NDCs must go up posters held by people standing on a staircase
Members of civil society line the stairs calling for nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to go up, reminding delegates they must not ‘back out’ of their commitments. Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth

COP23 is the first climate conference to take place in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States intends to withdraw from the Paris Agreement; as a result, participants and observers will be watching closely to see whether and how momentum for action on climate change continues, and who will take the lead.

Here, SEI researchers explain the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue, which, over the course of next year, will take stock of progress that has been made and the actions that are still needed to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. As the COP22 and COP23 Presidencies have succinctly put it: “Where are we?” “Where do we want to go?” And, “How do we get there?”

Shedding light on this issue in an SEI Q&A are:

  • Harro van Asselt, Senior Research Fellow at SEI’s Oxford Centre and Professor of Climate Law and Policy at the University of Eastern Finland
  • Sivan Kartha, Senior Scientist in SEI’s U.S. Center
  • Cleo Verkuijl, Research Fellow at SEI’s Oxford Centre.

Q: What is the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue and why does it matter?

A: Though some may fear it will be a mere talk-shop, the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue is a crucial step toward the realization of the goals of the Paris Agreement. The promise and hope of the agreement are that all countries are now committed to coming together, every five years, to put forward increasingly ambitious pledges of climate action. This “ratcheting up” of ambition is critical, as it provides the path along which the world can move from the initial pledges tabled in Paris (which we know were far from adequate [PDF]) toward actually meeting the agreement’s ambitious targets of holding warming “well below 2°C” and even to “pursue efforts” to hold warming below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

This stepwise increasing of countries’ efforts is to be spurred by a “Global Stocktake” to occur every five years. Given the quickening pace of climate impacts, the rapidly diminishing  carbon budget, and the heartening progress in low-carbon technologies, there is every reason to believe that countries can be coaxed to enhance their ambitions. Perhaps most importantly, from the standpoint of building trust among nations and the effective encouraging cooperation, the fundamental purpose of the Global Stocktake is to provide transparency about each other’s efforts, and to assess how those efforts fit together to provide an equitable and adequate global response. The Paris Agreement mandates assessments regarding progress toward meeting its long-term goals, taking into account not just mitigation actions, but also adaptation and the adequacy and effectiveness of financial and technological support mobilized by wealthier countries and intended to aid poorer countries. A vitally important feature is that the Global Stocktake is to be carried out “in the light of equity and the best available science”.

The 2018 Facilitative Dialogue is the first step along this process of “ratcheting up” climate effort. It will be a “dress rehearsal” for the first Global Stocktake in 2023, setting important precedents for what is meant by phrases like “adequacy and effectiveness”, and “in the light of equity”. It will provide insight into how to interpret the long term temperature goals. What does “well below” 2°C mean, and how earnestly must we “pursue efforts” to keep warming below 1.5°C? And, even more importantly, what should these long-term targets mean in terms of our near-term actions?

If it can set the stage for such critical discussions and a convergence in understanding, the facilitative dialogue will have served its intended purpose. If, on the other hand, it ends up being little more than a stage for rote repetition of Party positions, a mere platform for inflated claims about national actions, then precisely the wrong precedent will have been set.

Q: What is at stake at COP23 for the Facilitative Dialogue?

A: Parties at COP22 last year mandated the COP22 and COP23 Presidents to undertake “inclusive and transparent” consultations on the organisation of the Facilitative Dialogue. Led by the chief negotiators of the two Presidencies, Ambassador Aziz Mekouar of Morocco and Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan of Fiji, these efforts will culminate in a launch of the Dialogue at COP23 this November. This unveiling should help clarify the Dialogue’s envisaged procedures, events, inputs and outcomes, and enable parties and other key stakeholders to start their preparations for this process in earnest.

While further discussions are scheduled to be held on the sidelines of COP23, some of the Dialogue’s main contours are already beginning to emerge. For instance, following a gathering of heads of delegation in Rabat this September, the Presidencies proposed [PDF] three main questions for the Dialogue to address. These involve taking stock, setting goals and determining actions, asking: “Where are we?” “Where do we want to go?” And, “How do we get there?”.

They also identify two main phases for the Dialogue:

  • A “preparatory phase” to begin at the May climate talks in Bonn next year, and conclude at COP24 in 2018 (though it should be preceded by national and regional discussions); and
  • A “political phase” at COP24 in December 2017, intended to attract the attention of ministers, involving roundtable discussions, and potentially resulting in a forward-looking political declaration.

Both in the run-up to and during COP23, these ideas will need to be further fleshed out to inspire honest, transparent, and effective conversations over the course of 2018. An important outstanding question in this regard is how the results of the Special Report on 1.5°C by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will feed into the Facilitative Dialogue. The report, which is critical to an informed debate, is not expected to be adopted by the IPCC until early October 2018, just two months before COP24, which has raised concerns.

COP 23, as the first “Islands COP” in the history of the UNFCCC,  has the potential to leave a real mark on how these different factors coalesce.

Q: What should the Facilitative Dialogue achieve? How can it best be designed to achieve those goals?

A: The formal outcome of the Dialogue will likely be a COP decision that will reiterate the existing emissions gap [PDF] and encourage Parties to do more. What matters more than this decision itself is the political signal parties give – together, but also individually – that they are willing to enhance ambition in the run-up to 2020, and that they are fully committed to the transformation necessary for achieving the Paris goals. Most importantly, this would need to be done through enhancing the ambition of existing nationally determined contributions (NDCs) by 2020 (e.g., an upward revision of the target, specifying new policies).

The facilitative dialogue should therefore not be seen as a “single moment” taking place at COP24. Instead, it should be designed as a continuous process that takes place throughout 2018, but also carries through beyond COP24. Though it is important to try and capture the political moment at COP24, the dialogue should connect to other windows of opportunity for countries to commit to stronger climate action in 2018.

This includes meetings of the Major Economies Forum, the G7 and the G20 and the United Nations General Assembly, the release of the IPCC 1.5C report, and the Global Climate Action Summit in California. Moreover, at COP24, the facilitative dialogue should be connected to other developments that may generate momentum, such as the completion of the “Paris Rulebook” (specifying detailed rules on implementing the Paris Agreement), and the high-level event organized under the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action [PDF].

For the dialogue to be relevant beyond 2018, it needs to send a positive signal that can allow governments and non-state actors to push for stronger action at the domestic level – resulting in more ambitious NDCs by 2020. The clearest signal – aside from submitting new NDCs, which is not to be expected at this stage – would be for Parties to commit to increasing the ambition of their NDCs in 2018.

Moreover, the 2018 facilitative dialogue can offer incentives to strengthen NDCs by identifying and encouraging specific sectoral or regional opportunities for mitigation in the short term that bring about larger sustainable development benefits, such as fossil fuel subsidy reform or tackling short-lived climate pollutants. In addition, the dialogue could highlight successes in NDC implementation thus far.

Although the process is to be “facilitative”, it could put high performers or overachievers in the spotlight – for instance, by giving them the floor or mentioning them in the COP decision. This could potentially create a race to the top.

Likewise, the process should showcase mitigation action by so-called “non-Party stakeholders” – cities, businesses, civil society, religious organizations, and so on – and allow for the announcement of new cooperative initiatives involving parties and/or non-party stakeholders. Moreover, Parties should be given the opportunity during the dialogue to announce scaled-up financial, technological and capacity-building support these actions.

Finally, Parties should use the opportunity of the dialogue to highlight positive interlinkages between climate action and Agenda 2030 and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. For many Parties this will be important, as climate change mitigation will not necessarily be the main driver for climate action.