COP23: Money talks – and people walk
Everyone who has ever been at a COP knows that it can be quite overwhelming, stressful, intense, exhausting due to the constant overflow (or sometimes also lack) of information. However, when chief negotiators of each delegation huddle to discuss whether there should be a “should” instead of “shall”, or if some other wording in the negotiation text needs to be changed so it suits everyone, it sometimes can also feel quite surreal and out of touch with what is in the world. There are people out there who die or whose life is already heavily affected by climate change. Yet it is exactly those arguments and discussions over some detailed wording in the negotiation text that takes place nearly every time during the final hours of a COP. Eventually, the Parties find a compromise – only so that they can open the negotiations at the same point again in the next year.
It is quite rare that a COP ends on time and, as you might have guessed, this year at COP23 in Bonn was no exception. Instead of concluding all negotiations on Friday evening at around 6 pm, they run through the whole night and finally ended just before sunrise at 7 am on Saturday morning. In the end, it was once again the issue of finance that proved to be difficult. Developing countries demanded from developed countries more clarity on the financial support they will get. However, developed countries and particularly also Switzerland, were not willing to make concessions on the procedures on how to transparently communicate financial commitments to developing countries. Not surprisingly, the issue was ‘resolved’ by agreeing to discuss and negotiate it further next year. (Here you can find more details on this issue.)
Moreover, details pertaining the Adaptation Fund, which provides money for countries that are already heavily affected by climate change and need to adapt to these changes, proved to be tricky, too. Especially Saudi Arabia was not happy with some of the wording, as it could have been interpreted in a way that opened up the possibility to use taxes on oil and gas to fill the fund, which was obviously not in the interest of the oil-rich gulf country. Eventually, the overtired negotiators conceded to Saudi Arabia and changed the wording in the text, so the COP23 could at last be closed. It is perhaps not surprising that some fossil fuel dependent countries purposely oppose certain wording and try to defend their own interest. However, it gets much more problematic when representatives of private, multinational corporations with vested, commercial and financial interests, whose objective and business model goes contrary to the principles of the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement to combat climate change, have direct influence on the negotiations. Fossil fuel companies’ business models are based on extracting and selling as much hydrocarbons as possible, which, through the burning of these fossil fuels, creates massive amounts of CO2 and is the main cause of anthropogenic climate change. Those extremely wealthy corporations use their financial strength under the name of “civil society observers” to undermine negotiations and sometimes even get privileged access to countries delegates (check out this blog post for more information). Believe it or not, but in recent years, some of these fossil fuel companies have even sponsored the climate talks. This is not just a small problem within the UN climate talks, but a system issue that needs to be tackled to ensure the integrity of the negotiations. Also thanks to the intervention of YOUNGO and with the hard work of SYFC, the issue of conflict of interests was raised at the Open Dialogue organised by the Fijian Presidency. It was even recognised in the presidency’s report as a problem that need to be addressed.
This was not the only example of conflicting interests at COP23. Turning to Germany, the host country of this COP23, it seems Switzerland’s northern neighbour might have some conflict of interest, too. On the one hand and thanks to the “Energiewende”, Germany is seen as the leader in renewable energy. But on the other hand, it still heavily relies on coal power, which is responsible for over a third of Germany’s total CO2 emissions and also the main reason it is still Europe’s biggest emitter. Rapidly phasing out coal is essential for Germany in order not to miss its 2020 climate goals, let alone the 2030 goals. However, the once praised “climate” Chancellor Angela Merkel came empty handed to Bonn and disappointed most civil society actors for her lack of leadership on the issue. Instead, it was the people who demanded climate justice and organised multiple actions and protests at and around COP23, including the largest climate march in Germany ever with 25,000 people in the streets of Bonn and also around 4,500 people entering and blocking one of the largest open pit coal mine just about 50 km from Bonn.
But it was not only individuals and civil society who raised their voices and spoke out end the use of coal, which is the most polluting of all energy sources. More than 20 countries, led by the UK and Canada (including Switzerland), announced the “Powering Past Coal Alliance” to phase out coal power in their respective countries no later than 2030. This is an encouraging first step in the right direction, but ultimately every country, including Germany, must get out of coal until 2030 because there is simply no more room for coal if we stick to the goals of the Paris Agreement. Especially, when bearing in mind that next year’s COP24 is going to be in Europe’s heartland of coal in Katowice, Poland. In order to protect its own coal industry, upon which it still heavily relies, Poland has repeatedly tried to water down EU climate and energy legislation. Those who remember the last COP in Poland (i.e. COP19 in Warsaw in 2013), might also recall the coal sponsored industry conference taking place just next door to conference venue of the climate negotiations. Given these circumstances, it is hard not to think of yet another conflict of interest at next year’s COP…
And then of course, there is also the USA, which has said it would withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Although they did not block anything during the negotiations, they showed their true face at a side event. The US administration thought they could come to the climate negotiations and promote coal and nuclear as ‘climate solutions’. Once again, the people and civil society observers were not having it and organised a massive protest action at this side event, eventually leaving the event room 2/3 empty and letting them speak to themselves about their false solutions.
It will be interesting to see how things will turn out at next year’s negotiations, where the so-called “Paris Rulebook” that guides the implementation of the Paris Agreement needs to be finalised. One thing is for sure, however, many of the conflicts mentioned will definitely be back on the agenda again. Climate finance is always a tricky point and the debate on the final transparency rules could get heated. Also the issue of conflict of interest is very likely to be raised again, especially during the Talanoa Dialogue. Initiated by Fijian Presidency as a concept of open dialogue to enhance pre-2020 ambition and close the gap between the currently insufficient pledges by countries, corporate stakeholders have already raised their voices that they want to be recognised as part of the solution – a prospect that would only exacerbate the issue of conflict of interests. Ultimately, climate change is about people and their survival, and not about protecting corporate interests.
That is why we cannot rest and lean back now. The fight continues and in the light of the realities of climate change impacts we can already feel today, we must do even more. If there is one positive thing coming out of COP23, it certainly is all those extremely dedicated, motivated and inspiring people from civil society that increasingly take matter in their own hands and demand more ambitious climate action. Eventually, it is up to all of us to keep up the pressure and hold our decision makers accountable. Everyone can do her/his bit and together we will succeed. “Do not agonise – organise!”
Another summary of COP23 from SYFC can be found on Swissinfo: both in German and French.
For a more detailed, technical summary of COP23, please check here or here. If you want to know more about Conflict of Interest at UNFCCC climate talks, then this report gives an excellent overview. More information on the issue at COP23 can also be found here.