COP 23: Negotiating a rulebook for a deregulated international climate change regime

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Petter Bjersér writes this piece while attending COP 23, in Bonn. 

By Petter Bjersér

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, Conference of the Parties (COP) is now taking place in Bonn, and it is hosted by Fiji. The purpose is to negotiate the rulebook which will guide the implementation of the Paris Agreement, set to be adopted by next year. For most people, the previous sentence does not make much sense. This is because it is written in its own COP-language, which has been continuously evolving throughout more than twenty years of climate change negotiations.

When the Climate Change Convention was adopted in 1992 the world was introduced to a whole new world of abbreviations, negotiation bodies and guiding principles. This piece hopes to decipher this “COP-language” in an understandable way, in order to get to the good stuff; exploring the succession of international climate change regimes, the process of the climate agreements in Kyoto and Paris, and what it means for the negotiations taking place in Bonn.

The 1992 Convention is guided by the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities, (CBDR+RC). This principle was first interpreted in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (KP), the first regime. This regime was based on a top-down approach mandating legally binding emissions cuts on developed countries, while not putting any such requirements on developing countries.

Ultimately, the KP failed as it was not passed in the United States Senate. This established the first prerequisite for the new global climate accord; the agreement must not be legally binding. This was the first step in framing the new climate regime under which the Paris Agreement is established. The second step in deregulating the international climate regime was a ten-year negotiation process driven by developed country parties.

The aim was to reinterpret the principle of CBDR+RC, established under the convention. The developed countries argued that focusing on the historical responsibility of past emissions failed to take into account the future emissions of the large emerging economies. Furthermore, it was of paramount importance to the U.S. that China had to reduce its emissions within the agreement. This culminated in the Paris Agreement as the firewall that defined differentiated responsibilities between developing and developed country parties was watered down.

It is important to note that this process was catalyzed by the disaster in Copenhagen. The original negotiation text was several hundred pages long and parties could not reach an agreement. With the conference running short and under immense political pressure, the original text was discarded. This enabled the Copenhagen Accord, a last-minute solution agreed upon by a few Heads of States namely the US and China, to pave the way for the new deregulated climate regime.

The Paris regime is defined by universal participation (including non-state stakeholders), a bottom-up approach through voluntary pledges, and the periodical “ratcheting mechanism” created so that countries can increase their ambitions in order to reach the 2 ̊C target. Furthermore, the Paris regime is not legally binding. Rather than relying on international law, the new regime is based on establishing, confirming and strengthening norms in the international system.

With Donald Trump being elected president of the U.S., the Paris regime is up against its litmus test in regard to all its three characteristics. Initially other countries committed to fill the vacuum, which would be concurrent with the idea of a climate regime based on international norms. However, one year later this has yet to happen and to showcase this point; the Green Climate Fund, which is the main financial institution, is still two billion dollars short as the U.S. will not deliver on its pledge.

The rulebook currently being negotiated in Bonn is the first step of defining the new rules under which the Paris Agreement will operate. It is set to be completed by COP 24 in Katowice, Poland. The negotiations are based upon the Articles in the Paris Agreement, which are subsequently split into contact groups on sub-topics, which further break out into informal sessions on specific contentious issues.

The bloated negotiation process provides incentive for negotiators to use different issues as political leverage, therefore many issues are expected to not be concluded. In effect, the sense of urgency that permeated the Paris negotiations is not present in the World Conference Center here in Bonn. Negotiators must be reminded of what is happening in the meantime,  in the outside world. The Caribbean experienced one of the worst hurricane seasons in history, and global emissions are once again on the rise after having plateaued for three years, yet at the same time as countries’ pledges are not in line with the targets set by science.

The UN-negotiations in Fiji (Bonn) are moving forward, slowly. The Paris Agreement defines a comprehensive set of rights based principles in its preamble (pictured above). This has enabled negotiations on mainstreaming rights-based approaches in the rulebook of the Paris Agreement. This COP has seen advancements in this field regarding the adoption of the Gender Action Plan and the Indigenous Peoples Platform. This is one example of how governments, UN-agencies and civil society try to promote norm-building within the new international climate regime.

To conclude, the rulebook that is to be decided next COP is paramount in enabling the success of the Paris regime. Ultimately the success of the Paris Agreement must be judged by how countries manage to, scale up universal climate action, adapt to climatic changes, enable financing for the unavoidable losses and damages and safeguard a comprehensive set of rights, in the real world.


Petter Bjersér is a Student Delegate to COP23 with Uppsala University. He has four years of COP-experience as a youth delegate with the World Alliance of the YMCAs. He studies a Bachelor in Political Science in Uppsala. He is also the current President of UF-Uppsalas project in collaboration with Uppsala UNA, Uppsala Model United Nations 2018. Applications to become a part of the host team are open now!

Images: Sofia Bjersér

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