COP23: we are still in

MSc Carbon Management Alumnus Kitty Dutton reflects on her time at COP23 with the 2050 Climate Group, and why now in the time for intergovernmental – and crucially, individual – action. 

COP23 (or, to give its full title, the 23rd Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) was a climate conference of firsts. It was the first time that Indigenous Groups gained formal recognition that they can play a leading role in protecting forests. It was the first time that a Gender Action Plan has been created, aiming to increase the participation of women in all UNFCCC processes and acknowledging that it is they who will be disproportionately affected by climactic changes. And it was the first time that this annual international conference has been hosted by a small island state, Fiji, a nation that is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise and extreme weather.

Indeed, such extreme weather events (made more likely as temperatures continue to rise) are part of the reason why the host country was unable to physically host this event. Fiji is still recovering from the ravages of Cyclone Winston in 2016, which not only devastated local infrastructure but caused over $1billion in damages – a stark reminder of what we stand to lose if such negotiations fail to result in meaningful action to mitigate and adapt to our changing climate.

A Pacific canoe

That this conference was physically held in Bonn, Germany, did not prevent a strong Fijian theme from running through the entire conference. The two zones – one for governmental negotiations and one for other stakeholders – were called Bonn and Bula (meaning, amongst other things, ‘life’ and ‘good health’) in recognition of this shared event. Two huge dumas – Pacific canoes – graced both zones, signifying that we are all in the same boat when it comes to climate change, and the Fijian pavilion staged daily cultural events showcasing national dance and heritage. But, possibly most impactful of the Fijian additions to this year’s COP, was the introduction of Talanoa dialogues as a means of progressing towards achieving the ambitious goals laid out in the Paris Agreement (reached two years ago at COP21).

Talanoa is a traditional approach to dialogue throughout the Pacific islands that emphasises the importance of inclusivity, participation, and transparency. The process of Talanoa involves the sharing of ideas, skills, and experience through storytelling, building rapport and trust amongst parties and developing empathy and understanding. There is no place in Talanoa for destructive criticism or blaming each other, as such threatening behaviour only serves to undermine the building of mutual trust and respect. This is important as the ambitions of previous conferences have been thwarted precisely because negotiating parties have got hung up on assigning blame and destructive negativity, resulting in entrenchment of defensive and obstinate positions that make progress impossible.

Indeed, it signals yet another change to negotiating styles that makes their success more likely. The first was the approach of the Paris Agreement whereby, rather than dictating in a top-down fashion the amount of emissions cuts that each country was obliged to make, nations were asked how much they would be willing to reduce emissions by submitting Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). This by-passed issues regarding sovereignty and meant such discussions as the assignment of historical blame could be avoided. It is one reason why, for the first time in history, it was possible for all 197 states to agree to something – no mean feat! The Talanoa approach further encourages constructive dialogue and requires countries to appreciate each other’s needs as they work towards a mutually beneficial solution.

This is a lesson that could be well learned by the heretofore unacknowledged elephant in the room: the United States of America and President Trump’s decision to end America’s involvement in the Paris Agreement. Needless to say, this has not gone down well amongst the other 196 parties. The US was conspicuous by its absence at COP23, sending only a skeleton delegation whose one event promoted the use of so-called “clean” coal in the future energy mix. Let me take this opportunity to say that there is no such thing as clean coal. Coal is by far the dirtiest fossil fuel, even when the most efficient strains are used in state-of-the-art generating facilities. The only way that coal can continue to be used and the 1.5-2°C temperature targets met is through extensive use of carbon capture & storage technologies, which are currently woefully underfunded and underdeveloped. Indeed, the only major CCS project underway in the US is the Petra Nova project which captures CO2 and uses it to flush out more oil (the second dirtiest fossil fuel) from the wells.

I am not alone in feeling so vehemently against such an event at a climate conference. The speech was met with protest songs from the crowd, with chants of “Keep it in the ground”, “Bunch of liars” (which I believe was aimed at the speaker from Peabody coal, infamous for its funding and dissemination of climate misinformation), and “Clean coal is bullshit!” drowning out the speakers. As Michael Bloomberg, former New York mayor and UN special envoy for cities and climate change, so eloquently said: “Promoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit” – it was entirely inappropriate.

Fortunately, despite the intransigence of Trump, the American presence at COP23 actually gave rise to optimism. Not only has it served to consolidate resolve amongst those parties still committed to the Paris Agreement (i.e. literally every other country), but it was apparent that Trump does not speak for America at large. A huge side event, titled ‘We are Still In’, took place next door to the Bula zone showcasing the commitments and work of cities, states, businesses and other non-state actors across the USA to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and do their bit to mitigate anthropogenic climate change. Together they have pledged to not only achieve the USA’s NDC but exceed it and hope to be allowed to formally submit a Societal NDC to the UN.

Not only does such a move give hope that the Paris targets can still be met, but it also demonstrates a valuable lesson for us all. We do not have to wait for our governments to take action. Throughout my time at COP23 I was heartened by the enthusiasm and energy of those around me. I was surrounded by people who care and who are taking actions in every sphere of their lives – personal, professional, political – to try and make the world a better place. So far, the NDCs submitted by governments only commit countries to reducing a third of the greenhouse gases that need to be cut if the Paris targets are to be met. Indeed, one aim of this COP was to work on finalising the “Rule Book” for achieving the Paris Goals – something that is to be finalised next year at COP24 in Poland – and formalising the way in which this gap can be breached. Unfortunately, time is of the essence and we only have a small window to take action. It would appear that political commitments alone are not going to be sufficient to avert catastrophic climate disaster. Everyone needs to get involved and do their bit. We all still need to be in.

Kitty Dutton is an alumni of the University of Edinburgh’s MSc Carbon Management, a volunteer at the 2050 Climate Group, and is currently an Analyst at Delta Energy & Environment.