It’s been about two weeks since I returned from COP22, and since then I’ve spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the experience. My week in Marrakech was incredibly rewarding and, despite my post-election nerves, it managed to restore my faith in the future of global climate action. Still, as I look back on the conference, I must admit that it raised just as many questions as it provided answers.
Did Marrakech fall short of its intention to be the “COP of action”? Should we expect progress next year on the thorny issues of climate finance or compliance under the Paris Agreement? Will the U.S. take a backseat on climate action over the four years? These and other uncertainties play a central role in assessing the impact of the climate negotiations process. One of the most intriguing questions I’ve considered, however, is whether COP22 was a success or failure. The question was posed prior to our final class meeting after the COP, and as I considered my response, I began to contemplate the premise of the question itself.
Over the past several years, we’ve become accustomed to “big COPs.” Since Copenhagen in 2009, the annual meetings have grown in their scale and anticipated impact, attracting unprecedented public attention. Yet this isn’t necessarily the norm for global climate talks. During one of the Duke delegation’s meetings in the second week of the COP, an expert in international climate negotiations explained how COP22 was shaping up to be a “small COP” – and how that might be a good thing.
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that COPs are not exclusively intended to provide historic climate accords, as was the case in Paris last year. Historically, in fact, formal COP proceedings have focused more on fleshing out the wonky nuances of treaty-making and implementation. And since the Marrakech outcome largely kicked the can of implementing the Paris Agreement down the road to 2017 and 2018, it’s likely that the upcoming COPs may similarly end not with a bang but a whimper.
And that’s okay! My experience at COP22 taught me that it’s perhaps misguided to label any given COP a “success” or “failure.” The annual meetings have truly astounding convening power, as they attract the best and brightest minds focused on climate action from nearly 200 countries. No other gathering can quite match the momentum built at events like the COP. And as I walked through the event halls and different countries’ pavilions, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the initiatives, funding, and partnerships announced in Marrakech would exist in the absence of the COP.
Expecting monumental success or colossal failure from the UNFCCC process adds undue pressure to an already contentious issue. The annual COP plays diverse and crucial roles beyond the negotiations process itself, and witnessing this firsthand made me hopeful for the future of climate action.