MJSDL at COP 23 in Bonn, Germany

Jared Miller is a second-year law student at McGill University Faculty of Law and an Associate Managing Editor with the McGill Journal of Sustainable Development Law. He is originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and a proud member of the Manitoba Métis community. He holds a Honours BA from the University of Winnipeg where he studied Criminal Justice, Sociology, and Development Studies.

This year marked the 23rd annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Taking place in Bonn, Germany in early November 2017, this forum sought to bring parties together to strengthen ties in the fight against climate change. Individuals representing wide ranging sectors of society attended, from government, to private actors, and even public bodies and NGOs. The official President of this COP was Fiji, marking a dramatic acknowledgement of the danger posed to small island nations, many of which are on the forefront of the battle against climate change. This was also the 2nd year that the MJSDL participated in COP side-events. Last year’s conference saw countries reinforce their commitments to COP 21’s Paris Agreement, but was marred by the election of US President Donald Trump. This COP had new worries, as it was clear that the United States was out, but what would come next? This blog will explore the events that the MJSDL attended while in Bonn, and outline how commitments to the Paris Agreement evolved across the conference. We offer some takeaways from Climate Law and Governance Day, Development and Climate Days, and some perspectives on the future of the Paris Agreement.

The MJSDL sent four delegates to COP 23: Editor-in-Chief Allen Brett Campeau, Managing Editor Eric Weibe, Associate Editor Linda Muhugusa, and myself. The major event for our 4 delegates was Climate Law and Governance Day. The MJSDL is a co-sponsor of this event, which is organized yearly by the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law (CISDL). Since our first appearance at COP 22 in Marrakech, Morocco, we have co-hosted a climate litigation moot competition as a part of the day’s events. The mooters were all finalists in the Global Climate Law and Governance Legal Essay Competition 2017. This year’s moot focused on a battle between a hypothetical association of island nations and a hypothetical consortium of petrol-producing pacific nations at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The key point of contention in this moot was on the legal personhood of the Pacific Ocean; in an effort to protect the Pacific Ocean, the island nations sought ICJ recognition of its legal personhood, as well as a moratorium on the construction of new oilrigs in the Pacific Ocean’s international waters. This event was again a great success and there was lively debate on both sides, but ultimately the petrol producers had the better argument and won the day.

Attribution UNFCCC High Level Talks COP23.UNFCCC.int

Climate Law and Governance Day began with a passionate speech by the Attorney General and Environment Minister of Fiji, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, on the impacts of climate change and the range of policies that Fiji has implemented to address the problem of potential climate refugees. Later plenaries and panels also focused on the impacts of climate change on small island nations. Each panel presented a number of different perspectives, ranging from local and indigenous knowledge systems, to practical implications of the Paris Agreement, to uncertainties, which still exist in the narrative of climate change policy in many nations. These panels presented innovative international, national, and local climate law and governance mechanisms, challenges, and best practices. Additionally, discussions focused on knowledge exchange between delegates, legal practitioners, and the legal academic community, allowing us to generate new law and governance knowledge and approaches.

The Bonn COP marked a significant departure from the subdued mood that has permeated climate negotiations since the United States announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Parties at a number of events seemed to have an optimistic outlook on the future of the Paris Agreement. As it stands, despite the absence of the American government at the negotiating tables, many key American actors continue to represent American interests. Representatives of cities, businesses, and other sectors continue to support the UNFCCC process and the Paris Agreement. While the American government may have reduced its involvement, this does not mean that the United States has entirely given up on climate reform.

Photo: UNFCCC/ Flickr.

The MJSDL members also attended the highly popular Development and Climate Days, hosted by the International Institute for Environment and Development at the Kameha Grand Bonn. The event spanned the course of 2 days, strategically placed between the first and second weeks of the COP conference. Several parallel sessions were held throughout the weekend. Each session addressed one of four themes: gender and the environment, resilience through empowerment, the value of lived experience and knowledge, and transparency and accountability. These themes permeated our discussions at the different workshops and panels. Talks stretched throughout the day on Saturday, culminating in a reflection panel on the first week of COP, the progress that had been made so far, and what was to come going forward.

Two members of our delegation also attended a climate law specialization course held by the CISDL on the final day of the MJSDL’s participation. This occurred at the United Nations University complex across from the Bula Zone, which saw the majority of the high-level COP 23 negotiations. This course brought together many influential actors from the areas of climate change law and international development. It focused on the legal challenges that stem from the implementation of the Paris Agreement. It included interactive workshops and panel discussions focusing on adaptation and resilience, renewable energy development, climate finance, along with transparency provisions under the Paris Agreement. There were also discussions about human rights law and climate change, loss and damage, and climate displacement. We thank the Student Society of McGill University (SSMU) and the McGill Law Students Association (LSA) for their support in allowing our members to attend COP 23 and this course.

COP 23 saw a recommitment by many parties to the Paris Agreement. As of November 2017, 195 members of the UNFCCC have signed the Paris Agreement, and 170 have become parties to it, including the historic ratification by Syria just prior to the conference, leaving the United States as the sole nation wishing to withdraw. Ultimately, an American withdrawal cannot occur until 2020 due to article 28, noting countries cannot withdraw until 3 years after the Paris Agreement goes into effect. In spite of this, one of the highlights of COP 23, and one of the major takeaways for many individuals, was the burgeoning move beyond the national commitments. COP 23 has shown that sub-national actors, including local and regional governments, may play significant roles in pursuing greenhouse gas reductions and climate change adaptation. Further, this COP has allowed for one to understand the ultimate impact of climate change on the individual. The Paris Agreement provides the framework for climate action, and now we must increase our ambition to achieve its goal of limiting global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. When we look back at COP 23 we will see a pivotal moment in the history of UNFCCC conferences; it was here that the impact of climate action at the local level was underscored and the commitment to the future reaffirmed.

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