The Climate Lemon

The 2017 climate summit: 6 things you need to know

2017 climate summit COP23 Bonn Germany
Photo credit: Matthias Zepper / Wikimedia

So last week saw the finale of the 2017 climate summit – aka “COP23” for short. Yet another round of talks in the never-ending talking shop that is the global climate political process. So what?

It’s easy for the annual UN climate summits to feel remote. The incredibly opaque language certainly doesn’t help. Or if you’re already a climate wonk like me, it can often feel frustratingly slow and bureaucratic.

While true, it’s still hugely important. So in this post I’m going to break it down for you: here’s the most important things from the summit, explained in normal everyday language. I’ll try really hard to keep the jargon out of it.

Two years on from the Paris Agreement, what you need to know about the 2017 climate summit

So here’s my roundup of the most interesting and important things that from the 2017 climate summit. Here we go

1. Progress on the nuts and bolts of the Paris Agreement

Two years ago, the Paris Agreement was signed, marking the world’s first global legally binding agreement on tackling climate change. If you want a refresher, go read my post on what the Paris Agreement is and what it means. While it was a huge deal, it kept things ‘pretty top line’. (That’s office speak for vague).

Now the challenge is to iron out the details, with what’s known as the ‘Paris rulebook’. This will lay out in detail how to actually implement the Paris Agreement. Nothing major was meant to be decided this year. Diplomats from the world’s nation’s were just meant to make solid progress on drafting the rulebook, to have it finalised at the 2018 summit.

And they did. On the final day the prime minister of Fiji told reporters “We are making good progress on the Paris agreement work program, and we are on track to complete that work by the deadline”.  So that’s encouraging!

The official negotiation, where diplomats from the world’s nations fiercely debate the geopolitical response to climate change, is just one part of the story. Each climate summit also attracts a whole host of NGOs, businesses and activists who hold and attend ‘side events’. That’s where much of the more exciting action takes place.

2. Trump pushes coal, gets slammed

A particularly surreal moment of the two-week summit was when the official US group used their one event to promote gas, nuclear and coal. This as you can imagine, went down pretty badly. Michael Bloomberg quipped that it was “like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit”. The event itself was interrupted by poignant singing by a group of teens and 20-somethings, much heckling and a mass walk-out. It was so tone-deaf and bizarre that in my opinion the only explanation is Trump wanted to do it as a statement, to gain media attention and make the story about him. It’s garnered more than enough attention already so I won’t say anything more on it.

3. American cities, states and companies are the real leaders

Meanwhile, many American cities, states and companies were keen to show their commitment to climate action – and distance themselves from the official US delegation. Under the umbrella of America’s Pledge and We Are Still In, thousands of businesses, cities, universities and several whole states are showcasing and tracking their climate action. American readers should take comfort in the fact the world knows Trump does not represent all of you, and that Americans are still pushing ahead with climate action.

In fact, cities, states and regions across the world are leading the charge, being on average much more ambitious than nations when it comes to climate action. This is considerable cause for hope because they can act more quickly.

4. The world is powering past coal – it’s so last century

While the Trump team embarrassingly talked up the dirtiest 20th century fuel, the rest of the summit saw a growing momentum for a global phase-out of coal. 27 countries and states so far have signed up to the Powering Past Coal alliance, signalling they will take steps to phase out coal for good. The UK and Canada have been leading it and Mexico, France, Finland, New Zealand, Italy, Denmark, El Salvador and the US states of Washington and Oregon are among those signed up. According to badass diplomat Christiana Figueres “we can safely assume that demand for coal has peaked”.

5. EU and US holding back global climate finance

Dealing with climate change is going to cost billions – and there’s no getting away from it. If we try to ignore it, it will just cost us even more in damages. Obviously who’s going to pay for what is a controversial issue. France and the UK say they’ll contribute more to the IPCC climate science research group, to pick up the slack left by the US. But the implementation side doesn’t look so good.

African states say rich nations – namely the EU and US – are not cooperating on agreed climate finance. The Paris Agreement reaffirms a promise made back in 2009 that by 2020 rich countries will marshal $100bn per year to poor countries to help them adapt to climate impacts and transition to low-carbon economies. As we approach 2020, there’s a chronic lack of transparency on how much money has already been committed – anywhere between  $17bn and $61bn – and rich countries seemingly aren’t in much of a hurry to have the discussion. This caused an alliance of several African nations to claim rich countries are failing in their promises.

If you’re wondering why we should help pay for their transition,
read this post on the human rights implication of climate change and the stark injustice of the causes and impacts. 

6. Can we just get in with it please (pre-2020 action)

Although climate action is urgent and all the world’s countries are broadly on the same page now, the Paris Agreement doesn’t actually kick in until 2020. That’s a big problem, because to stay at a safe level, carbon emissions need to peak by 2020 and then start to go down. So action in the next two years will be critical.

Given this context, it’s understandable that many developing countries were pushing hard for rich countries to be held to account on their climate commitments in the run up to 2020. But there’s another complication: as the Paris Agreement isn’t in force yet, international climate action currently has no legal framework. It would require extending the old climate deal signed in 1997 called the Kyoto Protocol. Extending it requires the formal agreement of 140 countries, and so far only 84 are on board.

This tension created a week-long logjam, which was finally resolved with a compromise that was widely seen as progress for developing countries. Pre-2020 action isn’t on the official agenda, but diplomats agreed seven key measures, including stocktakes in 2018 and 2019, an assessment of climate finance, and the UN boss to pressure rich countries to extend the Kyoto Protocol.

You’d expect this from Trump’s government, but all this wrangling doesn’t seem to match the bold rhetoric the European leaders always give in their climate summit speeches.

But while nations slowly eke out a global action plan, it’s really cities, companies and NGOs that are steaming ahead with practical action.

Did you like this post? Sign up to get fresh climate updates in your inbox. (Don’t worry about email overload, I don’t have time to send many).

Header image: Sunrise over the city centre of Bonn, Germany, where the 2017 climate summit took place. By Matthias Zepper (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons. 

1 comment

Follow for news, memes and more!

Hey, I’m Tegan

I'm a passionate sustainability enthusiast, blogger and communications professional. I live in Brighton, UK, with my boyfriend and tortoise. Can usually be found reading, writing or eating chickpea burritos. Wanna chat? I'm at @TeganTallullah on Twitter.

Like books? Support this blog along with your fave local bookstore with Hive.