COP23: A key opportunity to raise climate action ambition

6 November 2017

COP23, the 23rd annual UN climate conference, kicks off today in Bonn (main image). In this blog, Damian Ryan, Director, Strategy & Impact, The Climate Group, looks at the key issues that will be addressed, as well as the expected challenges and opportunities.

Two years on from the adoption of the historic Paris Climate Agreement, the COP23 meeting is an important waypoint in developing the rules to govern the agreement, as well beginning the process to raise climate action ambition before 2020.

The COP takes place against a backdrop of positive climate action in the real economy but also a febrile international political environment and a litany of recent extreme climate events, all of which will both drive and complicate discussions.


The conference will be characterized by a number of ‘firsts’. It will be first to be hosted by a small island developing state – in this case Fiji – and the first COP for the Trump administration. Fiji’s Presidency will ensure a focus on key issues important for small, vulnerable countries, such as ‘Loss & Damage’ and means-of-implementation (finance, capacity building etc).

The role of the US will be a major talking point for many, but it remains unclear what disruption – if any – the new administration will have on the proceedings. A large, pro-climate US observer contingent, comprising state, city and business leaders is expected to act as a powerful counterbalance to the views of Trump officials at COP.


Following the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015, the focus of negotiators shifted to a large program of work generated by various articles and requests in the agreement and supporting COP decision. The purpose of this work program is to ensure the effective implementation of the agreement, not least by laying down the rules that govern key aspects of the deal such as guidance on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), reporting, finance etc.

This work on the Paris ‘Rulebook’, which began in earnest at COP22 in Marrakech, has been divided between the different bodies and committees of the UNFCCC, including the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (the ‘APA’), which has overall responsibility for the work program.

The Paris Agreement calls for the completion of this work program by the time of the first conference of the agreement (known as the ‘CMA’), which was expected to be in 2020. However, the rapid entry-into-force of the Paris deal in November 2016 meant that the first CMA was opened in Marrakech. Rather than close CMA1 in Morocco, negotiators chose instead to suspend the meeting and continue it in a second session in Bonn. CMA1 is expected to continue under this arrangement until negotiators have completed their post-Paris work program. Parties are currently aiming to do this by COP24 in 2018.


This deadline for the Rulebook will align with, and indeed enable, the delivery of another key milestone in the post-Paris calendar. This is the ‘Facilitative Dialogue’, which is intended to take stock of Parties’ collective efforts towards achieving the goal of the Paris Agreement.

The dialogue will also inform the preparation of the next iteration of NDCs that Parties will submit in 2020. The dialogue will be the first of regular ‘Global Stocktakes’ mandated by the Paris Agreement. These will take place every five years from 2023 to inform each subsequent round of NDCs from 2025 onwards. Discussions on the structure and content of the Facilitative Dialogue, as well as the process towards it over the next 12 months, will be a key feature of COP23.


Hanging over all this work is the issue of the US’ continuing participation in international climate discussions. Although the Trump Administration announced the intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in June, under the terms of the deal a Party can only withdraw three years after the date of entry into force. This means the earliest that the US could officially leave is November 2019. In the meantime, the US retains a seat at the Paris table and is still a full Party to the overarching UNFCCC.

The question for many is what role will the US now play in the process? Will it disrupt, disengage, or seek to “renegotiate” as President Trump has stated it might? The continuing lack of policy coherency in the White House, suggests that the administration has no plans or strategy for Paris, or indeed climate diplomacy generally. Indications that the US will send a very small government delegation to Bonn underline this and point to a default strategy of neglect through disengagement.


The good news is that the international and domestic response to President’s Trump decision has been overwhelming solidarity in support of Paris, including from China, India and even Saudi Arabia. The US has found itself isolated in key forums such as the G7 and G20 on climate, while at home, initiatives such as the We Are Still In campaign, the US Climate Alliance and America’s Pledge, have underlined that the Trump administration does not represent the views of many businesses, communities and sub-national political leaders.

The expected presence of a large delegation of high-level US observers in Bonn (including several governors, major city mayors and corporate CEOs) will go a long way to reassuring other Parties that in many respects the US will continue to take ambitious climate action.


The likelihood for a constructive COP therefore remains high, despite the theatrics of the Trump administration. The afterglow of Paris continues to radiate, while the political recommitment by all other world leaders to the Agreement, means that there is still a healthy stock of goodwill and momentum among Parties to keep the work program on track.

The continuing decline in the cost of clean technologies, game-changing announcements from major corporates (e.g. car manufacturers moving away from internal combustion engines) and the mounting impact of extreme climate events, will provide additional motivation for ensuring success.


At the same time, it is also true that significant differences still exist between Parties on key issues and that agreeing the rules of the game is by no means a done deal. From issues such as transparency, through to finance and other means-of-implementation, there remain important differences to bridge.

In the wake of the disastrous hurricanes in the Caribbean, progress on strengthening and fully operationalizing the existing mechanism on Loss & Damage, for example, will be high on the agenda for many developing countries. The benchmark for success at COP23 will depend on how far negotiators can progress issues like Loss & Damage and close other key gaps ahead of their 2018 deadline.

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