Have U.N. climate talks finally been turned "inside out"?

by Saleemul Huq | International Centre for Climate Change and Development
Monday, 20 November 2017 09:01 GMT

An activist from Ecuador is interviewed about the impact of oil extraction by a U.S. firm on her community, in the Bonn Zone at the U.N. climate talks (COP23) in Bonn, Germany, Nov. 13, 2017. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Megan Rowling

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With the Paris Agreement now in place, the focus should be on those putting it into practice

After the historic Paris Agreement was achieved at the U.N. climate talks in December 2015, when all the countries of the world agreed to take action to tackle the problem of global climate change, I had proposed that future meetings - known as the Conference of the Parties, or COPs - should become "inside out" COPs.

By that, I meant that observers (who include the environmental groups, business and researchers now implementing the Paris Agreement) should be put centre-stage, and the official government negotiators left on the sidelines, as there’s no longer any major deal to be negotiated, just the details of how to collectively implement what was already agreed in Paris in 2015. 

The crucial difference between negotiating and implementing is that the former requires consensus among all 195 governments to arrive at any decisions, while actions can be taken by coalitions of the willing, which can include governments as well as many others.  

At COP22 in Marrakech last year, the process began with the launching of a raft of initiatives, particularly a pledge by the Climate Vulnerable Forum, consisting of nearly 50 of the poorest and most vulnerable developing countries to unilaterally declare their intention to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. They took the moral leadership and urged other countries to follow their lead.

This month at COP23 in Bonn, under the leadership of Fiji, I feel we may in fact be on the way to achieving the “inside out COP”. The most vivid illustration of this shift in emphasis between negotiators and observers was the physical location and ambiance of the two venues.

The negotiators' venue (called the Bula zone) was a newly built fancy conference centre, which was mostly underground with very little natural light. Most of the negotiations took place behind closed doors, so the observers who were there had to wait outside with little to do until the negotiators emerged.

Typically for COPs, despite negotiating for two weeks, they couldn't finish on time on Friday and went on all night to emerge in the early hours of Saturday with their final decisions. The arcane language of the negotiations is such that it is unlikely any of them could coherently explain what they were arguing about through the night! 

In great contrast, the observers were housed in a large temporary tent city in a park, called the "Bonn zone", which was some distance away. This area was full of cafes, pavilions, meeting rooms, booths with information and even a "Talanoa Dialogue" zone set up by Fiji for civil society to have their say on what needs to be done.

This zone was constantly buzzing with action, discussions, singing and even dancing on occasion. The energy level was orders of magnitude higher than in the dull and boring negotiators’ space. 


Another apt illustration of the contrast between the two zones, which felt like two different worlds, was the presence of the United States at COP23. In the negotiators’ zone the U.S. government was represented by officials from the State Department who participated in the talks, as their country cannot leave the Paris Agreement until 2020 despite President Trump submitting notice it will withdraw.

In the second week, during the high-level part of the meeting, they were joined by  White House officials who held an event to promote "clean coal". This was disrupted by a group of young Americans and indigenous people singing anti-fossil fuel songs. 

Outside the negotiating building, a number of American NGOs and companies set up a Climate Action Pavilion where every day there were presentations from different groups of U.S. citizens. They insisted “we are still in” in the Paris Agreement, despite their president's decision to leave.

These included governors of states like California, cities like New York, and heads of companies like Walmart, as well as NGOs, youth groups, universities and many others. The result of all this action on the ground is that the United States is actually on track to fulfill the emissions reduction pledges made by President Obama in Paris in 2015, despite Trump's attempts to undermine them. 

This illustrates well the fundamental change the Paris Agreement represents - namely that each and every group, and indeed individual citizen of the world, now has the ability to implement what was agreed. We no longer need governments to take the lead and subject everything to endless adversarial negotiations over words and even commas. 

This new spirit is now embodied in the outcome of COP23 to allow Fiji with Poland, as the host for COP24 next year, to initiate a “Talanoa Dialogue” over the coming year to bring in views and perspectives from all parts of the world and all sectors of society so that the outcomes of COP24 in Katowice are informed by those putting the Paris Agreement into practice. 

I have attended every COP so far, and as it becomes more and more difficult to get badges for observers to attend the negotiations, I will from now on spend my time not with government officials chewing over dry text, but in the zone where the real action is happening.