COP 23: Never-ending Negotiations

Posted by on Nov 26, 2017
COP 23: Never-ending Negotiations

We negotiate with family members, partners, neighbors, pets. We negotiate space, time, duties, things. And it never stops; household chore agreements between siblings, the agreement of marriage, or treat-giving treaties with the dog of the house mark not final ends to disputes but simply represent frameworks for future disagreements. Similarly, the Paris Agreement is not an end to disagreements on how to deal with climate change. Nations will probably never stop disagreeing on climate issues, every agreement is just a platform for future disagreements, and that’s not necessarily bad, but rather to be expected when a very large group of people deals with a constant and ever-changing problem. Greenhouse gas emission reduction, responses to extreme weather events, and funding for the capacity building of nations will be negotiated and renegotiated for years to come. However, it would be a great achievement if with further negotiations there would be an enhancement of the public and even political capacity to understand and discuss the complications of collectively coordinated climate action. I will not offer any answers in this direction, but just want to state this here at the start of what will be a general reflection on the main negotiation process within the global climate regime.

I just returned from one of the two annual United Nations negotiation sessions on climate change. This was the larger one that is held in late Fall and referred to as COP, which is short for the Conference of the Parties, the supreme decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Held in Bonn, Germany, but formally hosted by Fiji, COP 23 is the 23rd Conference of Parties since COP 1 in 1995. Subsidiary to the COP and its supreme meetings serving the Kyoto Protocol (CMP) and the Paris Agreement (CMA) are other negotiating bodies that convene twice a year, and thus have reached higher enumeration like the SBSTA 47 under the most recent COP 23. These subsidiary bodies are tied to specific agreements like the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA, most recently APA 4), or oversee specific thematic work regarding scientific and technological advice (SBSTA) and the implementation of mitigation and adaptation measures (SBI). Lots of acronyms and numbers! And what soon becomes clear to anyone that visits a COP is that what may sound like one room of negotiators on the news, breaks down into myriad meetings discussing different aspects of the global climate agreements under different bodies, often linked to one, or just a few articles in the agreements. And just like at any other conference, there are many many things going on at the same time so one simply has to pick and choose.

I was an intern for four months last summer at the UN Climate Change Secretariat—the administrative offices of the UNFCCC located in Bonn, Germany—and I followed the team I was an intern for into the two-week-long smaller negotiation sessions in May 2017. I thus arrived at COP 23 with some preliminary understandings of the structure and procedures of the negotiations. Still, even though one figures out the structure, understanding what is being discussed in the negotiations is not easy. When you show up to the first negotiation meeting regarding a specific item of an agreement, no one will do a quick summary of what is going on to make the meeting easier to follow. The delegations and the specific delegates that they have chosen to head the meeting (the co-facilitators) just start off from where they ended in the last negotiation session. One little ethnographic snap-shot at the recent COP 23 gives a sense of how unsympathetic the introduction to this world can be and also hints at the common failed expectations that first time observers experience. I was sitting in the back of one of the negotiation rooms when a current intern I had met in the hallway the day before sat beside me for his first negotiation meeting. After listening to the negotiations for half an hour or so he leaned over and whispered: “When will they start to discuss…like the actual things?” My unsatisfying answer was that they are as a matter of fact discussing “actual things”, but just in a very specific way.

In the two negotiation sessions I have now attended I have most consistently been following the negotiation meetings of the team I interned with last summer. Going to multiple meetings, and importantly having been able to converse with my team about the specific issue that the delegations they bureaucratically service are negotiating, has left me with a moderate understanding of what is being discussed in those particular negotiation meetings content-wise. Most of the negotiations are very much about establishing certain processes and procedures. The conversations tend to be technical and rhetorically far away from public or environmentalist discourse on climate change. Many would describe it as boring, and the process can be extremely slow, but with 190 nations making consensus-based decisions together, who wouldn’t expect that to be slow! A more sympathetic reading would be that the negotiations are representative of discussions within literary theory on how form dictates content. The negotiations can feel boring because they seem to be mostly about form and very little about content. But I think by immersing yourself in a specific negotiation discourse you slowly start making connections between the technical form-related discussions and content like the rate of emission reduction or funding—just as with some great works of literature form becomes content! In this international legal context, little is gained by specifically discussing content without having established the form or the legal framework within which greenhouse gas emissions, adaptation funds, and processes of technology transfer between nations will function. And this content-side of things is also something that is understandingly largely left for domestic politics in each country to figure out.

Seen through the translators’ booth.

However, if in desperate search for content at a COP there is a whole other world parallel to the negotiation world: A specific zone where non-governmental and international organizations can introduce themselves and their work; a zone that also includes national booths or pavilions. In these spaces and meeting rooms there is a multitude of side events, often focusing on specific issues or regions regarding mitigation or adaptation. I went to fewer of these events than I would have wanted because I was mainly focused on the negotiations. However, in the negotiation zone I did discover a specific constituency that admirably attempts to collectively make sense of how the negotiations are going. RINGO (the Constituency of Research and Independent Non-governmental Organisations to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)) is a group of researchers of the UNFCCC and they meet at 9am every morning of the 14 day COP to discuss what happened the day before and hand out observer tickets for specific events where the attendance of the observers is limited and must be rationed. Researchers that receive a ticket for a specific negotiation meeting are expected to write notes and hand in, as well as report back to the group the next day. These notes can then be accessed on their website http://ringos.net, and they are a great way to get at some of the content of the negotiations. As a Ph.D. student that is researching the specific function of the UN Climate Change Secretariat, the bureaucratic staff that services the delegations and forms a fundamental but often overlooked part of global climate governance, I am more interested in administrative and procedural aspects of the process. But while the focus of the RINGOs is mostly on content (“what are the negotiators actually talking about!?”), some of the RINGO notetakers also captured great procedural moments.

Where are the negotiations going, what is the status of the Paris Agreement, or what kind of presence did the US have at this first negotiation session after Trump announced the US withdrawal? These are questions that I hear a lot around me but they are very complicated and difficult to answer. It’s all very technical at this phase. The Paris Agreement is slowly heading towards being implemented—starting in 2020. The national contributions in terms of emission reduction stated by countries are at this point not ambitious enough for the agreement’s overall goals for stopping the rise of global temperatures at 1.5-2 degrees Celsius. And I know that there were US delegates at the COP, fewer than usual, but still they were there and participating in negotiations. And some US entities (municipal governments and organizations) were also present under the slogan “WE ARE STILL IN.” One thing is sure, the negotiations go on, with the next session being in early May next year and COP 24 in Katowice, Poland in December 2018.

Magnús Örn Sigurðsson is a CENHS pre-doctoral fellow and Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology at Rice University. His research is on climate change, bureaucracy and global governance with a focus on the UN Climate Change secretariat in Bonn, Germany.