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Hope for Coal Phase-Out After COP 23

By Ümit Şahin

2017 was a year of record-breaking climate disasters. Alongside rising global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, President Trump announced his decision to withdraw the United States, the country with the largest historical responsibility for climate change, from the Paris Agreement. Yet 2017’s climate summit, COP 23 – held in Bonn, Germany, in November – was more technical than visionary; a so-called a ‘transitional COP’ that did not attract much public attention. This article will discuss some of the climate policy developments that took place, which was the second international climate change negotiations since the historical Paris Agreement signed in 2015.

The Bonn COP 23 took place against the backdrop of the heavy atmosphere created by these climate change-induced disasters and other negative developments. The destruction left behind by the Atlantic hurricane season was the biggest climate change event of 2017. 10 of the 17 tropical storms grew to hurricane force, with six of them reaching major hurricane status. The hurricanes accumulated the highest energy in 12 years, and according to various sources, caused 464 to 882 deaths and a total cost of nearly 380 billion dollars in damages. One of the most powerful hurricanes, Hurricane Harvey (Category 5), hit Texas and broke Houston’s rainfall record (1.5 meters) and, in addition to the flood and storm surges, caused high-level toxic leaks in petrochemical plants.

Hurricane Harvey was immediately followed by Hurricane Irma, which devastated the Caribbean Islands, most notably Barbuda, and caused damages when it made landfall in Florida. Two weeks later the most powerful hurricane of the year, Hurricane Maria, ravaged Puerto Rico. The island suffered the worst destruction in its history and the majority is still without access to electricity, water, and roads. As for Hurricane Ophelia, it was an unusual hurricane that originated from the now much warmer subtropical waters, moved north-east and reached Ireland. In 2017, the fact that climate change increases the force and intensity of Atlantic hurricanes was expressed more clearly than ever before by scientists: with rising sea levels came higher storm surges, with warming oceans hurricanes accumulated more energy and extreme vaporisation caused higher rainfall.

While the deadly hurricanes that hit the Caribbean Islands and the USA made international news headlines, the extreme monsoon rains that affected 40 million people, and killed at least 1200 in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, received far less attention. That wasn’t the end of the climate disasters: Sierra Leone saw landslides that caused by extreme rainfalls that caused more than 1000 deaths. The gigantic wildfires in the western US, Canada, Portugal, and Spain claimed lives and caused substantial financial damage. In the US, authorities stated that the wildfire season was now 105 days longer than it was 45 years ago. Even Greenland, where the glaciers are melting, saw long-lasting peat fires.

The heat is on

All of these extreme weather events took place on Earth, where global temperature has increased by more than 1 degree Celsius over the past century and atmospheric carbon dioxide reached a record high. The World Meteorological Organisation announced that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now increasing on average by 2 ppm (parts per million) per year. By this reasoning, it will not be surprising if we exceed 450 ppm by the 2030s, which is the critical threshold and corresponds to a 2-degrees Celsius of warming. As a matter of fact, temperatures continue to break records. 2017 was expected to be a relatively cooler year after three consecutive years of record warmth, but it turned out to be the second warmest year on record, and the warmest year without the El Niño effect.[1]

It is now imperative that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions decrease and total emissions rapidly decline (by 2 to 3 percent per year) in order to mitigate extreme weather and climate events. Unfortunately, during one of the side events organised by the University of East Anglia and The University of Manchester in the COP 23 in Bonn on November 13 2017, we learned that after a three-year pause the global GHG emissions are set to rise again this year. According to the Global Carbon Project’s 2017 estimates, carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and industry increased by approximately 2 percent.

From problem to solution?

So did the decisions taken at COP 23 do justice to the immensity of the problem? The political side of this year’s climate conference was marked by discussions of a Paris Agreement without the US. In the opening statements, the US delegation confirmed the decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and, ironically, indicated that the country nevertheless wants to continue to have a say in the future of the agreement. The most remarkable protest in Bonn took place at the side events venue of the conference site (the Bonn Zone), during a panel organised by the US delegation. US climate activists disrupted a quite Orwellian panel entitled ‘The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation’, made up of nuclear energy, natural gas, and coal company executives, with chants – “We proudly stand up until you keep it in the ground” – and a staged walkout. On the other hand, the ‘We Are Still In’ coalition – formed by more than 2500 business and political leaders from the US who support the Paris Agreement, including the Governor of California Jerry Brown and one of the wealthiest people in the world and former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg – challenged Trump by declaring that they are the true representatives of American citizens on the issues of climate change action.

We can do without you, America

It is interesting to note that the reaction to the new US administration’s desire to render the Paris Agreement ineffective translated into a new motivation to implement it, whereas the Paris Agreement was designed, for the most part, to suit the needs of the US administration with a bottom up approach, based on countries setting their own targets, and assigning similar commitments and reporting responsibilities to developed and developing nations alike through ambiguities regarding the Annexes. Ensuring that the civil war-stricken Syria becomes a party to the Paris Agreement immediately after it had signed it during the Bonn Conference and therefore leaving the USA as the only country not supporting it was a symbolic stance against Trump’s damage to the process. The USA’s withdrawal left a vacuum for the climate action leadership, a role previously undertaken by Obama and which French President Emmanuel Macron appears to be a candidate for. The aim of the “One Planet” Summit held shortly afterwards in Paris, on December 12 2017 for the second anniversary of the Paris Agreement, was to send the message that global climate action is possible without the US administration. However, Macron and China – which is trying to reiterate its leadership position in renewable energy – are not the only contenders for climate action leadership. Non-state actors are also taking on this role, which gives rise to the thought that the climate regime, as we know it – i.e. an intergovernmental process where non-state actors are only observers, is coming to an end. Let us try to discuss the reasons by summarising the outcomes of the Bonn Conference.

More regular than revolutionary

Held in Germany and presided over by Fiji, the COP 23 drew attention for being the first climate summit chaired by a Pacific island nation. However, aside from some conceptual contributions, the impact of Small Island States on the COP 23 failed to be noticeable. This was mainly due to Fiji’s docile presidency and its leaving the de facto presidency to Germany, as well as to the influential role played by the ‘Like Minded Developing Countries’ (LMDC) bloc – a coalition of mainly large developed countries including China and India. This bloc proved influential, pushing, despite the unwillingness of the developed nations, the LMDC bloc for the inclusion of pre-2020 climate actions into the COP 23 agenda, thereby making a critical move for both financing and mitigation and also keeping the issue of the historical responsibility of developed nations for climate change on the agenda. Consequently, developed nations have to submit their pre-2020 commitment progress reports at the COP 24 and COP 25, and the Secretariat to prepare a new synthesis report and to publish two assessments on climate financing in 2018 and 2020. For this reason, some as defined COP 23 as a ‘LMDC COP’ rather than a ‘Pacific COP’.[2]

The 2018 Facilitative Dialogue[3] was rebranded ‘the Talanoa Dialogue’ by the Fiji Presidency, with the Polynesian word Talanoa meaning empathetic, participatory, and transparent. Whether this was felt in the dialogues remains to be seen. It is still not clear whether the Talanoa Dialogue will be able to encourage countries to increase their Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) ambitions every five years, which are of key importance in the fight against climate change and for the success of the Paris Agreement.  The issue of ‘Loss and Damage’, which would see developed nations providing support to developing countries for the consequences of climate disasters failed to obtain financial support, despite the COP being presided over by one the most vulnerable countries in the world.

The main focus of the Fiji/Bonn COP 23 was to define the principles for writing the Rulebook of the Paris Agreement. Also called the Paris Rulebook, these implementation guidelines need to be adopted until COP 24 set to take place in Poland on December 2018. The goal in COP 23 was to produce a draft for the Rulebook, however the deadline for the draft was set to a later date. Although quite technical, the implementation rulebook issue is important because the Global Stocktakes set to be conducted every five years from 2023 onwards and strengthening the NDCs play a critical role. The NDC assessment report of the UNFCCC itself indicated that the current NDCs, if fully implemented, would lead to global temperature increase of about 3 degrees above pre-industrial levels. However, the Paris Agreement calls for keeping global warming well below 2 degrees and even to limit it to 1.5 degrees. The most important problem of the global climate change action is therefore in fact how to strengthen the Paris Agreement, yet, no concrete steps towards this were taken.

Bonn did not see any progress in climate finance, the ever-hot topic especially since the Paris Agreement. Even if the Green Climate Fund, which is set to mobilise 100 billion dollars per year by 2020, were to begin its operations, developed nations have only pledged a total of 10 billion dollars so far. The withdrawal of the US, which should have been the biggest donor, from the process is lessening hopes for 2020. Some more positive news was the operationalisation of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform and the approval of the Gender Action Plan.

The tide is rising

Not included in the formal Bonn negotiations was one topic which was nevertheless the year’s most important development: the coal exit plans. As those at Bonn saw in the climate actions led outside the framework of nation-states by local and regional administrations, the business world, civil society, and citizens, non-state actors are becoming increasingly prominent in climate change negotiations. In addition to reducing GHG emissions, the more direct approach of demanding that fossil fuels be kept in the ground – or in other words ‘supply-side policies’ – have become a more important part of the fight against climate change. Even though stopping new oil and gas drilling, new coal mines, new coal-fired power plants, and phasing-out internal combustion vehicles – that lie at the heart of oil consumption – are not yet part of the international agreement, the fact that GHG reduction cannot be achieved without these measures is receiving wider acceptance.

The announcement by 19 countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, and Italy, to put a stop to coal-powered electricity production by 2030 was an important development. Even if their effect will be limited because these countries represent less than 3 percent of global coal consumption, the fact that these announcements were made during the climate summit bears symbolic value as it shows that phasing out coal is of central importance to tackling climate change. It was also important that coal phase-out was on the table during the failed coalition negotiations in Germany, a country that plays a leading role in renewable energy but still produces 42 percent of its electricity from coal. Civil society and academia was louder than ever on this issue, such as the initiative to close down the remaining 288 coal-fired power plants and to phase out coal for electricity generation in all of Europe by 2030 and the Coal Exit Campaign, which exposed 775 major companies operating in the coal industry – including coal mining and coal-fired power plants – to provide a guide for global divestment decisions. A large number of reports showing the direct link between coal consumption and emissions in major economies from Australia to the USA and from China to India established that phasing out coal and leaving fossil fuels in the ground was imperative to achieve the 1.5 to 2-degree target. If parties are truly sincere about implementing the Paris Agreement and achieving its target, they need to stop “talking the talk and start walking the walk” and openly bring this matter to the table.

In conclusion, the Fiji/Bonn COP 23 saw once again that the powers determined to slow down global climate action, and even render it ineffective, were still influential, but at the same time the decisiveness of the citizens grew stronger. Climate negotiations are going through a changeover, although at slow pace. In the future, we might recall 2017 as the year this process began. And this is where our only hope lies.


[1] El Niño is the warming phase of the ocean surface in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. Together with La Niña, which is the cooling phase, they constitute a cyclical climate phenomenon called ENSO which has an ability to change the global atmospheric circulation, which in turn, influences temperature and precipitation across the globe. Global average temperatures are always higher during the El Niño years, while it is expected to be lower during La Niña or neutral years. See

[2] Referring to Semra Cerit Mazlum’s speech delivered at the “2017 Bonn Climate Summit – Impressions from COP23 panel”, on 28 November 2017 at the Istanbul Policy Center, Sabanci University.

[3] In accordance with decision 1/CP.21, the COP 21, in Paris, decided to convene a facilitative dialogue among Parties in 2018 to take stock of the collective efforts of Parties in relation to progress towards the long-term goal referred to in Article 4, of the Paris Agreement and to inform the preparation of nationally determined contributions (NDCs). See

Hope for Coal Phase-Out After COP 23