COP23 – will it be enough?

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Size of Wales Director, Rita Singh feeds back her thoughts after visiting COP 23 in Bonn.

After attending my first Climate Conference in Bonn last week I have come away with mixed feelings on our capacity to halt or even reverse the impacts of climate change on our planet.

It goes without saying that the delegates are fully aware of the urgency of the need to act – especially in light of disturbing figures published this week which showed that after three years of emissions levelling off, emissions are projected to grow by 2% this year.

There were encouraging signs of the critical role of our natural carbon capture technology – forests – and the need to focus harder on protecting, preserving and growing them. The Conference dedicated one of the COP23 days as #ForestsDay with many nations pledging to protect their tropical forests, including among those who signed upto IUCN’s #BonnChallenge, as well as finance institutions starting to put in place the right incentives to support ‘nature based solutions’.

So the question remains that is the collective response enough and how can the Paris Agreement be implemented successfully? Much now rests on leadership, clear communication on the need to act, and fundamentally, a finance system that drives climate action, alongside an “economic development” that no longer externalises environmental and wider social costs.

A call on leaders to act NOW

There were some incredibly impassioned speeches from leaders – not just global leaders but also from heads of cities, regions and local communities. The most honest assessment of the challenge was possibly a heartfelt call by the COP Presidency, this year held by the Prime Minister of Fiji, Frank Bainimarama:

“Climate Change should not be treated as an environmental issue, it is a peace and security issue…it is a human rights issue’

Of course, delegates views on the American response to the Paris agreement was never far away but in many ways this brought the COP23 ‘community’ closer with a common cause to fight those who denied irrefutable evidence of climate change – a ‘community’ of other nations as well as states, regions and NGOs including those from America.

Peace, Security and Sustainability?

With representatives from many of the Small Island States (SIDs) around the world, the urgency of the need to act now on both adaptation and mitigation was loud and clear – many talking of the recent devastation that their islands have faced, where within hours, livelihoods were destroyed and families torn apart.

Maldives also shared the devastation of the 2004 Tsunami which wiped out 80% of their GDP within two hours! There were also solutions presented on the table, including an example from Aceh, Indonesia shared by Eric Solheim, Head of UN Environment who talked about the leadership drive taken by Government in their restoration efforts and co-ordination of support by other nations and international agencies. The Tsunami cost the lives of over 200,000 people on this small island alone. In the restoration response that followed, front and foremost was to meet the needs of the people, not the wants of the donors. The disaster and the recovery that followed also saw positive socio-political changes as it brought an end to a long-running conflict in the area, which still holds. The phased approach to development has led to much more sustained growth in the area, along with valuable experience for the Government to respond to similar tragedies which has followed since in the Indonesian islands.

However at the same time, an end to conflict hasn’t always seen positive environmental responses as the example from Columbia showed, where since the peace deal last year between FARC and Columbian Government deforestation rates have increased to around 44%, with the forested land being converted for agriculture and cattle ranching. Many felt that the fault lay fundamentally with our economic modelling:

“How can we solve the problem of climate change with a model of development that is destructive,” Sonia Guajajara, National Co-ordinator, Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil.

The voice of indigenous people

The important role of finance, based on an economic model that values our ecosystem and natural resources, and the voice of local and indigenous people were some of the strongest messages coming through from the Conference. Many also questioned why indigenous people didn’t have a seat at the negotiating table. It is widely recognised that indigenous people are the real custodians of our forests and are central to the fight against deforestation – a new report has highlighted that deforestation rates inside forests legally managed by Indigenous Peoples and communities are 2 to 3 times lower than in other forests.

Gender and future generations

Representation was also a key issue throughout the conference with voices from future generations – where young children protested with placards demanding that the deal works for them and the generations to come after them, not just for us. We also had discussions on the role of women especially as the impact of climate change is likely to affect women more in developing countries who often have to travel far to collect firewood and water – and so the launch of Gender Action Plan is welcomed. Role of women at the negotiating table was also called for recognising that only 38% of the delegates gathered were women (an apparent improvement on previous years).


Talk v action

For me, however, the biggest challenge rests with implementation – nations have signed and ratified the agreement but now comes the time to make it happen.  Even the commitment that nations have submitted isn’t enough to meet the Paris Agreement so some tough choices need to be made and for this leadership at all levels is needed. It was therefore reassuring that the role of ‘non-state actors’ like businesses, NGOs and regional governments was recognised as a strong driver for action from the ‘ground up’.

On reflection

Some of the challenges that I see coming through are how we stop creating new ‘issu-based initiatives’ but focus in on the main causes and find opportunities within. For example, an economic model that reflect climate action is imperative however many of the debates talked about a variety of economic models describing ‘well-being economy’, ‘gender economy’, ‘forest economy’, ‘circular economy’ – what about ‘an economy’ that addresses these issues and not externalises them.

While the Climate Conference finally confronted the F-word – Forests, Females, Finance, and Future Generations – the question remains: will the talks turn to real action…in my generation and not the next?!


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