Reflections on COP23: Report 3 - Prof. John Sweeney

19th November 2017

Professor John Sweeney has been attending COP23 - He sends us his third and final report

Negotiations are frequently a war of attrition, and previous COPs have long over run their intended closing time on the Friday of the second week. The imperative of catching trains and planes sometimes gives a sense of urgency that is lacking earlier. On the final day various press conferences were postponed and then cancelled, a sign that negotiators were still trying to bash out something concrete from a meeting that overall lacked the potential for a headline announcement. It was after all mainly designed to further the rule book for the Paris Agreement to ensure that the various pledges made would be starting from a level playing field and capable of being measured and monitored, and not simply aspirational. So as some of the 13,700 participants began dismantling their stands and packing up, the talking continued into the night. So, what was the outcome of this, the largest ever conference held in Germany?

The most important outcome was largely due to the determination of the Fijian chairmanship. In Fiji a practice of constructive and transparent discussion and debate exists around important issues, prior to reaching decisions. This is known as a ‘Talanoa Dialogue’. The delegates agreed to use this process to examine ways of increasing their pre 2020 efforts over the coming year. This reflected a major concern of the conference that waiting until 2020 to take stronger action could be fatal to the objectives of the Paris Agreement. Fiji and the next Presidency, Poland, will work together on a pre-2020 stocktake, in effect signalling the need for new pledges before the Paris starting date. This has implications for EU countries currently finalising their 2030 targets in that they will probably be redundant and require further tightening. Of course, it remains to be seen how countries failing already to cut their emissions, such as Ireland, will react to what is now recognised as an urgent matter. Global emissions resumed their upward trend last year and carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere jumped to over 403ppm, a level not seen for 3M years.

The second highlight was the coming together of 25 countries, states and regions to form the ‘Powering Past Coal Alliance’. Led by the UK, Canada, France, New Zealand and Mexico this group committed to ending unabated coal power generation and committed to no further investments in their jurisdictions or abroad. In the case of the UK the end comes by 2025. Interestingly, Germany has not joined the club yet and continues to face problems in meeting its 2020 target of a 40% reduction largely due to the legacy of lignite burning in the former East Germany. For this it received the ‘Fossil of the Day’ award. (The overall ‘Collossal Fossil’ of course went to the USA.) Chancellor Merkel made only a passing remark to this in her address; but in fairness Germany is already close to a 30% reduction, something Ireland is nowhere near achieving for the next decade under its present policies. Some countries went further than limiting their attention to coal. France has declared a moratorium on all new hydrocarbon licences. There is already enough economically available gas and oil in currently operating fields to exceed the Paris targets. The same Department in Ireland that is responsible for Climate Action is also responsible for issuing exploration licences for the Porcupine Trench. Perhaps it is time Ireland recognised that ‘so called’ energy security at the expense of global insecurity should be reconsidered.

Other agreements centred around agriculture, gender and the rights of indigenous peoples. The Government of Norway for example announced a $400M fund to support more efficient agriculture, smallholder farmers and sustainable forest management.

The disappointments of the conference largely centred on the reluctance of the developed world to deliver on their financial commitments to the Green Climate Fund. For the most part they turned up empty-handed or with minimal offerings. This was particularly hard for the many small island states devastated by hurricane damage over the past year who sought funding under a ‘Loss and Damage’ argument. For them, climate change is real and life threatening now, not at some future date. A further opportunity for the Developed World to show the colour of their money comes with President Macron’s international climate summit next month in Paris, but the omens are not that encouraging. Some of the wrangling this year centred on middle income countries such as Turkey wanting to have access to such funds. In truth, however, when the conference heard of the evacuation of Barbuda and the poignant report of the Minister from the British Virgin Islands, it was clear where the Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities should lie.

There was some good news from the conference. Federal Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks reported that it came in on budget (€170M) and was the first UN Climate Change Conference to receive official certification for eco-friendly performance. Renewable energy expansion around the globe is accelerating at a fast speed, doubling every 5.5 years and on target to achieve complete decarbonisation of the energy sector by 2050. Michael Bloomberg announced he was contributing $50M into the fight against coal internationally. Indeed the US was present in a constructive role, mainly represented by individual states, governors and business leaders. It is quite clear that whatever President Trump tries to derail the UNFCCC, the US will meet its Paris pledges anyway. This is a clear sign that the fossil fuel age is coming to an end and businesses are recognising new opportunities as the world, though not including Ireland - now Europe’s worst performing country- decarbonises.