The Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Paris Climate Change Accord prepares to meet 6—17 November in Bonn, Germany for its 23d session against the backdrop of four hurricanes that savaged the US, which had announced its plan to pull out of the Accord.
The irony is obvious. The US is picking up the pieces of its homes, cities and infrastructure following these climate change disasters in Florida, Louisiana and Puerto Rico while preparations for the COP 23 moved apace.
At the COP 23 headquarters, however, the mood is one of hope and optimism that the implementing rules for the Paris Accord, which came into force on 4 November 2016, would be finalised this year.
The Pacific island nation of Fiji will be making history as the first-ever small island state to hold the COP presidency. In a meeting early this year with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Fiji stated that the interest of small island nations will be prioritised.
Our presidency will keep the interests of all nations — including those that are low-lying and vulnerable — at the forefront of our negotiations.
Frank Bainimarama, Prime Minister, Fiji
Island nations’ issues
“Our presidency will keep the interests of all nations — including those that are low-lying and vulnerable — at the forefront of our negotiations. We are also focused on turning the words and commitments of the Paris Agreement into measurable actions on the part of all nations, and are calling for transparent systems of accountability and practical outcomes to ensure the agreement is a success,” said Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.
Bainimarama identifies climate adaptation finance, effective monitoring of adherence through the rulebook to the Paris Agreement, and the object vies of the Climate Action Agenda, as key issues for his presidency.
On the other hand, an international advisory group told UNFCCC that three issues emerged as key expectations of COP 23: progress on pre-2020 commitments, progress on the work programme to implement the Paris Agreement, and clarity in the design of the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue (2018 FD).
In particular, clarification of the 2018 FD refers to agreement reached in Paris for a dialogue “to take stock of the collective efforts of Parties in relation to progress towards the long-term goal” of the Paris Accord and “the preparation of nationally determined contributions (NDCs)”.
COP 23 also provides opportunity for developed countries to revisit their commitment to support the Paris Accord — particularly their own emission reductions and the US$ 100 billion per year they promised to help developing countries with their own emission reduction programmes.
The UNFCCC advisory group also agreed to the appointment of two “high-level champions” to help the COP presidency campaign for support on the implementation of the Climate Change Accord. Appointed in 2016 were Moroccan minister of environment Hakima El Haite and French ambassador Laurence Tubiana.
Lingering core issues
Core issues, however, remain despite the Paris Agreement.
Differentiation – Developed countries do not want to have binding emissions targets for developed nations only, which they contend should be for all. Developing nations want the onus to be on the big emitters.
Finance – Developing countries want developed countries to make good on their commitment to mobilise US$ 100 billion a year in public and private finance by 2020 to establish a Green Climate Fund which would finance mitigation and adaptation projects.
But developed nations want to have more donor countries so the burden is not entirely on them. The prospects of meeting the target, however, are bright. In Marrakech, the UNFCCC’s Standing Committee on Finance reported that total global climate finance increased 15 per cent in 2013 to 2014, reaching a high estimate of US$741 billion in 2014.
Legal character – While the agreement will have “legal force”, there is no consensus on precisely what form it will take. The US was ready for binding procedural commitments and opposed binding emission targets. This was during the Obama presidency, but Donald Trump has since withdrawn from the Agreement.
Transparency – Existing requirements for the reporting of country efforts are two-tiered, with a more rigorous system for developed countries than for developing ones. Developed countries are pushing for a common framework for all parties.
Impact of US withdrawal
But the biggest issue confronting COP 23 today is the US’s plan to withdraw from the Accord, already announced by President Trump. What impact would this have on the goals of the Accord?
To recall, SciDev.Net had observed before the Climate Change Treaty was approved in Paris in 2015, that the participation in the Accord of the United States and China, the world’s two biggest carbon emitters, was crucial to seal the deal.
The US threat to withdraw, however, would unseal the deal and could have disastrous consequences for the planet. Two dozen climate change scientists, in a poll by one news agency, have said that US withdrawal would make it much more difficult to prevent crossing a dangerous threshold in global temperatures.
US withdrawal and backsliding on commitments could mean three billion tonnes more of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere each year, increasing the rate of rising sea levels and melting ice sheets. The US could add as much as 0.3 degrees Celsius to global warming by the end of the century if it cops out, according to one simulation.
“The US matters a great deal,” according to Climate Interactive co-director Andrew Jones. “That amount could make the difference between meeting the Paris limit of two degrees and missing it.”  In fact, it might be difficult to collectively aim for the tougher 1.5 degrees Celsius without the US commitment.
However, under the rules of the Paris Agreement, the process of the US withdrawal could take at least three years, which by then it’s possible that a new US president would be sworn in and might reconsider the decision to opt out.
For now, the US government has indicated that it will be joining the COP 23 talks. Fiji is hoping that the US embrace talanoa, a Pacific concept of informal storytelling which builds empathy and consensus, and a buzzword it is employing in the climate talks.
The devastation in the Caribbean, hopefully, would help the Trump administration understand what the small island states will be facing more and more in the future. Let’s not wait for another hurricane to drive everyone to a consensus.
Crispin C Maslog is Chair of the Board, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre. This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.