette Mani, the National Communications Project Co-Ordinator in the Climate Change and International Cooperation Division of the Ministry of Economy of Fiji. She emphasized Fiji’s leading role in global climate action, wherein it had been one of the first to ratify the Paris Agreement and submit its first NDC to the UNFCCC registry. Following in these first steps, it was also one of the first to submit its Low-Emissions Development Strategy (LEDS) for 2050, which coupled its emissions reductions to its economic development in a symbiotic way. Fiji’s LEDS consists of sector-specific plans with 5-year targets (coinciding with NDCs) and specific project information for total private-sector decarbonization by 2050. It also addresses projects for enhancing carbon sinks and promoting island resilience (Fiji is naturally one of the most vulnerable countries to sea-level rise) with options for finance and policy programs that will augment this capacity.
Next was Mauro Petriccione, Director General for Climate Action in the European Commission. The EU also has rather ambitious emissions goals, with options ranging from 80% reduction to net zero by 2050, depending on domestic policy action. Petriccione emphasized the compatibility of the existing need for the EU to invest in modernization of its industrial structure and economic model with the need for decarbonization of these same processes and institutions. He addressed a number of economic positives expected to result from transitioning away from fossil fuels, including the conversion of an existing trade deficit to a surplus as imported fossil fuels are replaced with domestic renewables. The areas most important for realizing these outcomes are reduction of energy consumption, by increasing public- and private-sector energy efficiency; improved energy transmission; carbon capture and storage for residual emissions which are more difficult to eliminate; and further research and innovation in scaling up existing technologies for commercial viability. Petriccione’s report placed special emphasis on channeling finance into local use for energy-minded renovation of public works by regional branches of national governments.
Addressing the domestic policy required to meet the EU’s goals, Quentin Deslot, Policy Officer for the Ministry of Ecological and Inclusive Transition in France, gave an overview of the low-carbon strategy being implemented there. It includes sections for sector-specific recommendations and carbon budgeting on the short (five years) and medium (fifteen years) terms. While the French government was in the process of revising this strategy to raise ambition to the level of the European Commission’s goals and to include a new portion of the carbon budget dedicated to sinks, the new version (now released at the time of this writing) was said to address four key pillars of environmental policy: increasing sinks (forests, agricultural lands, carbon capture and storage) sustainably, reducing non-energy emissions (from industry processes, agriculture, waste) to the capacity of sinks, decarbonizing energy production entirely, and decreasing energy consumption by 50% by 2050.
Similar to Fiji, Costa Rica is also working on climate change in conjunction to its economic development efforts. Felipe De León Denegri, Advisor to the Climate Change Director in that country’s Ministry of Environment and Energy, also described a low-emission resilient development strategy, with special emphasis applied to the added word, as adaptation is a key element of facing down climate change for small island nations, which are already dealing with its negative effects. This plan incorporates a number of policy instruments to achieve the goal of sustainable development. First, the decarbonization plan is structured to reconcile the problem of misalignment in timing between NDC submission, which occurs every five years, and the production of domestic government strategic plans, which occurs with the election of new governments in Costa Rica. In addition, there is significant work on modeling efforts that accurately represent decarbonization’s synergistic and codependent effects in the energy and transport sectors. Furthermore, the Costa Rican government is building these efforts on stakeholder engagement which informs scenario-based policy-making. One key takeaway of Denegri’s presentation was that although Costa Rica has exceedingly small emissions, it brings value as a testing ground for problems that will come later in the decarbonization process. It is able to experiment with policy and determine best practices in a shorter amount of time and with smaller direct impacts. These best practices can be taken up by larger countries when they reach similar stages of climate neutrality, expediting the process and reducing failure on the broader global scale.
The final presentation at this event was given by Tony Ripley of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy of the United Kingdom. He leads on ambition issues at UNFCCC negotiations and described the UK’s work in implementing The Climate Chance Act 2008, one of the world’s first legally binding domestic emissions targets. The UK has a statutory goal of 80% emissions reductions by 2050, which is carried forth by frequent public consultation; expert review of five-year carbon budgets; annual committee reports on progress, adaptation strategies, and risk assessments; and incorporation of the best available science into review of targets. Implementation is also divided into sector-specific emission targets that aim for economy-wide decarbonization.
This day’s ventures through the nitty-gritty of negotiations and policy at the domestic and international levels gave a much brighter view of climate action than we usually receive at home in the US. Other countries are setting ambitious targets and often reaching them with dedicated strategy and facilitative methods for mutual implementation. It is notable that although the US intends to withdraw from the agreement as soon as possible (a few days after the 2020 presidential election), the nation was still present in a very technical, although not political role. Indeed, we are still in for the moment, but if the IPCC report is any indication, the time for effective climate action may only consist of a few more precious moments.