A COP of action

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Oryx Publishing, Qatar

For the average person, the first exposure to COP can be a bit overwhelming. The energy is ceaseless. There are dozens of events happening at the same time across the different zones, a complicated "climate-speak" to keep track of in order to follow the negotiations and an end-of-the-world urgency that one wishes could be transmitted to the world outside the COP. 2016 was the hottest year on record. The carbon in our atmosphere has crossed 400 parts per million (with 450 ppm considered the safety threshold) and our current emissions are already projected to raise global temperatures by 1.3 ºC above pre-industrial levels. Considering that, parties to the Paris Agreement committed to containing the temperature rise to 1.5 ºC, the window of opportunity to prevent catastrophic climate change is narrowing.

And the international community has certainly woken up to this urgency. It can’t be underestimated what an incredible achievement the Paris Agreement is, especially when you think about how only seven years ago in Copenhagen it seemed the world would never be able to come together to address a challenge of this scale. You don’t realise, till you are there, the sheer scale of effort that is needed to fundamentally shift the way we power our development; how many different stakeholders need to be involved, multiplied by the close to 200 countries working together to harmonise their diverse economic, social and environmental interests. It provides a fascinating peek into what may as well go down in history as the grandest demonstration of internationalism.

The 22nd Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP22, took place in Marrakech from November 7 to 18, with the mandate to decide on the action agenda to implement the Paris Agreement which entered into force on November 4. Following the global agreement last December, the threshold of signatories (55 Parties to the Convention accounting for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions ratifying the agreement) for it to enter into force was passed less than 12 months after being agreed and far earlier than expected. To date, 115 out of 197 Parties have ratified; 11 countries ratified it during the conference. This has added pressure to quickly develop the necessary rules and procedures to support the agreement.

There is optimism surrounding the bottom-up, voluntary approach to reducing emissions that was agreed in Paris last year. Before COP21, all countries submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), commitments from each party on what kind of climate action they will undertake between 2020 and 2030. Once a party signs and ratifies the agreement, these INDCs become NDCs and will be translated into concrete climate policy in the respective countries. If one adds up the carbon reductions registered from all NDCs globally to date, this will only keep us below a 2.7 ºC rise in global temperatures, not the Paris promise of 1.5 ºC. Bridging that gap is what the next few years are going to be about, when countries will be invited to scale up their targets.

At COP22, which was the first meeting of the CMA (the governing body of the Paris Agreement), countries gave themselves two years to agree rules and procedures for implementing the Paris Agreement.  CMA will be responsible for making key decisions and driving implementation forward. This will include technical work that will produce work plans focusing on NDCs, a transparency framework, global stocktake, technology development and transfer, adaptation and market and non-market approaches. So the deadline of 2018 will give those parties who haven’t yet ratified the Paris Agreement enough time to become part of a process that is robust and inclusive while also concluding in a timely manner well ahead of 2020.

Climate finance is always a hot-button topic during these negotiations. One holdover issue from Paris was whether the Adaptation Fund, established under the Kyoto Protocol which provides adaptation support to developing countries, would continue under the Paris Agreement. Although developed countries would prefer to channel support through the newly established Green Climate Fund, developing countries are pushing very hard to keep the Adaptation Fund alive. It’s direct access structure eliminates some of the red tape associated with obtaining access to funding, allowing eligible countries to manage their own projects. Developing countries also enjoy a majority share of the fund’s governing board seats which gives them a sense of ownership that is largely lacking in other climate finance mechanisms.

The Paris Agreement placed adaptation (making changes in the way humans respond to changes in climate) on a more equal footing with mitigation (controlling emission of greenhouse gases) in importance and need, and strives to mobilise increased regional and national support for adaptation. Specific text referencing the Adaptation Fund was included in the decisions accompanying the Paris Agreement, which recognised that the Adaptation Fund “may” serve the agreement. Ultimately, at COP22 the issue remained unresolved.

Hitherto, the Adaptation Fund has been monetizing carbon assets for funding adaptation through the 2% share it receives from the UN Clean Development Mechanism. But the floor has since dropped out of the carbon credit exchange, and despite the few contributions announced at COP22 that rescued it from near-bankruptcy, the future of the fund remains unclear. Pledges made by Germany (€50 million), Sweden (SEK100 million), Italy (€5 million) and the Walloon and Flanders regions of Belgium (€3.25 million and €6.25 million, respectively), have helped the fund surpass its 2016 fundraising goal of $80 million that will help finance projects already in the pipeline.

The other big money issue at the COP was the $100-billion fund; in Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun in 2010, developed countries committed to jointly raising $100 billion annually from 2020 to 2025 to help developing countries cope with climate change by building low-carbon and climate-resilient economies. This pledge was reaffirmed in Paris at COP21. A few weeks before the COP at Marrakech, developed countries launched a roadmap to 2020 on reaching the agreed goal. But from the outset it is clear that it is a political rather than a technical document aimed at “building confidence and providing increased predictability and transparency about the actions developed countries are and will be taking to achieve the $100 billion goal”. The lack of clarity on this fund has also been a cause for concern at the COP. Developed countries were also criticized for not paying enough attention to pre-2020 action before the Paris Agreement kicks in, during which only they would have to meet certain mitigation and finance commitments.

But there were a lot of positive developments at Marrakech as well. In the final days of the conference, the Climate Vulnerable Forum, which is an international partnership of countries highly vulnerable to a warming planet, committed to update their NDCs before 2020, prepare long-term low-emissions development strategies, and generate 100% of their energy from renewable sources as soon as possible.

The USA, Canada, Mexico and Germany became the first countries to submit what have come to be known as mid-century strategies, outlining the kinds of actions needed to achieve much deeper emission reductions. A new initiative called the 2050 Pathway Platform was launched, with support from a broad array of national governments, cities, states and companies, to help other countries develop their own mid-century strategies.

Implementation of climate action plans also received a boost from the launch of the NDC Partnership – a coalition of 33 developing and developed countries and international institutions working together to ensure countries receive the technical and financial support they need to speedily meet their climate and sustainable development goals. During COP22, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), a multilateral funding arm, announced a Capacity-building Initiative for Transparency backed by 11 developed country donors providing $50 million-worth of funding. Countries also pledged over $23 million to the Climate Technology Centre and Network, which supports developing countries with climate technology development and transfer.

There were also announcements that directly impacted the Middle East. Towards the end of COP, the World Bank Group announced a new plan to ramp up support for countries in the MENA region to confront the multiple threats of climate change. Over the next four years, the World Bank aims at nearly doubling the portion financing dedicated to climate action, taking it to around $1.5 billion a year by 2020. Speaking at a press conference at the COP 22 global climate summit in Marrakech, World Bank MENA Vice President Hafez Ghanem said the plan would focus on the four priorities of food and water security, sustainable cities adapted to new climate conditions, the transition to low-carbon energy, and the protection of the poorest who are most exposed to the impacts of climate change.

Undoubtedly climate-sceptic Donald Trump’s election to the highest office of one of the biggest economies, coming as the COP was getting underway, felt like a major earthquake. Trump famously called climate change a “Chinese hoax” and promised to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement if he were elected. As the COP reconvened after the weekend, it seemed speculation about what this meant for global climate action was on everyone’s mind. But as the week wore on, nerves were calm partly due to one country after another declaring that their efforts towards implementing the Paris Agreement will continue irrespective of what decision the new US government would take. It would seem that the massive threat posed by Donald Trump to the climate talks served galvanised into action those present at Marrakech. Fears were further assuaged by US Secretary of State John Kerry who, speaking at COP22, declared that “no one should doubt the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the United States who know climate change is happening and who are determined to keep our commitments that were made in Paris... I can tell you with confidence that the United States is right now, today, on our way to meeting all of the international targets that we’ve set, and because of the market decisions that are being made, I do not believe that that can or will be reversed”.

When asked to comment on this matter, a senior negotiator for Saudi Arabia said, “The United States is the backbone of the process and their withdrawal will impact everyone, no doubt. But we all know the US has taken the right decision in these matters in the past. When they pulled out of Kyoto, no doubt, there was a big impact on ambition. But they went ahead to do a lot of work on the ground, even if it was outside the process. We are sure that the US administration and institutions will maintain a level of continuity and consistency. There are so many approaches in this process. So going forward, their approach might be different – they might not focus as much on regulation but rather on technology, innovation, incentives, etc. But let’s not make our judgment now before we see what the new administration plans to do.”