After two days of hopping between planes, trains, and automobiles (oh my!), I arrived at our hotel in Tarnowskie Góry on Saturday, December 1 and slept a hearty ten hours or so. My body seemed to be preparing itself for the eat, sleep, COP schedule that the following week would bring. Surely enough, I was getting ready at 5:30 and found my way to the venue at about 8:30, where I submitted myself to TSA-esque security for another time and got my shiny new NGO (non-governmental organization) Observer badge. As I was badged with the American Chemical Society, there would be certain restrictions for my access throughout the week. Many negotiation meetings are closed to observers and certain events released a limited number of tickets for each NGO constituency. The American Chemical Society is a member of the Research and Independent NGOs constituency, so it was these meetings where tickets were distributed, by interest and then by lottery. On the first day, tickets were required for the 1st plenary meeting of the COP, which was the first event I attended thanks to the large number of tickets allotted to the constituency.
At the first COP plenary meeting, after some delays, things really got moving! That movement consisted of opening, dealing with administrative and procedural matters, and then closing, but hey, it’s something. The meeting was opened by the president of COP23, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama of Fiji, whose joviality and enthusiasm were matched only by the swiftness of his gavel in electing the COP24 President (Michał Kurtyka, State Secretary at the Polish Ministry of Energy) and adopting rules of procedure, the agenda, dates for future sessions: the works! The main goal of the first day’s plenaries was to organize work for the coming week, during which informal consultations, or meetings of parties to negotiate smaller issues with the guidance of a facilitator. These facilitators and the logistics of informal consultations and the meetings of contact groups, which coordinate linkages between related agenda items, were set at these first meetings. Informal consultations and contact groups were established for implementation, the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage (WIM), finance, and other topics. The WIM addresses loss and damage associated with climate change’s deleterious effects and promotes implementation of approaches to mitigate them. The COPs have historically started on Mondays, but the COP24 Presidency thought it useful this year to begin with much of the administrative work the day before on December 2.
Indeed, this work continued for the other bodies meeting at the Climate Change Conference. The plenary meeting immediately following was the Conference of the Parties (wait for it) serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol or CMP, for short. The Kyoto Protocol was the international treaty signed in 1997 which committed parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, specifically carbon dioxide, methane, dinitrogen monoxide, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride. It is notable for introducing the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR; get used to the abbreviations, it's their MO), a concept which is also vital to its successor, the Paris Agreement. CBDR acknowledges the priority that emissions reductions must be for all parties, but also recognizes differences in capacity, incorporating economic development and available resources into expectations for different countries. Capacity and capacity-building, referring to the resources and expertise made available by developed countries for use by developing nations, are a crucial part of the nationally determined nature of commitments made by parties to the Paris Agreement as well, and will feature a prominent role in negotiations at COP24. The CMP first plenary meeting also addressed largely procedural issues, but also made note of the status of the ratification of the Doha Amendment, which established a second round of targets for emissions reductions (122 countries so far of the 144 needed for it to enter into force – if you were wondering), and organized work on the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), Joint Implementation (JI), compliance, the Adaptation Fund, among other smaller issues. The CDM allows for developing countries to receive certified emission reduction (CER) credits for projects that reduce – you guessed it – greenhouse gas emissions, which can then be traded and sold to meet targets under the Protocol. JI is another of the three flexibility mechanisms in the Protocol, in which Annex I countries (those with binding targets, consisting of industrialized countries and economies in transition) invest in projects in other Annex I countries instead of reducing emissions within their own domains. The Adaptation Fund provides financial support for projects that help developing countries deal with unmitigated effects of climate change and is funded by a 2% levy on CER credits issued for CDM projects as well as donations from Annex I countries, which has become the primary source of funding. Right near the conference center’s entrance, there was actually a large screen showing a desert landscape, which, upon donation to the Adaptation Fund by tapping your debit card to the chip reader, would transform into a lush rainforest, complete with pretty sounds and animations.
Following the CMP plenary was naturally the plenary for the treaty which followed the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement, which was signed at COP21 in 2015. The Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA… yeah, they’re grasping for straws on this one). This plenary followed the COP approach to organization of work and election of officers, but also noted the status of ratification of the Paris Agreement, which stands at 184 countries of 195 signatories. The remaining nations were urged to expedite their domestic ratification processes, the effectiveness of such a plea remaining to be seen.
A little more exciting (for the climate policy enthusiast anyway) were the first plenary meetings of the subsidiary bodies of the UNFCCC, the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA, pronounced “substah”), where the normal procedural matters were organized for work on the report of the Adaptation Committee, the report of the Executive Committee (~ExCom~) of the WIM, development and transfer of technologies, the joint annual report of the Technology ExCom and the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN), research and systematic observation, the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform, the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture, and methodological issues relating to emissions from fuel used for international aviation and maritime transport. All of these matters proceeded fairly smoothly from first mention to lack of objection to gavel smack, as nothing was being agreed upon but for the organization of work. That is, until the last item on aviation and maritime emissions, because SBSTA was planning to hear interventions from two related intergovernmental organizations (IGOs): the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO, a pretty good acronym). But dear writer, you may be asking, who would have a problem with these two IGOs giving their views; they were invited after all? Well, you’d be surprised, unless you were thinking of Saudi Arabia, who raised a point of order multiple times insisting that no invitation had been given at the last SBSTA session for these IGOs to deliver their statements, in what would be a series of attempts by the kingdom representing the negotiating group of the Arab States to disrupt the input of non-party stakeholders. The chair insisted, with legal support from the UNFCCC Secretariat, that such an invitation had been standing and after about 25 minutes of back-and-forth on this topic, the clearly frustrated chair finally dismissed Saudi Arabia’s concerns and allowed the two IGOs to give their three-minute interventions, which described efforts to adopt standards for measurement of global aviation and ship emissions. Little pieces of drama like this were few and far between, but certainly had me on the edge of my seat as I wondered when parties’ stances would escalate from “some concerns” to “strong reservations”. How scandalous!
The day rounded off with a joint plenary meeting of the COP, CMP, CMA, SBSTA, SBI (Subsidiary Body on Implementation), and APA (Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement). At this plenary, little business was heard other than to give the floor to countries for some introductory statements of no more than three minutes. Just kidding, pretty much everyone continued for six minutes or more, despite the chair’s minutely beeping. Here, I was introduced to many of the negotiating blocs that parties have sorted themselves into for climate talks: the Group of 77 (G77) & China, the Environmental Integrity Group (EIG), the Umbrella Group (don’t ask), the African Group, the Arab Group, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), the Like-Minded Developing Countries (not LDCs), the Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean (AILAC), and the group of Brazil, South Africa, India, and China (BASIC), among several others. These negotiating groups often overlap but allow parties of similar interests to join together into a set of commonly agreed upon statements. This allows countries to deliver single interventions that capture the views of the group without each and every nation getting five minutes to say similar things. The interventions heard in the joint plenary seemed to represent a broad consensus on the urgency of action on climate change, especially in light of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the catastrophic effects of global temperature increases of only 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels (we are at 1.0 °C now and the Paris Agreement aims to keep warming below 2.0 °C). However, their specific statements represented disparate priorities on concepts like ambition, implementation, capacity, balance, equity, flexibility, and differentiation (CBDR) and it is these differences on specific policy that could dominate informal consultations in the following days.
The UNFCCC operates on a consensus basis for decision-making, meaning that all parties need to agree on a decision (or at least be satisfied enough not to object) before it can be enacted. This maximizes buy-in, but can also result in actions sufficiently diluted to please all parties. As the Paris Agreement prides itself on its universality and the concept of CBDR at least partially requires unanimous consent to comply, this consensus does help keep the treaty’s parties somewhat committed to emissions reductions, in a nationally determined form. The requirement to reach consensus is exactly why these issues are brought to informal consultations, where parties can work out draft documents and conclusions that disappoint everyone, but uniformly so. The oft-repeated theme to characterize this process is “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” and whether anything can be agreed, we'll just have to wait and see.