COP23: What is it, who’s involved, and what does it mean for climate change?

Authors: Shrina Kurani, Katja Garson

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We know you have lots of questions about COP, and specifically COP23. Let’s dive in:

Let’s get the letters out of the way. What does ‘COP’ mean?

COP stands for Conference of the Parties. These conferences are held each year in the framework of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). UNFCCC COPs serve as the formal meeting of the UNFCCC Parties (or countries) to assess progress in dealing with climate change, and beginning in the mid-1990s, to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol to establish legally binding obligations for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

This year’s UNFCCC COP takes place from November 6-17 in Bonn, Germany.

Tell me about the UNFCCC.

The UNFCCC began in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio, when countries joined the framework as a way of working together internationally to tackle climate change. It entered into force in 1994. There are now 197 parties (or countries) within the UNFCCC framework. The UNFCCC hopes to combat climate change by limiting the rise in global temperatures through action taken on international and national levels.

How many COPs have there been, and what have been the results of previous COPs?

  • COPs began, logically, from number 1. The first UN Climate Change Conference (COP1) was held in 1995 in Berlin. So COP23 will be the twenty-third.

  • The Kyoto Protocol was adopted at COP3 in 1997, and entered into force in 2005. This Protocol is important because it sets binding emissions reduction targets for 37 industrialized countries. It has a principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’, which means that every country is responsible for reducing emissions, but developed countries need to do more than others because of their larger relative contribution to climate change.

  • COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 was a failure from the policy-making perspective.  There was a lot of talking, but hardly any listening, and the conference culminated in the rushed drawing-up of the Copenhagen Accord by a small group of countries behind closed doors. This Accord was not legally binding, did not legally require anyone to do anything, and did not take the views of all parties into account.

However, when you fall low there’s always room for improvement:

  • Since 2011 the meetings have been used to negotiate the Paris Agreement as part of the Durban platform activities, which created a path towards climate action.

  • COP21 in Paris saw the formation of the historic Paris Agreement. This entered into force on November 4th 2016. The Agreement brings all countries together to work on keeping temperature rise during this century below 2 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels. The Paris Agreement requires ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ (NDCs) from each country. These include regular reporting on the actions they’re taking.

What is special about this year’s UNFCCC COP?

With Fiji holding the presidency, it will be the first time that a Small Island Developing State has taken on this role. This is highly symbolic in a time when rising sea levels and a lack of resources/financial support threaten such nations, and will hopefully spur action which takes small nations’ needs into account..

Why is COP23 being held in Germany if Fiji has the presidency?

The presidency rotates between the five regional groups of the UN. This time it’s Asia-Pacific states’ turn, and Fiji was nominated. However, as a small island nation, Fiji quite simply does not have the space nor the facilities to host such a major conference.

Bonn is seen as the UNFCCC’s base. It is home to 19 UN agencies, more than 150 international organisations, and is the ‘seat’ of the UNFCCC secretariat.

How many countries attend COP?

At each COP there are representatives from the five recognized UN regions: Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Central and Eastern Europe, and Western Europe and Others. There are currently 196 Parties to the UNFCCC – in other words, 196 countries which can and do attend COP.

Who can go to COP?

Anyone can go if they have accreditation, the official documentation which allows you to enter the venue. It’s easiest to get accreditation if you attend with a delegation (an official group with a purpose which makes COP meaningful to them). The delegation lead will then be able to acquire accreditation for each of their delegates. Groups can include NGOs, youth groups, academic institutions, special interest groups, businesses, and, of course, governments.

Do young people get to attend?

Yes, young people can attend COP as long as they have accreditation. YEL is an example of a youth delegation, and there are many other youth delegations from around the world.

Furthermore, the Conference of Youth (COY), which takes place before each COP, is a space open to any young person who would like to attend either as an organisational representative, or as an individual. This is a great way to discuss and learn about environmental issues even if you’re not attending COP.

How long does COP last and what is the significance of each day?

COP lasts for two weeks, and this year it takes place from November 6-17.

Often, days are allocated a theme, for example the ‘indigenous peoples day’ or the ‘forests day’, to help organize the multiple side events on various topics which are hosted by different organizations and governments.

However, the negotiations still continue at their own pace and according to a pre-arranged negotiation schedule. It is not unusual for negotiations to take a very long time, and to overrun the original schedule. Negotiators frequently work into the night to agree on details in the last couple of days.

What is the conference space like?

COPs are generally held in large venues composed of a  series of rooms, public areas, and larger negotiating spaces. The space is split into two zones, one zone being where negotiation takes place, and the other being more openly accessible. This year the Bonn conference is divided between the Bula zone and the Bonn zone. The Bula zone will house the negotiating spaces and delegation offices, and the Bonn zone will house side events, exhibits, and media activities. The two zones will be connected by a corridor for easy transit. You still need accreditation in order to access either of these spaces.

What does COP23 hope to achieve?

This year there is an emphasis on collaboration and cooperation. COP23 President and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has called for the voices of those who are most vulnerable, including those from small nation states, to be heard, and for the resilience of these nations to be increased. He has also stated that he hopes that non-state actors can become more closely involved.

COP23 aims to advance work on the Paris Agreement, for example by pushing for technologies which will enable future economies to have net zero greenhouse gas emissions, as well as by accelerating collaborative action between all levels of society and organisational bodies.

What are the main barriers to achieving those goals?

A key challenge is, quite simply, trying to find solutions that all parties are happy with. As in Copenhagen, tension between developed and developing countries persists, with developing countries often claiming that the richer, more developed countries are not doing enough to pull their weight.

Although the ratification and entry into force of the Paris Agreement was a hard-earned achievement, making sure that all countries are able to implement it will be much trickier. The extent to which countries are able to or willing take action is shaped by political and cultural contexts. Those contexts vary wildly around the globe, so trying to find national solutions which fit into the wider international picture is a significant challenge

This year, we’ll see states continuing to work on the implementation of the Paris Agreement without the United States. That’s one major international player which will no longer be pulling its weight in tackling climate change… yet a player which is still sending delegates to COP23.

What are some criticisms of COP as a decision-making and meeting space?

There have been issues with accessibility of COPs, for example for civil society from the Global South, who are often underrepresented in policy spaces. The fact that you can not take park in a COP without accreditation can be an issue for many people who are only just starting out in the climate change field. Furthermore, in some of the past meetings it has been all too easy for developed countries to drown out the voices of developing nations. This was especially the case at COP15, and continues to be a risk each year.

How about the positives?

COP is unique in being the largest international conference on climate change. People who are highly skilled and expert in many aspects of climate change come together, as well as those with little experience but are there to learn and absorb new information. Civil society gets an important opportunity to challenge leaders on their commitments, and often-sidelined indigenous, Global South, developing country and youth groups are able to take a stand under the media spotlight and in front of leaders, in order to make their views heard. As such this is a moment for the sharing of ideas, building of connections, and, hopefully, the creation of concrete, just, and ambitious policy.

How can someone who can’t attend COP find out more and stay up to date?

You should follow YEL online! We will be creating a variety of outputs, including articles, opinion pieces and videos. Take a look at our Twitter channel for live updates.