The COP process (I): Acronyms, Actions, and Agreements

by Elizabeth Dirth and Alexander Pfeiffer

The concept of the Conference of the Parties (COP) on climate change was born shortly after the establishment of the UNFCCC in 1992 as governance mechanism for the convention. Engagement with and participation in the UNFCCC and the COPs has grown over time to the point where today all countries that are parties to the UNFCCC participate in the process. This is can be helpful but also hindering for the negotiations because although universal membership to the convention increases its legitimacy as a multilateral governance mechanism, it also makes agreement an extreme challenge.

The Conference of the Party process is essential to follow up on all the various agreements and commitments that have been made by the parties through the lifetime of the framework convention. There are a range of meetings that focus on specific aspects of the overall agreements that amount to a confusing muddle of acronyms and make the process widely incomprehensible to the general public. However, the distilled-down version of what is being reported by the media, doesn’t, while avoiding the infinite list of acronyms and jargon, actually do justice the complicated process that takes place during these annual sessions.

During these annual sessions Ministers, legal teams, Heads of State and others. thrash out details to various commitments and agreements on climate change that are incredibly technical and specific. While there is space for observer organisations such as NGOs to witness the process, the majority of the important decisions and negotiations happen in closed meetings to which the outside world doesn’t have access.

Over time these closed door meetings have come to be a symbol of many things: a symbol of the developed world excluding the developing world; a symbol of people and civil society being left out of the discussion, a symbol of international governance and diplomacy being a non-participatory process, a symbol of the lack of democracy in the international governance arena…. take your pick.

The reality is that behind these closed doors countries and parties often fight for their specific needs to be reflected in whatever agreement or outcome is being discussed. In this sense, in a process where 196 different stakeholders all see the problem through their own national frame, it is actually an incredible feat of multilateralism, diplomacy, goodwill, and care that anything is ever agreed on at all. This explains the decade in the wilderness experienced by the UNFCCC in the decade between the Doha Amendment and the Paris Agreement during which little progress was made.

At the end of the day, everybody wants something that is inclusive multilateralism. The Paris Agreement was a revival of this principle and it is important to the legitimacy of the COPs, the UNFCCC, the climate change agenda, and the UN more generally to have not only inclusive outputs, but also to have this process as a prove that multilateralism is still a principle that has a place in the 2016 geo-political landscape.

So, what is the specific desired output from Marrakech? We’ll write another longer piece on that question shortly but whatever will come out of this conference should include a compliance mechanism for the NDCs, stronger and better defined finance mechanisms for mitigation and adaptation, and a ratification by all parties of the Doha Amendment and the Second Commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.

Looking through the lens of international collaboration, Marrakech needs to build upon the Paris negotiations and continue to reinvigorate the spirit of multilateralism in order to achieve these required outcomes. Without implementation mechanisms in place, the Paris Agreement is a navigation system without a car, or a bicycle without pedals and wheels.

Elizabeth Dirth and Alexander Pfeiffer, delegates for Young European Leadership (YEL) at the COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco. Elizabeth is the current chair of the 2050 Climate Group, and studying for a MSc in Sustainable Development with a specific focus on international climate governance. Alex is a doctorate student at the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) at the Oxford Martin School.

Follow the YEL delegation at COP22 with their daily video blog. Catch all the team’s highlights and analysis here.

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