Children holding a sign reading "Save the World"
Young activists send a message to delegates at the COP 23 climate conference in Bonn. UNFCCC photo.

As the Prime Minister of Fiji took the podium at the opening of the UN Climate Conference (COP23), you could feel the electricity in the room. Delegates from 197 countries, civil society and the media had crammed into the plenary hall to witness the start of the climate change negotiations. Everyone knew the two weeks would be intense and the outcome of COP23 could make or break the momentum of the Paris Agreement. The stakes could not be higher.

Just a month earlier, hurricanes Irma, Maria and Jose devastated the Caribbean. For Fiji, the first island country to be elected to the COP Presidency, this was another heart-breaking reminder of the reality of climate change. Fiji had been hit by Tropical Cyclone Winston last year – a category 5 storm that took 44 lives and wiped out one third of the country’s economy in a matter of hours. The Prime Minister of Fiji, in his role as COP President, emphasized that time is of the essence and that the outcome of COP23 must help all those that are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

COP23 also faced the biggest political challenge since the Paris Agreement was adopted. Last June, President Trump announced that the United States – the second largest emitter in the world – planned to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. This threw the negotiations into a new and unexpected phase.

Originally, COP23 was meant to be a “working COP” where negotiators would hammer out the details of the guidance for the implementation of the Paris Agreement. Delegates were expected to debate questions such as how countries will report on their progress toward implementing their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) or how much support will be available to developing countries as they embark on ambitious climate action. Now, delegations faced a highly political COP that would either reinforce the solidarity of the Paris Agreement or widen the U.S.-sized crack in its foundation.

Though I am the Global Climate Change Advisor at UNDP, for the last six months I served on a detail assignment as an Advisor to the Prime Minister of Fiji in his role as COP23 President. I was able to see the incredible Fijian team first hand.  They knew the high stakes and worked tirelessly to ensure that COP23 was a “People’s COP” that brought everyone together in unity for the Paris Agreement. The Prime Minister emphasized that all aspects of society – governments, the private sector, academia, civil society and others – must work together to chart a new future together.

Under Fiji’s leadership, COP23 achieved its goals. The main outcome was the “Fiji Momentum for Implementation” that took steps toward the establishment of the Paris Agreement Implementation Guidelines. It also set up the Talanoa Facilitative Dialogue that will take stock of the world’s progress throughout 2018 and emphasized the need to take ambitious action pre-2020. Critically, COP23 preserved the momentum of the Paris Agreement. Countries affirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement and Syria, the only remaining country to sign up, made its pledge to the agreement during the conference.

The conference also adopted the Gender Action Plan to advance action on gender and climate change, recognized agriculture for the first time as a critical sector for both emissions reductions and adaptation action, established that the Adaptation Fund shall serve the Paris Agreement, launched the Fiji Clearing House for Risk Transfer, created the Suva Expert Forum on Loss and Damage, advanced the Local and Indigenous People’s Platform and launched the Ocean Pathway Partnership to strengthen action and funding that links climate action with healthy oceans.

As always, UNDP was very active at COP23. Nearly 60 events were organized on key issues such as energy, adaptation, forests, local community action, finance, nature-based solutions and South-South cooperation. UNDP hosted a pavilion with the theme: “Accelerating Action on Climate Change: Delivering Ambitious NDCs Together for a Sustainable Future”. These events come at a critical time for the negotiations. As delegations are working to take action as urgently as possible, UNDP can provide technical, financial and capacity building support to help them get the job done. COP23 also saw UNDP officially launch its new “NDC Support Programme”, which, with EUR42 million from the EU, Germany and Spain, will see UNDP help countries firmly shift to action on the Paris Agreement.

Delegations can be proud of what COP23 – “the first “Island COP” – accomplished. It not only proved that a small island country can lead the largest multilateral negotiation in the world, but that it can maintain the momentum of the Paris Agreement and advocate for urgent action to protect all those that are vulnerable to climate change.

About the author
Cassie Flynn is a Policy Specialist for Climate Change at UNDP. Follow her on Twitter: @cassie_flynn

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