How Do the Climate Negotiations Really Work?

That was my question this past Monday as I picked up my badge at the registration desk for COP 23.

Media coverage of the climate negotiations tends to focus on the outcomes or on the surrounding politics. Less coverage is given to the underlying process of coming to consensus. This is especially true for a so-called “small COP,” like the one taking place this year, where no new high-level agreement is expected.

Recognizing that others watching from afar might have the same questions I had, I want to try to offer a window into what is happening on a daily basis here at COP 23 as I’ve seen it. In this post, I’ll talk about what’s at stake in COP 23 and how it’s decided. In my next post, I’ll talk about my experience with being in the Article 6 negotiating room. Of course, no description of the process can substitute for actually sitting in a negotiating room, but it’s worth getting a sense of the dynamics at play.

Outside the Fiji Pavilion at COP23

Writing the Rules for Paris

As I mentioned in my last post, the acceptance of the Paris Agreement by many countries hinged on the use of purposefully broad or vague phrasing in parts. After adopting the Paris Agreement in 2015, Parties went right to work on developing the additional methods, modalities, and standards required to operationalize many of the Agreement’s broad goals and provisions. To a large extent, these rules and procedures will determine how successful the Paris Agreement ultimately becomes.

Given their immense importance to the implementation of the Paris Agreement, the details of the Paris rulebook are hotly negotiated in their own right. This is the work negotiators are tasked with here in Bonn.

Providing Guidance: The Role of Subsidiary Bodies

Developing the Paris rulebook is the primary task of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA), which provides guidance and draft text to the Parties for adoption. The negotiating agenda in Bonn contains work plans for a number of provisions spanning transparency, accounting, finance, and adaptation. Many of these items are negotiated directly through working groups of the APA, while others are referred to other technical or policy advisory bodies within the UNFCCC framework.

I spent this past week following the discussion of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which had previously been referred to the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSTA). As the name suggests, the SBSTA exists to provide guidance to the Parties on technical and scientific matters.

Any potential emissions trading mechanism generated under Article 6 will likely require detailed technical and scientific guidance on such matters as how to set emissions baselines, how to account for trades between Parties, and how to avoid double counting emissions reductions gained through trading. The SBSTA working group on Article 6 was tasked with providing guidance on the means of implementing three of the key paragraphs of the Article. Most days this week, the working group met twice a day: often for two hours in the morning and another two hours in the afternoon.

So Many Issues, So Little Time

Parallel working groups on finance, women and gender, adaptation, loss and damage, transparency, and various other agenda items are also meeting this week. Often, there are many working groups meeting simultaneously, forcing countries with small national delegations to choose their battles or band together with like-minded countries that can represent their interests across the many issue areas. For this reason, many negotiators specialize in a particular Article or subset of issue areas and will work only on those one or two issues for the full two weeks of negotiations.

For some of these working groups, this week’s goals are to produce a negotiated text or decision that can be adopted by the COP. Other groups may have more modest goals to open a dialogue, gain a better understanding of all the Parties’ positions, or simply agree on the shape or goal of a work plan going forward.

Unfortunately, I won’t personally be present next week to see if the Article 6 working group achieves the goals it set out for itself at the beginning of COP. Nevertheless, there are interesting insights to be gleaned from events of this past week, and I look forward to sharing more about what it was like to witness a negotiation firsthand on my next post.