The view from COP22: frustration, uncertainty and Nordic leadership

29 November 2016

Kaisa Pietilä - Doctoral Researcher at SPERI and the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures

This month’s UN conference mixed post-Paris optimism with concerns about future climate change governance

Earlier this month I was given the opportunity to attend the second week of the 22nd Conference of Parties (COP22) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Marrakech, as part of the University of Sheffield and Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures delegation.  These are my reflections of the three key themes I observed during the week: frustration, uncertainty, and Nordic leadership.

In the corridors of COP22, comments and views from the ‘Parties’ – the member countries to the UNFCCC – expressed frustration over slow progress in the negotiations. Considering that COP22 was themed as ‘the COP of Action’, the conflict between the expectation and the actual reality was stark.  One delegate described COP22 to me as ‘a wasted opportunity’, and pointed the finger at the Moroccan Presidency and their organisation of the conference as one focused on ceremonies rather than on getting things done.

However, the COP was not all doom and gloom, and many displayed mixed feelings over the rate of progress. Though Parties were keen to achieve results promising further action, it was widely acknowledged that nobody had expected the Paris Agreement to enter into force so quickly (the US presidential elections earlier this month had no doubt helped speed up the process).  Many commented that the 11 months in between the signing of the Paris Agreement last December and its entry into force just before COP22 simply did not allow enough time for countries to have prepared to deliver concrete actions and technical detail.  Hence, the Moroccan Presidency had reasonable grounds to expect this year’s COP to be less ambitious and technical despite being labelled as the COP of Action.  A rather positive problem, which the COP22 outcome Marrakech Action Proclamation reflects: an affirmation of continued support and momentum for the Paris Agreement and future climate action, but nothing much that could be described as news.

The shadow of uncertainty featured even stronger than frustration, as Donald Trump had been elected as the next President of the United States during the first week of COP22. Barely a discussion went by without a mentioning of Mr Trump and his ever-changing views on climate change.  The US citizens at the COP, ranging from the official US Party delegation to those representing US businesses and universities, had their hands full with ‘damage control’.  In his final address to a climate COP, John Kerry, US Secretary of State, highlighted how climate change ‘is not a partisan issue’, and that ‘every nation has a responsibility to do its part’.  He also made the point that climate change should be personal, and finished his speech with a reference to signing the Paris Agreement with his granddaughter earlier this year.

The following day, the responsibility to front a press conference fell to Jonathan Pershing, Special Envoy for Climate Change of the US.  At his 22nd climate COP, he reaffirmed what Mr Kerry had said previously in summing up the COP for the US delegation.  When asked about the potential actions of the next US administration, Mr Pershing very diplomatically stated that he is in no position to speculate of what is to come, but referred to ongoing activities in the US at the sub-national level as well as progress being made by US businesses.  As Mr Kerry had worded it the day before: ‘investing in clean energy simply makes good economic sense’, hence the US delegation and business representatives strongly argued that progress on pro-climate action is irreversible as it is good for US business.

The US damage control was very successful in calming the waters and went some way to convince myself and other worried delegates that the volume of ongoing action to tackle climate change in the US is so high that there is no turning back – no matter who is leading the country. For example, California is one of the world’s largest economies, and recently passed some of the most ambitious climate targets of the developed countries.  However, this type of mediation by the US only addressed the concern over future emissions levels rather than over climate leadership.

The potential leadership gap left by the US gave way to those keen to step up to the challenge, in particular, the Nordic countries, including Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and their autonomous island territories .  In two events I attended, Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s Minister of Climate and the Environment, called for Europe and especially the Nordic countries to accelerate and increase their efforts further, whilst reminding delegates that the Nordics are already a significant player in terms of financing climate adaptation and mitigation globally.

However, it was the views on green growth and economic transformation of the Nordic leadership which really resonated with me. At a side event held at the Nordic Pavilion, Steffen Kallbekken, Director of the Center for International Climate and Energy Policy (CICEP), reminded the audience how climate change is only a part of green growth.  However, he did not take this thought further.  As a doctoral researcher focusing on the role of biodiversity in the economy, I realised over the COP that this was quite common: biodiversity comes as an afterthought – if it comes at all.

Morten Elkjær, Head of Green Growth in the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, highlighted how ‘business as unusual’ is a necessity for our economies to transform into more environmentally friendly ones.  In terms of how to enable such transformations, Mr Elkjær said that discussions around how we produce and consume are vital, as well as public-private partnerships.  For these partnerships to take place, both political will and a visionary private sector are needed.

Annika Rosing, Head of the Department for Growth and Climate at the Nordic Council of Ministers, provided yet more specific examples of what the Nordic countries are doing and what is planned.  She emphasised that the bioeconomy sector is significant in the Nordics, accounting for approximately 10% of the Nordic region economy overall, and there are ongoing initiatives on biorefineries.  Mrs Rosing also noted how there are plenty of green investment opportunities in resource intense sectors, such as agriculture and forestry.  As a priority, the Nordic Council of Ministers is continuing to develop their Green Growth Initiative, originally launched in 2011.

It was clear from Mrs Rosing’s presentation that the Nordics are very much ready for action, but upon addressing my question on definitions of green growth, she said that the Nordic Council of Ministers does not have a definition or metrics for green growth. Rather, she raised a worry that the issue of green growth might turn into one of semantics, whereas to achieve it, economic incentives and appropriate policies were in order – and for those policies to be implemented in practice.  In a post-truth era, metrics and evidence ought to be much higher in demand for those defending science-based solutions, which I personally hope the Nordics will continue to lead the way on.

COP22 left me and many others with mixed feelings. Though continued commitment to the Paris Agreement was officially declared, the leadership question remains open despite Nordic enthusiasm. Moreover, as a biodiversity advocate, I could see a lot of gaps that need to be filled.  It is essential that future COPs address this, alongside continued efforts to reduce emissions – so watch this space.

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