Hosts Fiji will be aiming to build transparency and constructive dialogue – and this will be crucial to successfully ratcheting up the tough climate targets sidestepped at Paris
November 6, 2017 — Talanoa is a Fijian term for discussions aimed at building consensus, airing differences constructively, and finding ways to overcome difficulties or embark on new projects. It is one of the building blocks of Fijian society, used for centuries to foster greater understanding among a people distributed over many small islands, and carry them through a tough existence.
This week, talanoa comes to Europe, and the rest of the world. Fiji is hosting the UN’s climate talks, following on from the landmark Paris agreement of 2015, and will hold the conference in Bonn, Germany. Talanoa will be the founding principle of the conference, the means by which Fiji hopes to break through some of the seemingly intractable problems that have made these 20-plus years of negotiations a source of bitter conflict.
“Talanoa is a process of inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue that builds empathy and leads to decision-making for the collective good,” said Frank Bainimarama, prime minister of Fiji. “It is not about finger pointing and laying blame but about listening to each other. By focusing on the benefits of action [against climate change] this process will move the global climate agenda forward.”
The most likely subject of finger-pointing will be Donald Trump. The US president this summer announced the withdrawal of the US from the Paris agreement. This was a blow to the 194 other countries which signed up to the 2015 accord, because the US is the world’s second biggest emitter of fossil fuels, after China.
Michael Bloomberg, the former Republican mayor of New York, said Trump’s White House did not speak for the rest of the US. “[This week] I’ll help lead a delegation of US mayors, governors and CEOs and we will deliver a unified message: Americans remain committed to meeting our commitment under the Paris agreement, no matter what happens in Washington. We can get there.”
Yet the divisions likely to be caused by Trump’s stance should not be underestimated. Gaining a consensus involving the US and China was arguably the biggest achievement of Paris – the first time that all developed and developing countries had signed a pact vowing to limit global warming to 2°C, which scientists say is the limit of safety. The history of the UN negotiations has been littered with attempts at such an agreement that fell short – the Kyoto protocol of 1997, the Copenhagen conference of 2009 – so when the gavel came down on the Paris agreement, it was an unparalleled landmark in the history of the world’s fight against climate change. The negotiations under the UN on a global agreement have been going on since 1992. Meanwhile, the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have steadily increased, reaching levels not seen for 800,000 years.
At Bonn, Trump’s team are reportedly preparing to inflame the talks yet further, by concentrating on the supposed benefits of coal-fired power.
Fiji hopes to confine the White House’s activities to a sideshow. There are two substantive issues to be discussed at this conference, which will carry on whatever the US position is. First is the “ratchet” – the means by which the pledges on emissions made at Paris will be increased in future years, in line with scientific advice. Second, and of huge importance to the hosts, is the question of adaptation to the effects of climate change.
Adaptation was long a dirty word at climate change conferences. Civil society groups feared that espousing, and devoting money to, the means of staving off the worst effects of warming – walls against sea level rises, dykes and floating houses, changes to agriculture to grow heat-adapted crops – would distract attention from the urgent business of reducing emissions. For Fiji and other Pacific islands, however, the effects of climate change are already being felt, and finding ways to reduce their impact will be crucial in the years to come.
One way round this has been to change the emphasis. Instead of adaptation, countries are now talking about resilience – a more positive term, suggesting empowerment and action, rather than giving in to a threat.
“We want resilient development,” said Lord Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank and author of the landmark 2006 review of the economics of climate change. “This is a development-oriented idea. We used to have the idea that it is more expensive to build things that are low-carbon, but that was wrong. Development should be resilient and sustainable. Whenever I come across the word adaptation, I delete it and put in resilience.”
Building resilience has advantages that go far beyond climate change – improvements to infrastructure, and a better evolved response to natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes that have nothing to do with global warming – and can also help to improve the quality of people’s lives, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
For instance, improved public transport systems would have a huge economic benefit in many developing countries, would reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and could be built in such a way as to be resistant against encroaching climate change. Buildings constructed with climate change in mind would also be more efficient, resistant to extreme heat, and against the storms, floods and droughts that are likely to become more frequent under global warming.
At Bonn, discussions are likely to focus on how to help developing countries become more resilient, and the financing that may be available for them to do so. The latter could be a combination of overseas aid from major economies, and investment from the private sector. These discussions, however, are still at an early stage and there may be little concrete outcome on them from the talks other than a decision to keep talking.
Yet the most pressing issue of the conference is likely to be the one that receives least public attention, and deliberately so. Known as the “facilitative dialogue”, this is a crucial – but overlooked – rider to the Paris agreement.
At Paris, countries acknowledged that their pledges to curb greenhouse gas emissions fell well short of the reductions advised by scientists. In order to forge the agreement, they made a compromise: in future years, they would ratchet up their pledges to the levels required.
This made agreement at Paris possible, but it effectively put off the toughest negotiations to future years of talks. The difficulty of resolving this should not be underestimated. Currently, none of the world’s biggest emitters can agree on how any such ratchet mechanism would work. Should countries, for instance, take on more stringent emissions goals simply by adding a certain amount to their current pledges? Or should their future pledges be calculated based on their projected economic growth? How should the responsibility for historic emissions be taken into account? What status should be given to scientific advice on how to keep within the 2°C limit?
Most countries want to ensure that their pledges are entirely of their own devising, rather than reached in consensus with the rest of the UN, but it is unclear what would happen if these pledges are inadequate. The work is made harder still by deficiencies in collating reliable and up-to-date data on each country’s emissions.
The discussions on the ratchet mechanism are known in the UN jargon as “the facilitative dialogue”, a name that disguises the fraught nature of these negotiations. Given the lack of consensus among major countries on how any such ratchet mechanism should work, and the adamant refusal of the US to take part in further pledges, it may take much more than talanoa – and years more of tough negotiations – to come up with a solution to this conundrum.