Can the COP cope? – Thoughts on the COP23 Meetings

By Karl Van Orsdol

You may have noticed that the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 23rd annual Conference of the Parties meeting (referred to as COP 23) concluded in Bonn recently.  In the US, the meeting went largely under the radar, displaced by stories on tax legislation and the increasing scrutiny of the sexual misconduct of alpha males within our culture.  Everywhere else in the world, the meetings were front page news due the attendance of nearly every major political leader in the world, except of course, from the US.

The French booth tag line

I attended the COP 23 meetings as an official observer on behalf of The Resilience Institute over their two-week period.  It was my first COP attendance, and it was extraordinary, enlightening and simultaneously, quite sobering.  While the conference was held in Germany, the official host of the meeting was Fiji.  The conference is held in two sections: the official Conference of Parties negotiations carried out in the UN buildings, and the “side events” held in a massive temporary structure that housed over 12 large meeting rooms, a vast floor area of hundreds of small booths from every conceivable UNFCC organization and NGO, as well as large exhibition spaces for over 35 countries ranging from France and Germany to Guinea and Mali.  In a separate large tent, adjacent to the official negotiation center, was the Michael Bloomberg-funded US Climate Action Center, which modestly could only accommodate several thousand attendees.  This center, branded as the “we are still in it” pavilion, was the direct response to the Trump Administration’s pronouncements about leaving the global climate agreement in 2020.

The COP is an official policy and negotiations event at the country level, combined with an educational, informational and policy-influencing side conference.  The side event was overwhelming in scope, with more than 100 sessions daily on all aspects of climate change plus hundreds of more sessions sponsored by countries and featuring case studies and policy discussions.  The total attendees for the two events was estimated at over 25,000 participants.

Navigating such a surfeit of opportunities was challenging.  I was there to discuss my project interests: 1) how to finance actionable adaptation support to Indigenous peoples struggling to live with climate change and 2) how cities can best adapt to a changing set of environmental conditions that threaten basic services to many in the urban population.  Thus, I chose my sessions with these two main interests in mind.  Because of this, my understanding and perceptions of the side-event are a tad narrow – I couldn’t possible attend everything of interest.

Overall, my major take-aways from the COP are as follows:

1) The key discussions now are about migration and adaptation. Adaptation isn’t a surrender to climate change; it’s an on-ramp for many peoples.  The world recognizes that the reduction of greenhouse gases is not occurring at the rate required to minimize global damage or stabilize the climate.  (You should visit James Hansen’s website for the compelling scientific information about the changes humans are making in the global climate).  At the practical level, we have gone too far down the carbon emissions path to save countries and civilizations.  As Mr. Anote Tong, former president of Kiribati said in one packed session “We will have to move, even if every country in the world stopped emitting CO2 today, our lands will still be swamped and the residents will have to relocate, regardless of what happens.  “Migration with dignity” was an oft-spoken concept by the island nations of the south Pacific.  Before he left office, President Tong orchestrated the purchase of 20 sq km on Vanua Levu, one of the Fiji islands, about 2,000km away, so that Kiribati peoples will have somewhere to go when their islands become uninhabitable.

One key challenge for the UNFCCC COP process is developing processes for gaining insight from local Indigenous knowledge and using that insight to create adaptation plans.  Solutions are not integrated in with the Indigenous communities. Chief Bill Erasmus of the Dene Nation Canada spoke about Indigenous peoples having created their own governments and institutions, but the UN only recognizes sovereign national governments, not Indigenous governments.  Simon Bradshaw of OXFAM, summarized the key actions that are required to avert the loss of many cultures threatened by climate change:   1) Minimizing Displacement 2) Upholding rights for people on the move 3) Supporting long-term strategies for safe and dignified migration, and 4) providing finance and resources for people forced to move.  The COP process is a long way from implementing these actions.

2) Practical actions to manage climate change risks and adapt to climate impacts at the local level are laughably inadequate.  Much of the current funding, such as through the UN’s Green Climate Fund (GCF) are focused on either carrying out country level emissions estimates (known as the Nationally Determined Contributions – or NDC’s) required for implementation of the Paris Agreement, or for reducing the risks of the private sector in developing low-carbon energy generation projects.  Very little is spent to actually help countries or communities adapt to climate change.  According to the African Development Bank, less than 3% of all funds committed to fund climate activities go to mitigating the increasing challenges to the peoples of Africa who are dealing with climate related flooding, desertification, droughts and declines in agricultural production.  Yet in Africa, wide swaths of population are migrating because of lack of food and water, lowered crop production and increased mortality of livestock due to drought.

Dr. Caroline Zickgraf, of the Hugo Observatory at the University of Liège, illustrated the dynamics of settlement of climate refugees. Climate migrants move into cities which are unprepared for providing services for the influx.  Tragically, these refugees are only able build makeshift houses in vacant areas that are themselves more prone to seasonal flooding and sea level rise.   These instances are repeated across the developing world from Cap Hatien in Haiti, to Senegal to Vietnam.  Just understanding the number of climate refugees spurred by drought, desertification, sea-level rise or coastal erosion poses a challenge – these migration flows are not necessarily permanent or international, making them difficult to capture or serve.

The GCF is only now starting to incorporate an Indigenous People’s Policy and assessing how best to assist these populations.

A map illustrating the number of climate refugees in each country.

3) Cities are making amazing strides with both mitigation and adaptation.  While a number of US cities have made strides in reducing their carbon emissions, the case studies presented COP which were the most compelling were of older, often European cities.  These cities practically demonstrated at the COP the path forward for urban centers to reduce emissions and develop low carbon transportation and energy systems.  The City of Helsinki, for example is carrying out an integrated approach to transportation in the city center through a combination of prohibiting parking on the street, driving new ride sharing programs, and fully integrating feeder systems to mass transit. This system is aiming at reducing to 4% the number of cars required to produce the same number of passenger trips.  The City of Leipzig demonstrated its unified inter-mobility system where customers at kiosks throughout the city can instantaneously see multiple transportation choices and trip durations for arriving at a specific destination through the use of tram, bus and rail service, as well as car sharing, bike sharing, and electric car fleet.  Leipzig expects to reduce solo car trips by over 50% by 2025.

To manage resilience in the face of climate change, cities are incorporating new technics for urban design.  John Schnellnhuber, the Director of Potsdam Institute for Climate Research, noted that single center cities are not as resilient as multi-central cities.   Cities which have multiple smaller urban centers and neighborhoods woven throughout the urban fabric, are able to manage the complex web of mobility far better than single center cities.

Cities don’t have the financial resources to meet these goals and targets and they need financial innovations.  The C40 Financial Innovation Initiative is aimed at driving and financing climate action plans.  Could there be a clean development bank for just cities? Mayors need access to funds outside of municipal coffers to initiate significant climate actions in cities.  Mayors are looking at urban planning policies, food policy for adapting cities to climate change and mitigating economic risk and enhancing food security.  There is interest from municipalities in being more inclusive with a broader array of stakeholders as part of their climate change strategy.  A very interesting comment from C40 is that mayors are becoming very concerned about the climate-induced migration trends inside their cities, as climate induced weather changes differentially impact various neighborhoods within a city’s limits.

4) Financial approaches to dealing with climate change are not addressing the key challenges.
At the COP, there were many sessions dealing with financing mitigation, and far fewer dealing with adaptation or the financial risks of climate change. But the physical risks of climate change are increasingly evident.  For example, the damage in 2017 from Hurricane Maria was was calculated at upwards of 90% of Dominica’s entire GDP.  This is on top of the damage imposed on the island in 2015 in which the destruction totaled 100% of GDP.  In Kenya, climate induced drought resulted in 2 million people fleeing their homes.  Between 2008 – 2011, Kenya lost $12 million due to a drought.  This impacted the most vulnerable and is overwhelming the country’s ability to manage losses.

The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts was set up at Warsaw in 2013 to mobilize finance for climate damages, to mitigate the financial impacts of migration due to climate change, and to deal with “slow onset” events and their impacts.  But so much more is needed than is currently available and the insurance industry is not really able to meet this challenge.  In addition, insurance is an unlikely support in response to slow impact events, such as gradual sea level rise.

5) US States are moving forward with clean carbon solutions, often through agreements with sovereign nations. Key governors from US States such as Jerry Brown from California, Kate Brown from Oregon and Jay Inslee from Washington, were everywhere at the conference talking about collaboration with multiple provinces of Canada and the nations of China, Germany and others.  It is one of the first instances where states, which disagree with federal policy, have set out on their own direction and formed agreements with sovereign nations to driver a clean economy.  These agreements are focused on technology transfers, private sector investments and policy discussions.  However, at this stage, the linkages between subnational entities (such as California) and national and regional entities around linking carbon markets are problematic.  The Paris agreement does not allow for subnational parties to sign agreements around carbon reductions.


Perhaps my most memorable moment from COP came from Bertrand Piccard, the pilot who flew around the world in zero carbon plane.  He said what we were lacking was not solutions, but rather a limit of imagination imposed by our existing paradigms of thought.  He noted that the first plane built by the Wright Brothers was constructed of wood and cotton (canvas).  So, he said the Egyptians could have flown in gliders if it wasn’t for religious paradigms that said that flying was only for gods and birds.  Leonardo da Vinci designed flying machines that would work – but he was unable to build them because authorities (i.e. the Vatican) wouldn’t approve of human flight.  It wasn’t until we threw away conventions and paradigms of the past that Orville and Wilbur first created a plane in 1903.  Innovation isn’t so much imagination, it’s about throwing out limitations and paradigms of the past.  If we as a planet, are to prevent the mass extinction of Indigenous cultures and make our cities of the future livable and resilient in the face of climate change, we need to throw out our limitations about what is practical and possible.