COP23 and the current commitment gap – will Bonn galvanise action pre-2020?

November 14, 2017

Posted by: Frances Lawson

Say “commitment gap” in the context of the climate change regime, and most people will probably think of the recent report by UNEP (the United Nations Environment Programme) highlighting the gap between Parties’ commitments under the Paris Agreement (the NDCs) and the emissions reductions required to meet the 2-degree temperature goal. But there is another worrying commitment gap that often escapes attention; the one that results from the Kyoto Protocol having expired in 2012, and an insufficient number of Parties having ratified the Doha Amendment to extend Kyoto’s operational period to 2020. Consequently, Parties currently have no binding emissions reduction commitments under the international legal climate change architecture, the commitments made in Paris only relating to the period from 2020 onwards.

Of the various sticky issues facing delegates at COP23, one of the trickiest is the subject of “early action” on greenhouse gas emissions. When Parties can’t even agree on whether something should even be an agenda item, it indicates the level of extreme sensitivity with which that “something” is imbued. In short, developing countries at COP23 in Bonn, led by China and India, have been pushing for a review of developed country commitments to 2020. Developed countries have been resisting the call, variously claiming that there is too much on the COP23 agenda already, and therefore that the conference needs to focus on its bread and butter of adding some flesh to the skeleton that is the Paris Agreement.

The call of the Chinese for a review of “developed country” action on reducing emissions is something of a smokescreen given the news this week that global emissions in 2017 are set to rise due, primarily, to a continued increase in China’s own emissions. The smokescreen nevertheless does not detract from pre-2020 action being a vitally important issue at these negotiations. With the Paris Agreement not due to enter into force until 2020, there is an obvious and acute need for Parties to take actions over the course of the next three years that are both aligned with the overall temperature goal of the Agreement, and with the NDCs that they have then pledged to deliver. Given the UNEP report, even if all Parties meet their mitigation commitments post-2020, we’re still going to exceed the 2-degree temperature goal. If Parties aren’t even positioned in 2020 at the emissions starting block outlined in their NDC, the likelihood of those commitments being met becomes even more remote.

The telling truism of the climate negotiations is that agreement comes more easily the further the subject of the agreement is into the future. Conversely, when agreement is sought on short-term actions, on a different approach to be adopted in the here and now, a giant spanner suddenly seems to lodge itself in the works. The current constipation around pre-2020 action is the classic example of this. Even the EU and most of its Member States have failed so far to ratify the Doha Amendment, despite the rallying call at Paris in December 2015 for Parties to do just that.

Yet, even if pre-2020 action is kept out of formal negotiations at COP23, there is another mechanism by which all Parties’ pre-2020 actions will attract some attention. For one of the mechanisms designed to nudge early action off the starting blocks is the rather ambiguously named “facilitative dialogue” conceived in Decision CP.1/21 of the Conference of the Parties at COP21 in Paris. Now re-named the “Talanoa Dialogue” by the Fijia Presidency of COP23, the idea is to take stock during 2018 of progress towards the objectives of the Paris Agreement. “Talanoa” is Fijian for a traditional approach used in the Pacific for engaging in inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue. The aim is to create an atmosphere of trust, empathy and shared learning so as to engender a greater degree of progress than in a less congenial and more finger-pointing atmosphere, as has so often taken hold in the fraught environment of UNFCCC negotiations. One of the lessons from COP21 in Paris was that more progress, in the climate change arena at least, is made when the emphasis is placed on “coming together collaboratively”, “doing one’s best” and sharing common goals and aspirations, rather than through attempts at coercion, blame and responsibility-taking.

Although its shape will become clearer at the end of COP23 this week and is still the subject of debate in Bonn, the Talanoa dialogue will consist of two phases: the first, a “preparation phase” underpinned by three key questions – where do we want to go? Where are we? How are we going to get there? These questions will be the focus of sessions in May 2018. Following these sessions, a report will be produced for the final preparatory meeting at the start of December 2018, which will be succeeded by the launch of the “political phase” at COP24 at which Ministers will attend in the hope of adding clout to the dialogue outcomes. Against a backdrop of existing tensions, mounting evidence of the inadequacy of existing commitments and of the damage that even 2 degrees of warming will cause, and the lack of interest in getting the Doha Amendment into force, those steering the Dialogue over the coming year are going to have their work cut out if it is to result in some meaningful progress on emissions reductions ahead of 2020, and in the period beyond. Only an exceptional sense of shared endeavour transcending the usual political boundaries and national self-interest is likely to see the kind of progress that everyone, or almost everyone, knows deep down to be needed.


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