The Road to Bonn & COP23

After leaving Minnesota on Friday night, I spent almost 24 hours traveling via an Amsterdam layover, Dusseldorf, and finally Bonn, Germany. It is so different to travel in Europe after living in the Midwest. I have clocked more miles on trains and on foot in the last 48 hours than in one month in Minnesota. It is slightly more balmy here, and my charming and tiny one-room apartment overlooks a very tiny and green garden. On Sunday night, our University of Minnesota and Climate Generation delegations met up for the first time at a traditional German restaurant that was already several hundred years old when Beethoven ate there – and the menu probably hasn’t changed: sausage, potatoes, and sauerkraut with good German beer.

All afternoon on Sunday, many of us found our way through Bonn’s beautiful Rhineaue Park to attend a COP23 strategy session with an international gathering of climate non-governmental organizations (NGOs). I was struck by a participant’s simple but emphatic statement – “we are not negotiators” – and therefore must focus on “what science demands of us.” This is an important distinction at a United Nations conference where all action and legal instruments are defined by the negotiating stances, and compromises, reached by nations.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) website declares this year’s bold theme: “The UN Climate Change Conference 2017 aims for further, faster ambition together.”

These themes were repeated today by COP23 leaders in the opening sessions, with a combination of aspirational pep talks and dire warnings of the current state of the climate. The session kicked off with inspiring music performances, which we watched from the overflow room. First, dozens of Bonn children led a costumed parade and sang “I’m an island.”

Then, Fiji performers danced, sang, and presented gifts of welcome including the tooth of a sperm whale to the COP presiding leaders. The outgoing leader from last year’s COP22 in Marrakech turned over the gavel to new President, Frank Bainamarama, Prime Minister of Fiji. Fiji is the official leader of the COP, but lacked a big enough venue so partnered with Bonn, Germany to host the event. President Bainamarama gave a traditional Fiji “Bula” welcome, noted that 2016 was a record year for carbon emissions, and called on everyone to advance ambition to reach the strongest target in the Paris Agreement – to keep the planet’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. He said “we are all in the same canoe,” and called on participants to make this effort more relevant to people’s lives.

Fiji sailing canoe called ‘drua’

One of the key tasks of this COP under the Paris Agreement is to establish the rules and procedures for a Facilitated Dialogue in 2018. It’s become the “Talanoa Dialogue,” reflecting the Fiji tradition of understanding, respect, inclusiveness, and transparency.

The Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Patricia Espinosa, noted that this is the 25th anniversary of the Earth Summit in Rio that gave birth to the UNFCCC. Given how long it has taken to tackle the challenge of climate change, she said that 169 countries ratified the Paris Agreement in record time, taking us from the “era of hope to the era of implementation.” Espinosa also warned that the national pledges made by the 197 countries in the Paris Agreement “only bring 1/3 of the reduction in emissions we need to meet Paris targets.” She said there was never a “greater sense of urgency.”

The Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization announced today the Statement on the State of the Climate, a new report detailing the state of disasters and climate. His dire news was that the world is now at “1.1 degrees above pre-industrial levels.”

The Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific body, said thousands of volunteer scientists have submitted research papers which are undergoing scientific review in preparation for the next scientific assessment synthesis report, in time for the Global Stocktake in 2022. In Paris there was also an agreement to have a special scientific report that examines the path to the 1.5 degrees warming limit, to be presented just before COP24 and its Facilitated Dialogue.

Barbara Hendricks, Minister of the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety in Germany reminded us that the international community needs to focus on islands, which may face a point of no return. She knows “all about how difficult it is to transition away from fossil fuels,” with which Germany has struggled in its energy transition or Energiwende. Minister Hendricks said “the Paris Agreement is irreversible” and our focus must be on doing everything in our power to implement it.

Finally, the Mayor of Bonn brought us back to the wonderful music we heard at the beginning, saying ”music unites people all over the world. It is this unity we will need to address the challenge of climate change. And, now on to the difficult work of hammering out details for implementation of the Paris Agreement.

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