COP23: Much remains to be done

As COP23 draws to a close, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the progress made by the UNFCCC and its efforts to address the issue of climate change. This year represents a quarter of a century since the adoption of the Framework Convention and 20 years for the Kyoto Protocol, which was agreed at COP3 in December 1997.

In that time, global emissions have risen by over 50%, hardly a testament to thousands of hours of negotiation, millions of air-miles by COP attendees and many long nights as disagreement erupted. Further, after three years of global emissions seemingly at a plateau, the delegates at COP23 were reminded in stark terms that there is still everything to work for; 2017 emissions are likely to show a 2% rise over 2016. While large uncertainties in the final number remain, emissions in China appear to have risen by some 3.5% (but with arrange of 0.7% to 5.4%).

Although emissions are the truest test of success, bringing them down and ensuring stabilisation of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels was not going to be easy. Nevertheless, the UNFCCC process has persisted and resulted in a world that is slowly mobilizing around the need to act and in many instances is acting. Arguably the process has delivered on several fronts;

  • The climate issue has grown in profile and almost every international leader talks about it, which in turn builds further interest.
  • The media is captivated by the subject, although opinions can vary markedly across publications and programmes.
  • The global fraternity of economists have risen to the challenge, with much written about policy measures and particularly carbon pricing. In the case of the latter, some 20-30% (depending on how China is viewed with its staged implementation) of the global economy now carries a price on carbon dioxide emissions, albeit only around $10 per tonne.
  • Most national governments and many sub-national governments have greenhouse gas emission based policies active within their respective economies.
  • Measurement, reporting and verification of greenhouse gas emissions has become a normal activity in much of the world.
  • Various carbon dioxide based trading units have evolved; from allowances in the EU ETS to project units under the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol.
  • Carbon capture and storage has become a commercial technology, although deployment remains limited due to the level of carbon pricing.
  • A wide range of new power generation, transport and industrial technologies have rapidly evolved in response to the need for zero emission energy services. Significantly, Tesla unveiled its electric semi-trailer in the closing days of COP23.

The above list is not meant to be comprehensive and it could also be argued that some of this is unrelated to the UNFCCC, but without a central focus the lens on climate change would be a very different one. Nevertheless, COP23 highlighted two key issues;

  • The Paris Agreement did much to minimise the difference between developed and developing countries, with all nations required to submit plans for managing emissions within their economies. But as negotiators began work on the detail of the Paris Agreement ‘rule book’, the issue of common but differentiated responsibilities emerged at many meetings. The core of the issue is that industrial development without fossil fuels, but coal in particular, is still not possible. While much attention is focussed on micro-grids and decentralised renewable electricity in Africa, this is not the same as industrial development. Steel, cement, glass and chemicals require much more; so do the primary means of industrial transport, notably planes, ships and trucks (although Tesla would now argue the point on the last one). As such, emissions in developing countries are still likely to go in one direction, i.e. up!
  • Financing remains a sticky issue. The Paris Agreement offers various mechanisms and measures to help finance low carbon development in least developed and emerging economies, with a transparency framework to offer insight on progress. As work progressed at COP23 on the modalities surrounding finance, tension grew. One problem here is the definition itself. For many, it means the overall flow of private sector energy investment into developing economies, triggered by national policy, good governance, carbon trade such as that emanating from Article 6 and the attractiveness of projects. But for some, finance is thought of as tangible government to government assistance.

The political sensitivity of both these issues is heightened by the expected departure of the US from the Paris Agreement. It is unlikely that heroics from the US sub-national actors can compensate for that political destabilisation.

These and other issues will need to be resolved in the coming year if the full Paris ‘rule book’ is to be finalised by the end of COP24. In all likelihood, resolution will not be complete, but the process won’t falter either and the ongoing mobilization of global effort will continue. Negotiators will meet again in Bonn around the middle of the year and then in Katowice, Poland for COP24. In the case of the latter, the biggest fight is most likely to be over hotel rooms.