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Environment

What to Expect From the Paris Climate Talks, and Why They're More Important Than Ever

Earlier in the year, the Paris climate agreement faced a setback when US President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the global framework that aims to keep human-induced climate change in check.

The US is the second largest annual emitter of greenhouse gas emissions behind China and the largest all-time emitter. Losing such a significant player seemed like it could send the whole agreement into a death spiral of shirked commitments.

But since then, countries from China to France to India have reaffirmed their commitments under the plan, and, so far, no country has followed the US. In fact, Nicaragua has since joined the coalition, bringing the total committed members back up to 195, and making the US and Syria the only outliers.

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Negotiators from various countries are meeting from Nov. 6-17 for the third annual round of talks of the Paris climate agreement in Bonn, Germany.

“Think of it like constructing a highway,” said Paula Caballero, global director of the climate program at the World Resources Institute in a conference call for reporters. “The negotiators will be paving the road and making the road signs and markers so countries know what the journey looks like, how to get there, and how fast to go.”

“We have less than three years to bend the trajectory of emissions downwards to avoid the very worst consequences [of climate change],” she said.  

The conference, known as COP23, is taking place against a background of world events showing how urgent the agreement is: record-breaking carbon levels in the atmosphere, record heat levels, the series of hurricanes that swept through the Atlantic Ocean over the past few months, and more.

Here are five things to expect from the talks:


1/ Clarified Rules

The “rule-book” of the Paris climate agreement has a lot of gaps. That’s largely because countries submitted their own commitments back in 2015 without any sort of standardized procedures.

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So negotiators in Bonn will try to formalize rules for measuring and cutting emissions; tracking, updating, reporting, and reviewing commitments; and devising enforcement mechanisms.

“The world needs to get clear rules and a very defined playing field,” said Caballero.


2/ Financing

The Paris climate agreement calls on members to support global funds for adaptation and mitigation to help vulnerable countries that can’t fund efforts on their own.  

In Bonn, negotiators will seek to improve financing for programs like the United Nations Green Climate Fund and other adaptation efforts and to bolster green bond markets, which invest in green infrastructure projects and renewable energy.

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Wealthier nations have committed to send $100 billion a year in aid to poor countries by 2020. Since US President Donald Trump vowed to cut funding to the Green Climate Fund earlier in the year, negotiators will have to figure out how to make up for the “Trump gap,” according to the World Resources Institute.

“Our sense is that this will of course not be helpful, but there are ways to get more money out of the system,” said David Waskow of WRI. “It’s not helpful, but it’s not catastrophic. On the whole, the numbers suggest we’re two thirds of the way to 2020.”


3/ An Emphasis on Small Islands

Although the talks are taking place in Germany, Fiji is the designated host of COP23, and the plight of small island nations will be a theme throughout the event.

Small island nations like Palau and Fiji are the least responsible for, yet the most vulnerable to, climate change, whether it’s through the increasing likelihood of extreme storms or rising sea levels that threaten to make life uninhabitable. This paradox will be central to the talks.

“This is the first time ever that a small island has presided over the negotiations,” said Andrew Stern, president of WRI, in the conference call. “This is an important backdrop.”


4/ Catching Up to the Real World

While the Paris climate agreement is a historic achievement in the fight against climate change, the voluntary and vague nature of commitments made through the framework means that much of the climate action that’s happening in the world is happening independently, according to WRI.

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Throughout the talks, negotiators will take stock of the ways in which communities, cities, and states are taking action on climate change and reassess commitments.

For instance, more than 7,500 cities have committed to their own climate action plans.

“Parallel to [COP23] is the real world,” Stern said. “Sometimes it’s the negotiators leading, sometimes it’s the real world leading. When Paris came, it nudged the private sector to move forward and now there’s so much going out there.”


5/ The US Will Be a Wild Card

The US hasn’t yet formally withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement and negotiators from the country will be active during the talks.

Leading the US contingent will be the diplomat Thomas Shannon, who has called climate change “one of the world’s great challenges.”

Those in Bonn may ultimately wait to engage with the US next September when California hosts a Global Climate Action Summit to fill in for the US’s receding place.