The COP 23: hopeless attempt or last hope?

22 Nov 2017

Image Credit: NASA

by Alexander Pfeiffer

As the sun rises on this Monday morning of the second week of the U.N. climate conference I am sitting in the train on my way to Bonn for my third attendance at this conference. I just landed in Dusseldorf, coming from New York, and wonder what to expect from this COP 23, the 23rd Conference of the Parties. I am oddly aware of the irony of flying in from overseas to discuss ways to protect the climate and now sitting in a train that is powered by electricity. Electricity that still comes mostly from coal-powered generation, at least in Germany. I stare through the window and observe people on their daily way to work and wherever I look I see activity that directly (e.g. driving cars or heating the houses with oil or gas) or indirectly (e.g. eating meat or riding in the train) causes carbon emissions.

The objective of the conference I am about to attend is nothing short of developing and discussing solutions and pathways to reduce the emission of all human activities to net-zero before we have spent all our carbon budget, the remaining amount of emission we can blow into the air before our atmosphere and climate cannot handle it anymore. We need to reach zero sometime over the next 50 years, give or take.

Alas, the last year was not a good year for the global climate. 2017 is the third year in a row of hottest years ever measured. In 2017 alone we have had 17 strong storms or hurricanes to date that have devastated the Caribbean and parts of the U.S. At the same time, we have had wildfires in California and a terrible and ongoing multi-year drought in parts of Africa. While all these events cannot be directly contributed to climate change such events are most certainly being amplified by it and happen more frequently. 2017, and the years before, indicate that we are already experiencing the consequences of climate change – and it will not get better. As I am writing this the Global Carbon Budget 2017 is being published revealing that in 2017 global emissions will likely increase again by ~2% -- the first mentionable increase since 2014 and a harsh setback for all those who already thought we had reached peak emissions, i.e. the highest level of emissions from where on the annual levels will now decrease. Apparently, that hope was not justified.

But instead of acknowledging the fact that climate change has started to disrupt and threaten our societies and taking steps to act upon it, one of the biggest CO2 emitter in the world, the U.S., has this year announced to leave the Paris Agreement, the international agreement of over 190 nations to pursue their best efforts to limit global warming to 2°C or even 1.5°C. At the same time, China has continued to increase their emissions (+3.5% in 2017) and the only reason that India’s emissions have ‘only’ grown by 2% this year seems to be that their economic growth is currently sluggish. Once that growth picks up again emissions are also likely to increase. So, not much reason for optimism, or is there?

In fact, it is not all bad. While all of the above is true there have also been some positive developments since my last COP. Trumps election during last year’s climate conference in Marrakech came as a shock to many of us who care about climate change but the reaction of the other parties of the UNFCCC since then has been overwhelmingly positive. So far, no other signee nation has followed the U.S. example. Instead, nations like China, France, and Germany have come forward to fill the gap in international climate leadership. Furthermore, the two remaining nations yet to sign the agreement, Nicaragua and Syria, have now done so. This leaves the U.S. isolated from the international joint effort.

But even that is not entirely accurate: despite Trump’s announcement to pull out of the agreement, there is some positive development in the U.S. The country cannot officially leave the Paris Accord before late 2020, just one day after the next Presidential election. It is not unlikely that a potentially more climate-friendly next U.S. president reverses Trump’s decision once in power. At the same time, many sub-national and even corporate actors in the U.S. have vowed to fulfill the U.S. contribution to the Paris Accord, even without Trump’s administration. The “we-are-still-in” movement is far more visible at the COP than the official U.S. delegation. The movement consists of state-, county-, and city-leaders, as well as businesses and educational institutions. Overall, they represent over 120 million Americans (roughly one third of the U.S. population) and $6.2 trillion of the U.S. economy. Alongside this strong voice from within the U.S., it seems more and more unlikely that Trump will be successful with his attempts to ‘save the coal industry’. Renewables and natural gas are now more economical than coal-fired power generation and it would take excessive subsidies and government support to revive the coal sector in the U.S.

Globally 2015 was the first year in which the net additions to the global power sector came mostly from renewables. The world builds now more solar, wind, and other renewables capacity than coal, gas, and oil. In January of 2017 China has announced to scrap over 120 GW in planned coal power plants. Many countries, including leading industrialized nations such as France, Canada, and the U.K. have announced an exit from coal by 2025-30 and some have even pledged to phase-out the internal combustion engine in cars by the 2030s. It seems that the end of the coal-era is underway and other fossil fuels might follow soon. The question seems to be ‘will it happen fast enough?’ instead of ‘will it happen?’.

So, what needs to happen in Bonn – or better: what needs to happen over the next two climate conferences?

The Paris Agreement (PA) is only a framework. It had and has a strong symbolic character and is intended to guide the international negotiations that started last year in Morocco, continue in Germany this year, and will most likely be ongoing for many years after next year’s COP 24 in Poland. These ‘technical’ COPs will be the conferences at which the real work is done – and much has to be done.

Probably the most important task is to translate the high-level PA into a rulebook that is actually helpful for the parties to work with. Such a rulebook must contain detailed rules and guidelines, e.g. on how to:

  • conduct the Global Stocktake, i.e. the process every five years starting in 2023, in which all countries pause and review what has been achieved so far, and what must still be done, to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement
  • design the Transparency Framework, i.e. the way individual countries report the progress towards their goals
  • design the Ratcheting Mechanism, i.e. the mechanism in which an increase of the ambition levels can be achieved – current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) would still bring us to more than 3*C warming

Almost all of the elements from the PA are due to be adopted next year at COP 24. Therefore, significant progress, in the form of clearly distinguished options in draft texts, must be made at COP 23 to get the PA rulebook ready for adoption in 2018. The PA also mandates the COP to convene a ‘Facilitative Dialogue’ (FD) in 2018.  This FD is essentially a test run for the ‘Global Stocktake’. The technical and political details of the FD must be designed during COP 23 to ensure that it can happen next year.

At the same time this year’s COP is to be a ‘loss and damage’ COP. Loss and damage (L&D) is the concept in which rich countries that have historic responsibility for climate change have to pay for the damage and loss of lives and habitats caused by climate change. With all the hurricanes and storms in the Caribbean, and Fiji, the official host of the COP 23 itself a pacific small-island nation, L&D plays a special role in this COP. Unfortunately, however, it is unlikely that much progress will be made. L&D has been the subject of heated negotiations already for many years but so far not much progress has been made. While developing and least-developed countries (LDCs) keep pushing for mechanisms and commitments by developed countries, the latter keep blocking and postponing any accord on this issue – this year’s COP is unlikely to be any different.

Is the COP 23 a hopeless attempt or our last hope? I would say it is neither. Over the past 23 years, one thing has been obvious – these high-level negotiations alone won’t solve the problem. For 23 years the international community has tried to limit and reduce emissions to save the climate but the few years in which emissions have actually leveled or even decreased were in times of recession (e.g. 2009) or sluggish economic growth. For 23 years agreements and protocols have been adopted, ratified, broken, and abandoned – without much mentionable effect on emissions or the climate. For 23 years participants at the COP have left the conferences with the somewhat unsettling feeling of maybe having wasted their time.

But: it doesn’t do these efforts justice to call them a hopeless attempt. The biggest advances in fighting climate change we have seen over the last years were certainly the advent and scaling of renewable energy sources and advances in energy efficiency. Both are in the self-interest of the economy. Renewable energy sources reduce the energy dependency on politically instable regions and have the potential to be much cheaper than fossil-fuel based energy sources. Better energy efficiency reduces cost and increases productivity. But both would most likely not have happened without intervention of policy makers. The cost for renewables went down because of billions of subsidies for research and development or the large-scale employment of these renewables. The relative competitiveness of such energy sources could further be supported by a reduction of fossil fuel subsidies. Carbon pricing schemes, announcements to phase-out coal and the internal combustion engine, and other environmental regulation – all help to promote solutions to climate change and create a credible ‘threat’ of a zero-carbon future that will gear industry and the whole economy towards preparing for such future. Government intervention is an important factor in fighting climate change and the international climate negotiations help to coordinate and increase the ambition of such interventions. So – slow pace maybe but not a hopeless effort.

Despite its slow pace the current round of climate negotiations is also not our last hope to ‘save our planet’. While it is true that we seem to be running out of time there has been progress in recent years. The flat carbon emissions over the last year are often seen as a sign that our economic activity is starting to decouple from carbon emissions. This means that in the future emissions growth could slow down and finally reverse despite continued economic growth. Moreover, the emissions in many developed nations have already significantly decreased in recent years. A phase-out of coal consumption and further advances in renewable energy usage and energy efficiency could accelerate this trend.

The Paris Agreement and the work on carbon disclosure, e.g. by the CDP, TCFD, and other initiatives, have created a credible scenario for a zero-carbon world in the second half of this century – more and more private sector players are preparing for such a future. Recent research suggests that we have just surpassed the threshold in which our infrastructure commits us to 2°C warming. And even more up-to-date research suggests that our carbon budgets might even be a little bit higher than we originally thought. If we act fast we might be able to stop investments into further dirty infrastructure and keep the amount of wasted capital relatively small.

An outlook to next COPs suggests, however, that things need to speed up. The Global Stocktake, the mechanism by which countries increase their ambition levels, is scheduled to start in 2023. By then hundreds of Gigawatts of additional coal and gas infrastructure could be built and millions of additional barrels of oil reserves developed. Each year we wait for meaningful and consistent climate action, the more polluting infrastructure is developed and the more climate change is locked-in. Therefore, the next COPs must see continued good progress on all its technical points but also some meaningful pre-2020 action on its climate ambitions.

Finally, the climate effort still speaks the language of the elites. In many parts of the world the fight against climate change is not an important point on the daily agenda but even meets resistance. It is seen as something that threatens the livelihood of many workers. Trump won on the promise to ‘save coal’ and while we know that this is unlikely to happen we must take the concerns of the rust-belt Trump voters seriously that previously voted for Obama. The COP can play an important role in assessing the local livelihood impacts of the required transition and find ways to alleviate adverse effects to ease the transition.

Post Scriptum: In the meantime, the COP has come to an end and as expected it was neither a ‘break-through’ nor a ‘failure’ COP. Some significant progress has been made on the rulebook and the gender issue but only little progress has been made (as expected) on the loss and damage issue. There might be a second (unscheduled) ‘inter-sessional’ before the next COP, a working meeting between the COPs and during which much of the work may be achieved. Most notably, there was an agreement on pre-2020 action: the parties decided to conduct two preliminary stocktakes – in 2018 and 2019 during which current efforts and ambitions will be reviewed and compared with requirements. Furthermore, two ministerial high-level meetings on climate finance are scheduled to take place before 2020 to sort out the issue of helping developing countries financially to leapfrog dirty developments and build on renewables instead.


Alexander (@alexjlpfeiffer) is a delegate in Young European Leadership’s delegation to the COP and a student at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School where he studies for a Doctor of Philosophy. His research focusses on stranded carbon assets and their effects on climate and energy policy. Find all his posts and articles also on his website

For further information on COP23 and for a daily blog post please see our related article: Updates from COP23