COP23 Moves the Oceans from the Blue Zone to the Green Zone

Oceans Action Day. The one day in a climate change conference where the oceans become the center of discussion. Considering that 75% of the Earth’s surface is composed of oceans and that oceans absorb 25% of carbon dioxide emissions and 90% of heat associated with climate change, it was a wonder that the UNFCCC’s Conference of the Parties did not put much emphasis on oceans until present. But, now it has and it ended with a bang.

The Original Signatories: Aruba, Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Fiji, France, Guinea, Bissau, Kiribati, Madagascar, Mexico, Monaco, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Palau, Peru, Senegal, Seychelles, Spain, Sweden.

The Original Signatories: Aruba, Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Fiji, France, Guinea, Bissau, Kiribati, Madagascar, Mexico, Monaco, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Palau, Peru, Senegal, Seychelles, Spain, Sweden.

After a full day of side events on Resilience of Fisheries and Aquaculture, Blue Carbon, and Ecosystem-based Adaptation in Ocean and Coastal Zones, among other things, the Oceans Action Day at COP23 concluded with four more countries signing the Because The Ocean” Declaration. Today, the UK, Finland, Honduras, and Romania signed the declaration, committing themselves to work on three common objectives: A Special Report on the Ocean by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, the U.N.Sustainable Development Goals Conference in Fiji in June 2017, and the elaboration of an ocean action plan under the UNFCCC. These countries, along with 22 others, also commit themselves to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and Sustainably Use the Oceans, Seas and Marine Resources for Sustainable Development. This Declaration stems from all Parties’ obligation under the UNFCCC to “promote sustainable management, and promote and cooperate in the conservation and enhancement, as appropriate.”

Five countries, in the face of increasingly devastating hurricanes, do not seem much in terms of number. However, they demonstrate that Parties under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement are aware that oceans are an integral part of addressing the effects of global climate change. It would seem that Fiji has delivered, at least through COP 23, on its promise to emphasize the importance of oceans. Hopefully, this new energy will translate into nations moving “further, faster together.”


Don’t You Forget CGE

Before Nationally Determined Contributions and Capacity-Building, there was the Consultative Group of Experts. The Consultative Group of Experts was established by the 5th Conference of the Parties under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. The CGE is the key technical support element under the UNFCCC that assists developing country Parties in meeting their reporting obligations. It provides developing country Parties with technical advice and support to improve their national communications (NCs) and biennial update reports (BURs).

The CGE, being mandated by the UNFCCC in 1999, was supposed to terminate by 2009. After getting reconstituted once (2009 to 2012) and extended twice (2012 to 2013, 2014 to 2018), will reach the end of its mandate next year, when the Implementing Guideline for the Paris Agreement are intended to go into effect. Its Five-Year Work Programme from 2015-2018 focused on five key priorities: (1) Building the capacity of developing country Parties to facilitate implementation of Measurement, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) arrangements under the UNFCCC; (2) enhance the sustainability of the national communications of the national communications and biennial update report process; (3) enhance collaboration and cooperation with other global initiatives; (4) enhance communication and outreach; and (5) enhance availability of resources and optimal working arrangements for the operations of the CGE.

Thus far, the CGE has conducted successful regional workshops in Africa and in Asia, involving 52 non-Annex I parties in total. These workshops were organized in collaboration with the Global Support Program. The CGE has also held webinars in collaboration with the Adaptation Committee (AC), the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). These webinars covered a wide range of topics relevant to non-Annex I Parties’ NCs and BURs, such as the MRV Framework and climate change scenarios. The CGE also has a free e-learning course on national GHG inventory systems, mitigation assessment, and vulnerability and adaptation assessment. These projects have allowed non-Annex I Parties like Indonesia and Uruguay to submit their respective NCs and BURs to the UNFCCC Secretariat.

Yet, despite all of CGE’s good work, non-Annex I Parties—now developing country Parties under the Paris Agreement—still lack important capacities that will put them in par with the reporting capabilities of the Annex I parties. The CGE’s 2017 Survey revealed that this lower capability in non-Annex I parties is a result several factors, the most prominent of which are insufficient resources and ineffective institutional arrangements. Governments in developing countries have tight purse strings and often suffer from high turn-over rates. Moreover, they often do not have local institutions that manage the entire reporting process. Financial concerns aside, the CGE attempts to address ineffective institutional arrangements by encouraging and helping developing countries establish these institutions and train their people. For countries with very limited capacity, assistance for the CGE is invaluable.

After all the beneficial work of the CGE, does it have a role to play under the Paris Agreement? The answer to that is simple: We do not know. Once the CGE’s Five-Year Mandate ends, the CGE ceases to operate, unless it is renewed for another period.

The Paris Agreement builds on the UNFCCC and will eventually supersede it. There is no provision in the Paris Agreement that bestows a role on the CGE. The Subsidiary Body for Implementation included this issue on its provisional agenda, but ultimately decided to hold it in abeyance. Therefore, the Parties will not discuss the fate of the CGE in COP 23. Unless the Parties decide to include the role of the CGE in its agenda for SBI 48, the CGE will not be featured in the Paris Agreement’s Implementation Guidelines. Furthermore, the Paris Agreement asks Parties to submit nationally determined contributions. This means that Parties decide on what to submit and how to submit, subject to the basic requirements laid out in the Agreement. Whether the CGE evolves to serve the Parties’ needs under the Agreement depends on whether the Parties remember that the CGE exists to help them.

This does not mean that the CGE will have absolutely no hand in the Parties’ progress towards their goals. The CGE trained some of the developing country Parties. They created material that get passed on from one developing country Party administration to the next. However the CGE’s story ends, the Parties should know that the Paris Agreement would not have been as successful without it.

Points of Divergence: Linkages and Differentiating Obligations under the Transparency Framework

The Transparency Framework under Article 13 of the Paris Agreement covers all components. At least, that is what the Agreement seems to say at first blush. However, as Parties begin to flesh out specific procedures, it is obvious that they disagree with the extent of the Transparency Framework’s coverage.

The Philippines, speaking for the G77 and China negotiating group, emphasized the importance of linking the procedures of the Framework with the provisions on financing. The Philippines went so far as to suggest that such a linkage should receive its own section. Article 9 of the Paris Agreement specifies the reporting requirements for developed country parties, which includes providing qualitative and quantitative information on financial resources to assist developing country Parties in their mitigation and adaptation efforts. The Philippines urged the Parties to consider incorporating the developed country Parties’ obligation under Article 9.1 into the procedures of the Framework.

Credit to the World Resources Institute

Credit to the World Resources Institute

Not surprisingly, the European Union opposed conflating the developed country Parties’ obligations under different articles, stating that Parties come into dangerous fields when they do so. In the European Union’s perspective, the language in Article 9 that refers to biennial reporting obligations is referenced only in party submissions. At most, the procedures in the Transparency Framework can include the Article 9 provisions as an inherent part of the information to be reported under Article 13.9. It does not warrant its own section with subsequent provisions.

Another point of contention is the difference between the reporting requirements for developed country Parties that are mandated to provide support to developing country Parties and the reporting obligations of developing country parties that choose to provide such support. Article 13.9 of the Paris Agreement obligates developed country Parties to provide information on financial, technology transfer, and capacity-building support they provide. It does not impose the same obligation on developing country Parties. Parties do not dispute this. However, they disagree on whether developing country Parties that choose to provide support to fellow developing country Parties should report the same types and quantity of information as their developed country counterparts.

Unlike the issue of linkages mentioned above, developing country Parties negotiating this issue do not all believe that they should be subject to different reporting requirements for the support they provide. Brazil, in particular, stated that developed and developing country Parties should be subject to the same reporting obligations. However, developing country Parties should be afforded some amount of flexibility. Though the Parties are far from agreeing to this proposal, this seems to be a reasonable way of interpreting the text of Article 13.9, especially given Article 13’s emphasis on flexibility.

Further from this proposal is the view of some developed country Parties that the developed and developing country Parties should be subject to the same reporting requirements without any reference to flexibility or common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capacities (CBDR-RC). Developing country Parties are under no obligation to provide support to others. Their decision to extend support is purely discretionary. Such discretion removes special considerations. While this interpretation is logically sound, it moves further away from the language of the Agreement and is unlikely to meet any significant support.

Overall, progress in establishing the procedures for the Article 13 Transparency Framework has been moving at a glacial pace. Yet, move it has. After much grandstanding in the last few days, it would seem that Parties have calmed enough to openly express agreement on some simple areas. Momentum and urgency will continuously build as Parties approach the end of this negotiating session.

Where Parties Agree: Governance as an Overarching Issue in the Global Stock Take

The Global Stock Take is a collective assessment of the Parties’ progress in capping carbon emissions to 1.5°C. Article 14 provides that the Global Stock Take should take place first in 2023 and then every five years after that. However, the Global Stock Take cannot happen if there are no modalities, procedures, or guidelines (MPGs) that dictate how it works. The MPGs are what Parties have set themselves to establish by COP24. So far, they have only agreed on one thing: that governance is an overarching issue in the GST.

IPCC Climate Change Synthesis Report 2014Governance in the context of the GST pertains to managing the information collected from the Parties. Such information range from the Green House Gas Inventories to information provided for the reporting requirements under the Transparency Framework. Recently, the Subsidiary Body for Science and Technological Advice (SBSTA) recommended that Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA) should include the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) reports and assessments among the information to be considered in the GST. The addition of information from constitutive bodies enhances the GST, but also complicates potential modalities: Who bears the burden of evaluating this information? To make matters even more complicated, Parties are considering splitting the GST process into two phases: the technical phase and the political phase. Should there be two separate governing bodies for each phase?

Some parties are of the view that the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties (CMA) should evaluate the information, regardless of the phase in which the information was submitted. However, the CMA only meets once a year. The GST needs a governing body that can meet whenever there is a requirement to meet. Other parties are of the view that the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) and SBSTA should evaluate the information submitted in the technical phase of the GST. However, other constitutive bodies are already reviewing information on mitigation, adaptation, and their respective modes of implementation. Asking SBI/SBSTA to then review the same information for GST seems redundant.

Carlos Fuller (Belize), Chair of the Subsidiary Body for Science and Technological Advice

Carlos Fuller (Belize), Chair of the Subsidiary Body for Science and Technological Advice

Tomasz Chruszczow (Poland), Chair of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation

Tomasz Chruszczow (Poland), Chair of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation

Discussions over technical matters are already fraught with underlying tension. This is likely because the GST touches on the Principle of Equity. The GST will reveal who is doing what and by how much, which means that Parties will know whether they are all shouldering their “fair share” of advancing the collective goal. As Parties begin considering equity and its impacts on the GST, the proposals on who should govern the GST process may become contentious.

Equity Takes Center Stage in Global Stock Take Discussions

In determining the modalities, procedures, and guidelines for the Global Stock Take under Article 14 of the Paris Agreement, equity is the name of the game. Parties joining the first informal consultation on the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement on November 7, 2017 have repeatedly mentioned the need for considering the impact of applying the principle of equity to the Global Stock Take. With the Transparency Framework’s emphasis on flexibility and the differentiation between the reporting requirements of the developed and developing parties, one would think that defining equity should be easy. This has not been the case.

Experts on the principle of equity were asked to weigh in on the matter at a side event held later the same day. These experts agree that equity in the Global Stock Take involves accounting for each Party’s “fair share” of the burden of curbing Green House Gas omissions so as to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius target temperature. However, they do not agree on what “fair share” means.

Dr. Allison Doig of the Christian/ACTCOVER Alliance expressed the view that, in light of the urgency in which all Parties must begin addressing climate change, “fair share” means that Parties must “do more.” Parties will do things differently, but they must “do more.” According to a report published by the Civil Society Review, developing countries carry their “fair share” of the burden when they dramatically deepen their domestic mitigation and when they support developing countries’ actions to do the same. This is so because developing country Parties have expressed their willingness to do more, but they lack the capacity to achieve their goals. According to Dr. Doig, developing country Parties can only succeed with the help of developed countries and to carry their fair share, developed countries must extend help.

Prof. Ottmar Edenhofer of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research did not completely agree. To him, equity can only be achieved when Parties can measure and compare similar efforts done with similar technology. Current Nationally Determined Contributions do not reflect this, as Parties determine the point from which they will calculate their emission targets. Different times will have different technologies. Therefore, efforts based on NDCs are incomparable and cannot be the basis for determining equity. For Prof. Edenhofer, the answer to the issue of determining equity is an internationally harmonized carbon pricing.

Carbon prices, unlike NDCs, are comparable and transparent. If Parties can agree to carbon prices, equity can be easily determined through the Equal Effort Principle. Under this Principle, those that have to spend more to mitigate their carbon emissions will be compensated by the Green Climate Fund for their efforts. Those that can spend less to do the same will have to donate to the GCF. Their donations will go towards those who cannot easily afford to install emissions reduction technology. This way, all Parties are required to put the same amount of effort in curbing their emissions and no one country disproportionately bears the burden.

At the moment, these views are merely theoretical. Parties are still in the early stages of developing the modalities for the Global Stock Take. However, Parties need to begin looking into mechanisms for determining equity and fair share like the ones summarized above if they are to incorporate equity into the Global Stock Take.


Fishing on Savage Seas

The next big war will not be over highfalutin ideologies. Depleted natural resources will force vulnerable countries to fight for basic goals: food and economic security. The struggle will intensify as climate change affects natural resource distribution. Changes in distribution are dangerous, especially for countries whose economies are dependent on unpredictable resources like fish.

National vulnerability to the impacts of climate change on marine fisheries.

National vulnerability to the impacts of climate change on marine fisheries.

A recent study revealed that Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change on fisheries. Analyzing 147 states and their respective EEZs, the study found that SIDS held seven of the top ten positions in the study’s vulnerability index. Moreover, the index includes all 31 of the LDCs with coastlines, with 87% of those LDCs belonging to the top half.

A separate study found that disparities in vulnerability levels, when paired with poor governance, tend to result in unrest and violent conflict. Poor governance results in poor resource management. Poor resource management leads to overfishing. Overfishing results in scarcity, which drives more people to the coasts and out into contentious waters. The fact that territorial boundaries do not consider traditional fishing routes only exacerbates the problem.

Vietnamese fishing boats caught illegally fishing of Palau's coasts. (Photo by Jeff Banube, The Pew Charitable Trusts)

Vietnamese fishing boats caught illegally fishing of Palau’s coasts. (Photo by Jeff Banube, The Pew Charitable Trusts)

These results are more than mere variables scientists feed into a formula. On the oceans, the battle over marine resources has already begun. Empty fisheries along coastlines have pushed fishermen further out to sea – sometimes into dangerous waters owned and closely guarded by other states. Just this April, Indonesia blew up 81 fishing vessels operated by Vietnamese, Filipino, and Malaysian fishermen. Last year, Argentina sank a Chinese fishing vessel caught illegally fishing in restricted South American waters. In 2015, Palau burned Vietnamese fishing vessels poaching off Palau’s coasts. The frequency of these incidents hints at a bigger, more serious problem that the international community has only begun to address.

Mitigating climate change is an obvious solution to this problem. However, achieving the two-degree-celsius goal of the Paris Agreement is only part of the answer. The other part consists of finding a way to manage marine resources equitably and sustainably. And, several states have begun doing just that.

From June 5-7, 2017, Fiji and Sweden co-hosted the first Oceans Conference at the U.N. Headquarters in New York. It was convened pursuant to UN Resolution 70/1 of September 25, 2015, adopting Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. One of the goals is to  “[c]onserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”  This goal, termed Goal 14, ambitiously sets out to effectively end overfishing and illegal fishing practices, and implement the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Oceans Conference encourages stakeholders – consisting of the UN System, state actors, and non-state actors – to register voluntary commitments to achieve Goal 14. There are currently over 1000 voluntary commitments registered in the Conference’s online platform, forty-four percent of which came from governments, including India and China.

This momentum will likely carry over to Fiji’s agenda in COP23. Speaking to Pacific Island leaders and diplomats in Suva, Fiji on March 2017, Fijian Prime Minister and COP23 President Voreqe Bainimarama said:

Prime Minister Bainimarama at the Climate Action Pacific Partnership (CAPP) event held in Suva, Fiji on March 2017. The event was organized to support and strengthen the participation of small island developing states in the Pacific in the global climate action agenda.

Prime Minister Bainimarama at the Climate Action Pacific Partnership (CAPP) event held in Suva, Fiji on March 2017.

“In a very real sense, we are fighting a two-front war. One front is the fight to keep the oceans clean and to sustain the marine plant and animal life on which we depend for our livelihoods and that keep the earth in proper balance . . . The other front is the fight to slow the growth of global warming and, unfortunately, also to adapt to the changes we know are coming – to rising seas, encroaching sea water, violent storms and periods of drought.”

The world’s oceans is a highly contentious area “governed” by a different set of international treaties. It is unlikely that the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement can address the problem on their own. However, the frequency of violent incidents at sea and the urgency of addressing this volatile situation calls for a unified and streamlined solution that cuts across multiple international agreements. The hope is that with Fiji – a small island developing state – at the helm of COP23, the oceans will finally receive the attention they deserve.