(This blog post was written by Sindhu Bharadwaj, a delegate to this year’s Conference of Parties.)
The proceedings at the 23rd Conference of Parties closed just over three months ago. This purpose of this year’s meeting was mainly technical. Negotiators from all over the world were to iron out the details of implementing the Paris Agreement, drawn up two years ago at COP 21. Although Fiji held the presidency, COP 23 took place in Bonn, Germany, a small city known for its one-time status as the capital of the former West Germany. The setting and agenda appeared dry, totally lacking in the glamor and glowing media attention of Paris two years ago. Although this was the expectation, the reality of COP 23 was quite different.
The United States’ decision to leave the Paris Agreement resulted in the federal government sending a unusually small delegation to which local and nongovernmental actors responded with a massive presence of their own. High profile attendees such as German chancellor Angela Merkel, President Emmanuel Macron of France, and California governor Jerry Brown addressed the full conference. On the sidelines, youth leaders from around the world disrupted a US-government sponsored event promoting coal and nuclear as climate-friendly energy options. Most importantly, the outcome of the COP reminded attendees that politics was very much alive in the negotiations, even in the seemingly dry technical pieces. NGOs following the process responded with disappointment at the end of the two weeks as parties were again split into factions based on wealth and historical responsibility for climate change. Parties failed to reach a meaningful consensus on issues of loss and damage, climate finance, and adaptation funding. As member countries decided to kick the can down the road to the intersessional in May, the question of “how did we get here?” emerged for me once again.
To understand the disputes of the present, I chose to look back at both the origins of the UNFCCC as well as the historical positions of countries party to it. The first COP took place in 1995 in Berlin and the Kyoto Protocol, the first agreement to set limits on emissions, was adopted in 1997. Right away, a divide between industrialized countries and non-industrialized ones emerged. It became clear that richer countries historically responsible for emissions should provide financial assistance to poorer ones for the purpose of mitigating their future emissions. In the fifteen years between COP6 and COP15, the path towards a viable international agreement on how best to cut emissions proved to be long and difficult. In 2001, the U.S. withdrew from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, reducing the incentive for other countries to act. The EU attempted to take the lead on global climate action but countries eluded making any meaningful commitments.
The most significant COP meeting prior to the 2015 event was COP15 in Copenhagen in December 2009. The purpose of this conference was to create an international plan for addressing climate change post-2012, when the Kyoto Protocol officially expired. Despite the high expectations from civil society and multiple governments going into COP15, negotiations failed to produce an agreement all countries were willing to support. Conflicts between developing and developed nations led to a stalemate in the negotiations process, leading to what became notorious as one of the biggest failures of multilateral environmental decision-making. Disputes over the level of financial and mitigation-related responsibilities developed countries should take on were never reconciled.
Demonstrators at COP15 supporting the Tuvalu delegation, who said “Our future is not for sale. I regret to inform you that Tuvalu cannot accept this document. (Photo: Lauri Myllyvirta, Greenpeace Finland)
COP21 in Paris was framed as a chance for redemption for the failure of Copenhagen. In contrast to the top-down approach that failed to result in an agreement at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, COP21 took a bottom-up approach to negotiations. Prior to meeting in Paris last year, each country had to prepare an INDC outlining exactly what actions it was prepared to take to fight climate change through the year 2030. The agreement also contains a nonbinding agreement from developed countries to mobilize $100 billion in climate finance. However, this along with the famous “loss and damage” section is nonbinding and contains a clause stating that richer countries are not financially liable for any damages. As the emissions profiles of countries like China and India grew and the G77 coalition of developing countries became more economically diverse, negotiations became more nuanced but the long-standing tensions between poor and rich countries remained unresolved.
While the United States’ exit from Paris prompted France, Germany, China, and others to step up their leadership on cutting emissions this year, the big question of who pays for climate change is far from settled. As 23 years of COPs have taught parties and observers, negotiating is a process that seeks to move the needle on issues rather than answer questions on the morality of climate change. As countries prepare to meet again next year in the coal town of Katowice, Poland, a site choice that attempts to play against the misplaced hostility between workers and environmentalists, coming to a consensus on finance will be no easier. A commentator in Bonn last November remarked that this COP “is not delivering any real action.” History establishes where this pattern came from while breaking out of it remains an ambiguously-designed task for the future.