UN climate talks: challenging agenda ahead

Katie Kouchakji

After the high of the Paris Agreement in 2015, the next few years of climate negotiations would always be lower profile – yet just as important. Now that the agreement has been finalised, the hard work to create the rules and guidance it calls for will take time. Two years on, and with only a year remaining until the self-imposed deadline for implementation is upon governments, the November 2017 Conference of the Parties (COP) needed to advance the process.

The talks, presided over by the government of Fiji, did yield some results, most notably setting the framework for the facilitative dialogue on progress towards implementing the Paris Agreement, to take place over 2018.

Renamed the ‘Talanoa Dialogue’, to capture the Pacific island 'talanoa' spirit of inclusive and transparent discussion, this process will focus on three questions: where are we? Where do we want to go? How do we get there?

‘It was a COP of process, where they shaped out the next year,’ says Lisa DeMarco, a senior partner at DeMarco Allan in Toronto.

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The dialogue will feature a preparatory phase and a political phase, with the latter to be held during COP24 in Katowice, Poland in December 2018. Throughout the year, governments, experts and other stakeholders will be invited to make relevant submissions for discussion in May and again at COP24. The Fijian and Polish governments, in their capacities as COP23 and COP24 presidents, will prepare a synthesis report of the preparatory phase discussions and inputs. This will be used as the foundation for the ministerial talks, which will form the political phase. The aim of the dialogue is to inform and encourage governments to increase their emissions reduction goals under the Paris Agreement, through the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) review.

Marisa Martin is a Chicago-based associate at Baker McKenzie, which is acting as an adviser to the Fijian government for its COP presidency. She says that the push for an inclusive and transparent process is evidence of the Fijian influence on the process. ‘It’s all to encourage people to increase ambition,’ she says, speaking on behalf of the firm.

But what if there is not enough ambition? And how can this be judged? These are some of the issues legal observers are pondering. ‘Enforcement of the progressive objectives of the Paris Agreement … is going to be tricky for a lot of states,’ says Wendy Miles, a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton in London and Chair of the IBA Arbitration Committee’s Working Group on Climate Change. Miles suggests that reviews and revisions of NDCs is one scenario where there could be disputes between parties. Parties may ask, for example, ‘what does progressive mean, and how progressive is progressive?'

Key outcomes from the 2017 UN climate talks

  • Agreement and launch of the Talanoa Dialogue, to take stock of current pledges and climate actions with a view to encouraging governments to commit to more significant emissions cuts sooner
  • Launch of a local communities and indigenous peoples platform, to enhance engagement in the UN climate process, increase knowledge and ensure climate policies respect and promote the rights of local communities and indigenous people.
  • Creation of a gender action plan, which aims to establish a gender perspective in climate action, and increase gender balance across the process.
  • Mandates that two subsidiary bodies of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Subsidiary Body for Implementation and the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice, should work together to jointly address agricultural issues relevant to the reduction of harmful emissions. These include: food security, water management and sustainable agricultural systems. Back to top

Under Article 24 of the Paris Agreement, all disputes shall be settled in accordance with the provisions of Article 14 of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. That means, either by submission of the dispute to the International Court of Justice or via arbitration. Miles moderated a discussion about dispute settlement on the sidelines of the COP, amid concerns from some governments that ‘having the discussion now regarding dispute resolution is [as delicate as] discussing the pre-nup before the wedding,’ she says. ‘The diplomacy [around the Paris Agreement] is so sensitive that no one wants to upset that.’

But Miles argues that it is an important discussion to have, and to keep on the agenda. This will help to ‘normalise the conversation about a dispute resolution mechanism that exists to enforce the commitments that you’ve agreed to be bound by.’

Having a small island developing state as the president of a COP for the first time may have helped infuse the meeting with a sense of urgency. ‘There’s a moral imperative to move things along,’ says Martin, as Fiji is one of the nations already experiencing the impacts of climate change. ‘A lot of people were pleased that [the Fijian word] “Bula” infused the talks and that people worked in a collaborative way,’ she adds. In Fijian, Bula is widely used as ‘hello’, but literally means ‘life’.

However, the two weeks were not without their conflict. Ahead of the meeting, climate change news site Climate Home reported on sexual harassment at the UN talks, as women came forward with their stories as part of the #MeToo movement.

During the talks, in some negotiating streams, there were attempts by some male negotiators to silence female counterparts, which prompted strong reactions by others.

DeMarco says that this issue may shape next year’s COP, and may have motivated renewed calls for gender balance on party delegations, following limited progress after an initial work programme on gender was agreed at COP20 in Lima in 2014.

‘Everyone is on high alert to not allow that to happen again in any other negotiating streams,’ she says.

As for the Paris Agreement’s rulebook, there is confidence that this will be finalised by the end of 2018. ‘There’s a lot of pressure on Poland to get it done next year,’ says Martin. ‘There’s a lot to be done – but there’s a plan of action to get there.’

Katie Kouchakji is a freelance journalist and can be contacted on katie@kkecomms.com