What to Expect at the COP23 Climate Summit in Bonn
November 10, 2017

The 2015 Paris Agreement represented a historic breakthrough in diplomatic efforts to address climate change. But Paris was only the beginning. It provided the basis for increasingly ambitious action to address climate change, but the initial commitments under the Agreement are not of themselves sufficient to achieve its goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2°C or 1.5°C over preindustrial conditions. Now the Parties to Paris must implement its terms, and many challenges still lie ahead.

That's where this year's climate summit, COP23, comes in. Diplomats, industry leaders, and members of civil society have descended on Bonn, the former capital of West Germany and the home of the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to hammer out the details of the basic framework for implementing the Paris Agreement. Much remains unsettled, especially given the ambiguities and unanswered questions inherent in the compromises that made Paris possible. The substance of that agreement will lay the groundwork for the final rules on implementing the Paris Agreement, to be finalized next year at COP24 in Poland.

The first week of negotiations is now well under way, with another week to go. Below are four major themes you can expect to loom large during the negotiations at COP23.

1. Implementation Déjà Vu

Astute observers will note that COP23 is not the first time we have heard about a climate summit dedicated to implementing the Paris Agreement. This was also the mantra for last year's COP22 in Marrakesh. One might rightly ask whether that's all these talks are good for now.

And indeed, that's the case, assuming that everything is working as it should. UNFCCC negotiations (which include every COP since 1995) formerly ran on a cycle where a new agreement was always the next finish line. Paris was intended to end that cycle. Now, instead of negotiating a new agreement every five or ten years, the Parties are expected to regularly submit new nationally determined contributions (NDCs), setting forth each Party’s individual pledge to address global warming, with each iteration steadily improving upon those already submitted.

This "bottom-up approach" to climate negotiation is as yet untested in the real world, and we are fast running out of time to take meaningful action to address climate change. Given the deep disagreements the Parties sought to reconcile in Paris, however, the one sure thing is that this approach likely represented the only path to agreement. Now all the Parties can do is implement Paris in good faith and hope its deference toward state sovereignty pays off.

People unfamiliar with the intricacies of diplomacy can be forgiven for not appreciating the importance of procedural rules, as compared to "substantive" rules, in processes where participants harbor deep distrust, such as in international relations.

But with implementation as the goal, there remains the question of how. How will Parties know whether the others are fulfilling their pledges or free riding? How will collective progress toward Paris’ goals be determined, reported, and then used to inform the next round of NDCs? How will noncompliance be assessed and addressed? How should NDCs be formulated? How should the idea of "equity" influence the process?

All of these questions (and many others besides) are to be addressed through mutually agreed procedures. That means negotiating meaningful outcomes will turn on the Parties’ ability to craft such procedures and to address the concerns of countries that are suspicious of Paris’ novel departures from two decades of business as usual.

2. Delicate Procedures

Procedure matters. People unfamiliar with the intricacies of law or diplomacy can be forgiven for not appreciating the importance of procedural rules, as compared to "substantive" rules, in processes where participants harbor deep distrust, such as in civil litigation or in international relations. But these apparent minutiae are vital. In the context of litigation, for instance, legislatures attempt to narrow the trust deficit by adopting procedures embodying fundamental notions of fair play, like clarity, transparency, and reciprocality.

The same is true here. Except that, instead of having (usually binary) adversaries litigate their disputes before a neutral arbiter, climate negotiations under the UNFCCC involve a multitude of Parties (195 countries, plus the European Union) with cross-cutting allegiances and antagonisms, and the Parties themselves are collectively the arbiters (since the UNFCCC process operates by unanimous consent, as opposed to majority vote). And with every country seeking its own interests (broadly defined), there can be no pretense of neutrality. Getting nearly 200 countries to "yes," then, depends in large part on procedure.

These conditions put a great deal of pressure on the Parties to negotiate procedures that best reflect and serve the Parties’ respective interests—but respecting the fact that consensus is impossible if the Parties promote their interests too aggressively. This is the core challenge of COP23.

3. Paris is Closed (or is it?)

The adoption of the Paris Agreement left many Parties dissatisfied over difficult concessions that were necessary to moving negotiations forward while leaving much on the cutting-room floor. Some of those concessions may have been more than Parties were willing to make in the longer term, and the negotiations are already seeing a revival of issues supposedly settled in Paris. Key among those issues is the distinction between developed and developing countries (known as "differentiation" in this context) and the role of "common but differentiated responsibility." These are terms rooted in the UNFCCC’s underlying treaty (the Convention), but handled quite circumspectly in the Paris Agreement.

The key reason is that each NDC is a product of each Party’s unique circumstances and capabilities, which removes much of the theoretical benefit of large groups of countries. This is particularly the case since countries are sorted into "developing" and "developed" categories according to conditions that prevailed when the Convention was adopted, which was over 20 years ago. Wealthy countries like Qatar and South Korea are therefore "developing" under the Convention, while countries that have lost significant economic power since the ‘90s (for instance, some former Soviet republics) are classed as "developed" donor states. Paris was intended as the way forward from an arrangement frozen in the amber of the past.

Despite Trump’s very public Rose Garden announcement on the Paris Agreement, official withdrawal is not possible until November 4, 2019. The 2020 election may thus serve as a referendum, at least in part, on the decision to withdraw.

Yet many Parties see that old arrangement as more properly reflecting the contributions each country has made to the problem of climate change. By that view, changing economic conditions do not absolve historical polluters of their obligations or implicate newer economic powers in that guilt. These issues are thus front and center again in each area of work to operationalize Paris’ provisions. Parties wishing to push for greater differentiation are also keen to find areas of ambiguity into which these issues can be planted and nurtured.

4. The United States Leaving the Paris Agreement

Finally, President Trump’s announcement of his intent to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement is, of course, the elephant in the room at COP23. The United States played an integral leadership role in negotiating the Paris Agreement. The future of that role was cast into doubt in 2016 shortly after COP22 in Marrakesh opened. This uncertainty solidified earlier this year when Trump delivered on a key campaign promise by submitting notice that he would withdraw from Paris. 

Despite Trump’s very public Rose Garden announcement on the Paris Agreement, official withdrawal is not possible until three years from the date of the Agreement’s entry into force (that is, until November 4, 2019), and withdrawal does not take effect for a year thereafter—the day after the next U.S. presidential election. The 2020 election may thus serve as a referendum, at least in part, on the decision to withdraw. In the interim, however, the United States remains a Party to Paris, and its negotiators have continued to be fully engaged. COP participants and observers are watching closely for signs of what U.S. engagement will reveal about actual American policy on climate change and UNFCCC negotiations, subjects on which the White House has been fairly vague, headline-grabbing announcements aside.

The United States still has an extraordinary center of gravity in the negotiations, but its credibility is badly damaged. Many Parties will hope not to be distracted by this topic, but it is already seeing prominent press coverage, with one delegation suggesting that U.S. withdrawal fulfills dark warnings delivered only last year.

The threat of climate change is existential, but the demands of national interest are immediate and practical.

In sum, the Parties have their work cut out for them, and whether they can ultimately resolve the deep divides remains to be seen. Difficult negotiations will increase the pressure to kick some of these problems down the road to 2018, where a firm deadline may lead to underdeveloped outcomes. That makes the work in Bonn particularly important, although it does nothing to make that work easier. The threat of climate change is existential, but the demands of national interest are immediate and practical. Only time will tell whether our collective salvation was important enough to overcome our parochial differences.

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Jesse Medlong is a Pacific Council member, lawyer, veteran, and member of the Truman Project Defense Council. Read his preview of last year's conference, COP22.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.

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