Looking back: what were the key results of the 46th intersessional UNFCCC conference? And what about forests?
by Naomi van den Berg
Now, a week after the finalization of the 46th intersessional climate change conference of the United Nations, plenty of time for reflection has passed. This means it is time for a good recap of the conference.
Such an international, multi-stakeholder platform may seem pretty overwhelming. Lots of different topics and documents were discussed, many of which require a second, third or fourth (or umpteenth time, no one is judging) thorough reading. Granted, with a few ‘wait, what does this acronym stand for again?’ moments before they start to make sense. Therefore, for you, the fellow foresters, I composed a short overview of the key achievements reached at this conference, both at the general level and the more forest-specific level. Hopefully, this will help you get more familiarized with what exactly happens at UNFCCCs and what IFSA’s contribution to this conference has been. Ultimately, basically, why the F in UNFCCC should stand for forest instead of framework.
Alright, so the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) embodies the climate talks done at an international (and multi-stakeholder) level. Diplomats flying over from all parts of the world gathered this month in Bonn, Germany, in order to further prepare themselves for the next Conference of Parties (COP), of which the 23rd edition will take place November this year. Indeed, meeting once a year at the COPs alone is not enough to discuss something as complicated and dynamic as climate change. These intersessional meetings – even though they may seem less cool than the COPs – are now vital for the success of the execution and operationalizing the Paris Agreement. A pretty indispensable underdog of a conference if you ask me.
So okay, operationalizing… yet another fancy word. What it means is the following: the Paris Agreement needs to be implemented, and for this to happen in clear pathways, we also need a very, very clear set of rules. This set of rules, however, has a deadline: namely COP24 (November 2018). You may think: ‘ah, well, that is pleeeeenty of time! No sweat!’ Well, yes sweat. Because the negotiations leading up to such official, binding documents are slow. Although this progress may be slow, it is definitely steady.
A special aspect about this UNFCCC, is that it was the first one that took place in the ‘era’ of Trump’s administration. Peculiar? The USA sent a way smaller group of delegates to Bonn (a mere 7 as opposed to 44 last year). Trump, a climate change skeptic, now leader of a big country that significantly steers climate change’s future course. The same guy promised his voters to pull the USA out of the Paris Agreement. And yes, this fact led to an increased level of uncertainty among those countries whose representatives actually do care about the celebrated and deemed ‘historic’ Paris Agreement. But everyone realizes that this historic value of the Paris Agreement lays in the fact the large actors, the big guys, all ratified it. With the leading greenhouse gas emitter, the USA, pulling out of the contract, the fear of a potential domino effect is not a completely irrational one.
Trump pulling the plug out of the Paris Agreement?
However, besides some worrisome signs, the actual pulling of the plug has not been done yet. And maybe, Trump will take the subtle hint provided by the Pope (May 24th, a few days ago) and actually never live up on his campaign pledge. For now, we remain hopeful, with a slight yet incessant eye on the USA.
Okay, so this set of rules, what do they govern? They mainly govern matters of communicating, monitoring and financing climate mitigation (reducing factors leading up to climate change) and adaptation (alleviating response to climate change impacts) efforts. How will countries be held accountable for their promises? How can the most successful transfer and transparency of technology be realized? What about tracking and registering carbon emissions? A start to formulating these rules was made at the COP22 conference, a year after the Paris Agreement was born at the COP21 conference.
The official concluding statement released by UNFCCC outlines the many more in-detail stepping stones that were achieved during this intersessional. For example, further boarding up of rules regarding adaptation was accomplished through interactive Technical Expert Meetings on Adaptation (TEMA). And yes, we were able to contribute to these sessions, facilitated by Musonda Mumba –important figure within UNEP – in which we were able to ask questions to the country delegates present, but also to those representing non-governmental organizations (such as the private sector). Our contributions, as stated by Mumba, would be processed in the official documents that serve as the basis of COP23. This may sound pretty far-fetched, but this type of platform did allow us, the foresters, to ask questions about for example (trans-national) forest management. After all, both climate mitigation and adaptation cannot exclude forests.
The conference was concluded with a lengthy plenary session, in which each of the agenda items + amendments to the documents, such as SBSTA (Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice), were taken to the floor for each country to give some final comments on. For example, one of the stepping-stones reached in this conference was successful furthering the negotiations regarding the Paris Agreements’ goal to enhance transparency.
However, some obstacles are often still in the very fundamentals of the commitment associated with the Paris Agreement. For instance, the nature of certain commitments is formulated as “on a voluntary basis”, which of course is very much up to the country’s own interpretation. The legal pretentions are frankly countless to a law layperson like me.
Another light in an otherwise dark and twisty tunnel that is called climate finance, is offered in the form of a 800 million euro donation by the European Union for the sake of “increasing cooperation” to struggling countries in the Pacific region (this region will be in the spotlight the next COP, as it will be organized by Fiji). This fund is i.a. meant to help climate adaptation and mitigation strategies in this region get off the ground.
And now, more specifically of interest to us, the foresters: what about carbon? A big point on the agenda for this intersessional conference in Bonn was Article 6 of the Paris Agreement regarding the formulation of a global carbon stock market. Carbon pricing is a difficult discussion and we expect that this discussion will take some time to be finalized, however, current issues with the concept have been identified and captured in the informal notes. This will form an important basis for the continuation of the discussion during COP23. This discussion has included mentions of capturing carbon and the idea of negative carbon emissions (see my blog post: Carbon, carbon, carbon and a billion trees). And yes, capturing carbon requires some serious (re)considerations of forest restoration and management.
Alright, now, let’s come back to IFSA’s part in all of this. In particular during technical expert meetings, IFSA’s voice was heard. These meetings often allowed for a more in depth discussion, as they are ‘technical’ in nature. These meetings often take more than a day and discuss a specific part of the APA (Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement) to ultimately ameliorate it or complement it. Representing forestry students, we found it important that our voice was heard and actively reciprocated. This way, we put pressure on the international community at the UNFCCC to talk about forests.
So yes, forests will be discussed during the next big climate conference: COP23. And I am eager to see how this discussion will translate to a bigger inclusion of forestry in supranational climate adaptation and mitigation policies! I hope by now you are too. Let the F in UNFCCC stand for Forest!
 The US delegate did restate during this intersessional that Trump is not planning on continuing the USA’s contribution to the Green Climate Fund – the previously promised 2 billion dollar will most likely be cut.
Hirji, Z. (2017, May 19). Fight Over Fossil Fuel Influence in Climate Talks Ends With Murky Compromise. Inside Climate News. Retrieved from https://insideclimatenews.org/news/18052017/paris-climate-talks-fossil-fuel-influence-conflict-interest
 More specifically: the ‘enhanced transparency framework’, as was formulated in the Paris Agreement. Van Asselt, H., Weikmans, R., Roberts, T., & Abeysinghe, A. (2016). Putting the ‘enhanced transparency framework’ into action: Priorities for a key pillar of the Paris Agreement.