The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change 21st Conference of the Parties, or COP21, was a tough act to follow. At that event in 2015, delegates from 195 countries came together in Paris and adopted a landmark agreement to address climate change. The accord, known as the Paris Agreement, laid out the signatories' intention to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (and, ideally, well under that mark) by curbing greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonizing the global economy by 2060. Two years later, however, it's becoming increasingly clear that fulfilling the accord's objectives won't be enough to halt the effects of global warming. What's more, though COP21 established an ambitious plan for addressing climate change, it left hashing out the details for another year, another conference.
Expectations were high that this year's 23rd Conference of the Parties, or COP23, would offer the perfect venue for fleshing out the Paris Agreement. The summit, which Fiji presided over, drew 22,000 people from all over the world to Bonn, Germany, on Nov. 6-17 to hash out the next steps toward addressing climate change. COP23 lacked the fanfare of COP21, and some critics argued that its participants failed to take any meaningful action over the course of the meeting. On the conference's conclusion, the main takeaway was that climate change is still a top priority for policymakers, economists and voters worldwide. But that message, and the decisions that came out of COP23, nonetheless represented an achievement in the international fight against climate change.
Signs of Progress
Despite the criticism, several important developments came out of COP23. The signatories of the Paris Agreement, for example, made headway on drafting guidelines for implementing the pact. Among other issues, the provisions cover how countries should measure and report their greenhouse gas emissions so that their voluntary commitments to the Paris Agreement can be documented, compared and evaluated. (Signatory states will have to wait until next year's COP24 conference in Katowice, Poland, to finalize and adopt the rulebook for the accord.) Numerous countries, industries and civil society organizations, moreover, presented an array of climate action solutions over the two weeks of the meeting at hundreds of sideline events, such as the Climate Summit of Local and Regional Leaders.
One of the most remarkable initiatives to come out of the conference was the "Talanoa Dialogue." Applying a traditional Fijian approach to multilateral decision-making, the platform engages various stakeholders to share their ideas and work out their problems collaboratively through discussion. The dialogue, which began just after COP23 ended, aims to bring together contributions from the scientific, industrial and civil society sectors over the coming years to encourage states to enhance and accelerate their efforts toward climate protection. Once participants have concluded the talks' preliminary stage, focused on establishing a common goal and a plan to achieve it, they will present the insights they gathered at next year's conference and embark on the discussions' political phase.
Beyond the Talanoa Dialogue, participants at COP23 also launched a joint effort to phase out coal-fired plants. More than 20 countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Italy, France and Mexico, banded together and declared their intention to eradicate coal, which today generates 40 percent of electricity output worldwide, as an energy source by 2025. Germany, China and India have yet to join the alliance, but the initiative intends to add up to 50 members over the next year. And membership isn't limited to countries, either; other signatories include U.S. states Washington and Oregon and the Canadian province of Quebec.
Keeping With Convention
In fact, COP23 highlighted the enduring importance of climate change in international and U.S. politics alike, notwithstanding Washington's current policies. The turnout at the conference extinguished fears that U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement this year would trigger other leaders to follow suit. Furthermore, the dozens of U.S. politicians and public figures in attendance — including former Vice President Al Gore, along with state and municipal officials from New York and California — demonstrated that much of the United States remains committed to the pact. The unofficial delegation presented a plethora of green innovations underway in cities across the country, offering a powerful counternarrative to the Trump administration's position.
Taken individually, the results of the recent U.N. conference on climate change don't represent the proverbial "great leap forward" that many observers and stakeholders were hoping for. The event's host country, after all, is considered a leader in climate change legislation. But taken together, the outcomes of the Bonn conference are significant, not only for their future potential but also for the circumstances that preceded them. Some will argue, of course, that because the Paris Agreement's signatory states failed to set binding new targets at this year's conference, the initiatives they did adopt are merely baby steps toward a credible solution. Still, actions speak louder than words, and regardless of their scale, the measures that emerged from COP23 constitute progress. The alternative — inaction — wasn't an option.