Climate Change Talks 2017 - What is COP23?


Thousands of people have converged on Bonn, Germany, for COP23, the annual United Nations summit on climate change. What is COP 23 and why should we care?

Climate change is a global crisis like nothing humans have seen before. COP23 stands for the 23rd ‘Conference of the Parties’, the 23rd in a series of similar climate talks. This happens within the UNFCCC or ‘UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’ - basically the UNFCCC is a plan and legal framework to seriously deal with climate change as a global society. The UNFCCC was agreed in 1992 in Brazil and has been built upon each year. It came over 30 years after climate change was given serious international political treatment by the UN in 1961 [1]. The well-known ‘Kyoto Protocol’ was agreed in 1997 at a UNFCCC summit.

The talks are attended by politicians and diplomats representing almost 200 countries, with over 11,000 delegates in 2017 [2]. Many, many, other groups are present as NGOs (e.g. the World Wildlife Fund, Oxfam, universities, business groups, unions) [3], IGOs (‘intergovernmental organisations’ such as the OECD and OPEC) [4], and media organisations. Notably, every year there are large, lively, demonstrations to put pressure on negotiations and inform the public of what is really happening. While it can feel like ‘no one is doing anything’, global, grassroots, resistance is growing every year. This is good, but resistance needs to be much greater if we are to properly deal with climate change.

Following the Paris Agreement

Very important context for this year’s talks is a major milestone in 2015, known as the Paris Agreement or Paris Accord. Nations agreed that they were obligated to keep global temperatures below a certain level, and also officially recognised the scientific consensus on climate change [5] [6]. This was important for two main reasons: First, the Kyoto Protocol had failed. It aimed to decrease global CO2 emissions by 5% in 2012 compared to 1990 [7]. By Paris in 2015, they had increased by 60%. Second, a wave of disinformation (climate change denial) and lobbying by big oil and big agriculture had seriously set back progress.

However, despite the success of achieving an agreement in hostile conditions, the Paris Agreement was denounced by many people, including top climate scientists, as too little too late. Dr. James Hansen called it a fraud [8]. This is for 2 main reasons, 1) that the target is too dangerous, and 2) that there is little chance of us even reaching it.

The aim is to prevent global average temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius more than before the industrial revolution. This is because global average temperature is an indicator for how much the climate has changed, with a larger deviation representing a greater threat, higher sea levels, more extreme weather, crop failure, etc. Fossil fuel emissions kicked off during the industrial revolution, so temperature is compared to before then (the year is officially taken to be 1750). Scientists like Hansen and Prof. Michael Mann have criticised this target of 2 degrees as way too unambitious, too dangerous.

This goal is to be achieved by nations submitting their own plans and their own targets (called ‘NDCs’, or ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ – lots of jargon around these climate talks). The advantage of this voluntary approach was that it was easier to get nations to agree. The disadvantage is that when you add up all the NDCs, it means we’re majorly missing our target of 2 degrees. Progress is being made, but we’re on course currently for 3.5 degrees or higher, missing the critical target by a wide margin - like landing your plane in a ditch rather than the runway [9].

At COP 23, now, these plans are being reviewed and built upon, as well as the Kyoto Protocol. Infamously, Donald Trump formally committed to pulling out of the Paris Agreement earlier in 2017. The US must wait until 2020 to legally pull out though. This would make the US the only UNFCCC nation on Earth not to be a signatory of the Paris Agreement. Over its whole history, the US has emitted the most CO2 of all countries. The US diplomatic service have travelled to Germany to say what the coal, gas, and nuclear, industries want them to say [10]. However, a substantial contingent of Americans is attending COP 23 to counterpoise the climate change deniers, under the banner of ‘We Are Still In’ [11].

Hope Comes from Action

People often find these issues depressing and avoid it. That’s understandable but it’s not a good idea. If we close our eyes and let the politicians and the lobbyists decide what happens, the future is grim. But knowledge is power, and if we inform ourselves, stick together, and get up and do something, we can change the world, just as we’ve done many other times. In Ireland, the havoc of Hurricane Ophelia is fresh in our memory [12] [13]. We have to ask ourselves: ‘what am I willing to do to stop this?’. If not for ourselves, for the children yet to be born who had no hand in destroying the biosphere, and for the poor across the world who are already being devastated. Hope is created through action, and every person can act.



References / Notes

[1] A detailed overview of international climate talks and agreement before the UNFCCC was agreed in 1992.

[2] EcoWatch.

[3] If you’re interested in what kind of NGOs attend these talks.

[4] If you’re interested in what kind of IGOs attend these talks.

[5] The full text of the Paris Agreement if you’re interested.

[6] A brief and easy overview by the UN of the Paris Agreement here.

[7] Delivering on 2 Degrees C, Kevin Anderson. If you feel you don’t know much about climate change, check out his stuff.

[8] The Guardian.

[9] Climate Action Tracker.

[10] Interview with Billy McKibben of, Democracy Now!

[11] We Are Still In.

[12] While it is impossible to say a particular weather event is due to climate change, there is a connection between climate change and hurricanes. For instance, hurricanes begin in the ocean. Warmer waters means more water vapour, and more ‘fuel’ for the hurricane.

[13] WSM video during Hurricane Ophelia.