What exactly does COP23 need to deliver – and who’s in?

At the UN climate talks in Bonn Paul Allen finds the USA to be a surprising source of inspiration.

Published just before COP23, the UN Environment Emissions Gap Report was the subject of a major presentation in the German Pavilion. It shows that the gap between commitments made in Paris 2015 and what’s needed to keep within ‘safe’ levels of global temperature rise ranges from 11 gigatons (for an increase of 20C) and 19 gigatons (for 1.50C) of CO2 equivalent. That’s a huge gap.

Global greenhouse gas emissions under different scenarios and the emissions gap in 2030 – illustration from ‘The Emissions Gap Report 2017’, UN Environment © UNEP

The overarching conclusions of the UN report make it very clear that there is an urgent need for accelerated short-term action and enhanced longer-term national ambition if the goals of the Paris Agreement are to remain achievable. It also makes it clear that practical and cost-effective solutions are available to make this possible.

The gap between the reductions needed and the national pledges made in Paris is alarmingly high – and so are the stakes. So I can help wondering why the journey of COP23 does not result in any reasonable coverage in the mainstream UK media. It’s far more important than who wins The Voice, The Apprentice, X Factor or, dare I say it, Bake Off.

The urgency comes from the simple fact that the national commitments that form the foundation of the Paris Agreement cover only approximately one third of the emissions reductions needed to get us on a least-cost pathway for the goal of staying well below 2°C. And that is only true if all countries actually fulfil their Paris commitments, which is in doubt for Indonesia, Australia and in particular the USA.

As COP23 began, I made a quick trip around the national pavilions. In particular I wanted to see what the US pavilion was saying – but to my surprise I found there wasn’t one. The Trump Administration has given a cold shoulder to the spirit of Paris — not only with threats of withdrawal, but also with promises to ramp up extraction of fossil fuels.

But then, on day four of COP23, an independent pavilion opened up just outside the negotiating hall – the ‘The US Climate Action Centre’ had arrived. In the absence of leadership from Washington, representatives of cities, states, tribes, academia and businesses have come to Bonn to stand alongside the international community to make it clear that the US is still in for Paris. This pavilion is the very first of its kind and is being sponsored exclusively by non-federal US groups.

#WeAreStillIn – Paul visits The US Climate Action Centre

Spearheaded by the We Are Still In movement in coordination with more than 40 organisations, the pavilion plans to showcase ambitious US climate action. More than 2,500 leaders from America’s city halls, state houses, boardrooms, and college campuses have signed the ‘We Are Still In’ declaration since June 2017. This unprecedented network of networks represents more than 127 million Americans and $6.2 trillion of the US economy. University presidents, mayors, governors, citizens and business leaders will profile the steps they are taking to reduce carbon emissions.

This bottom-up network is another clear example of the new leadership emerging in response to the challenge of increasing ambition from COP23 onwards. History may yet call Trump the catalyst – the resistance is active and fighting back, both in the US and beyond, making positive progress well beyond his reach.

When President Trump started the process of withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, he turned his back on his hometown. New Yorkers watched the waters submerge our city during Hurricane Sandy. For us, the fight against climate change is a fight for our lives. But we didn’t wring our hands at the White House’s denial. We got to work.

Bill De Blasio, Mayor of New York, Reuters, September 22, 2017.


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