Aruna Chandrasekhar is a researcher and photojournalist working on issues of development, land alienation, indigenous rights and corporate accountability in India for the last six years. She tweets at @aruna_sekhar.
Bonn, Germany: In a year that has seen extreme weather wreaking havoc across the world, the US, European Union (EU), Canada and Japan and other developed countries have refused to put climate assessments before 2020 on the UN climate negotiations agenda in Bonn.
The countries’ statements fly in the face of overwhelming consensus from developing countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa and vulnerable island states that the time to act on climate is now.
“We already have a very important and a very, very busy schedule at this meeting,” representatives from the US said at the first of a series of special consultations convened to address this exclusion, after protests from developing nations rocked the COP 23 meeting from day one. The US was speaking on behalf of the Umbrella Group of emitters, which includes Canada, Russia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Australia, Norway, New Zealand, Russia and Ukraine. “Anyone who’s been in one of these negotiation rooms knows that one of the most common complaints is the lack of time and the overlapping of sessions. There has to be a point where we stop adding agenda items and especially ones that have already been dealt with and just get to work.”
If the US continues on its path of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, its only chance to “get to work” on climate change, if it does at all, is before November 2020.
“We don’t think that this agenda item will reduce one single ton of emissions and it will not add to climate finance,” said representatives from the European Union, after narrating a laundry list of actions it was undertaking to curb emissions.
The detached rhetoric of the developed world was countered by an impassioned plea from states that have seen the most devastating impacts.
“I need not remind colleagues that a few months ago, we witnessed the fury of the worst weather events seen in this decade, in this century. And when we invite parties to the table, it is to do more than to lend lip service to substantive matters before us,” said the representative from St. Lucia. “For the citizens of Dominica, Barbuda, Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Islands, what we’re doing here is more significant to them that they you can ever imagine. I beg of us that our rhetoric and commitment be acted upon. We do not have two or five or ten years to act.”
“Dominica speaks tonight as a country that is the guinea pig of what climate change is to vulnerable countries. Everybody knows what Hurricane Maria did to Dominica,” said the country’s representative. “We have come a long way of making decisions and not fulfilling them. We must introduce this agenda item otherwise this COP will go down in history that has certainly been the breaker of this convention.”
St. Lucia and Dominica are part of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) negotiating group to which Fiji, the host of this year’s COP, belongs. Their responses come at a time of damage control, after the Fijian Presidency rejected an agenda item posed by Like-Minded Developing Countries, calling for pre-2020 commitments to be honoured. The role of consulting states on this crucial piece has now been assigned to the Moroccan delegation that presided over last year’s COP 22.
The rejection has driven a deep rift of mistrust in the negotiations process, two years after a historic consensus was brokered in 2015 through the Paris Agreement. But it’s the developed world’s emphasis on Paris (which takes effect only in 2020) that has rocked the boat, as it attempts to dodge the liabilities still due from other historic climate accords.
“This is not a new agenda item but an on-going agenda item, and we’d like to see some timelines on the many decisions that have not been complied with,” said Ravi S. Prasad, chief negotiator for India on behalf of the Like-Minded Developing Countries as well as the G77 + China group.
The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997, made history by recognising historic emissions. It required developed countries had to specifically undertake emission cuts, along with providing financial and technological support for developing countries. In 2012, the Doha amendment to the Kyoto Protocol came into being, which added a second round of emission targets. But as of 31 October 2017, only 84 countries had ratified the Doha Amendment, which needs at least 144 countries to be on board before it can operationalise. “The Paris Agreement came into force within eleven to fourteen months after it was introduced. Why is the second period of the Kyoto Protocol taking 6 to 7 years to come into force? When will the Doha amendment operationalise – after 2020?”
The hurricane-prone state of Nicaragua chose to steer the conversation back to science and the alarming challenge before the planet.
“This negotiating process, one of whose problems has been only a tangential relationship with climate science, will send a message to the world that we’re completely throwing science overboard,” cautioned Nicaragua, the only country to reject the Paris Agreement in 2015 because it was not ambitious enough and because signatories had not engaged in significant enough emissions reductions.
In the backdrop of the current divergence between worlds is an Emissions Gap report, issued by the UN’s environment programme. It says that even if all countries set out to do what they signed up for as part of their emission reduction pledges to the Paris Agreement, it’s not enough to keep global temperature rise under 2 degrees. Meanwhile, other studies say that even if humans suddenly stopped burning fossil fuels today, the earth will continue to heat up about two more degrees by the end of the century. Even with a one-degree increase, however, catastrophic impacts are being seen.
“We have a gap within the system, a gap that we need to address urgently. Previous commitments have not been fulfilled, and if they have, then why do we still have a gap?” asked South Africa, on behalf of the Africa group of nations. “We believe that the agenda item that we’re currently discussing will provide the space to do that. We’re not saying this in a hostile manner, but let’s use the COP to find creative ways to close the gap.”
While the Morocco chair accepted the parties’ recommendations, he advised states to meet informally and discuss how they could make progress on arriving at a solution. But suggesting an informal resolution process to very formal concerns raised around differentiation by developing countries is starting to become a massive part of a problem that could derail the talks.
“Informal note, informal consultation, informal process,” said a visibly upset China representative during an earlier meeting in the day on guidance to country pledges to reduce emissions as part of the Paris agreement. Session co-facilitators gave countries less than 24 hours to report back on key aspects, and asked them to meet informally to resolve conflict.
Negotiation jargon aside, the starting point for climate action must begin now, if the Paris Agreement is to mean anything for generations whose future is at stake. “I volunteered because I wanted to understand what this means for my generation’s future, but all I saw was a lot of talking and not enough leaders saying they were going to do anything,” said a young German volunteer with the UN who was handing out translation headsets outside the meeting.
If COP 23 is to succeed – and it must, given the crisis at hand – the Fiji Presidency and historical emitters must step up and put immediate action on the agenda. It is not just the trust of parties but of the young, old and most vulnerable that will be irreversibly lost if states don’t keep their promises.