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OOSKAnews Voices: Warming Climate, Rising Waters at the Paris COP: Green Bonds, #ClimateIsWater, and Marrakesh

CORVALLIS, OR, United States

OOSKAnews Voices is a new series of guest “opinion columns” on water, written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community. The columns provide a global platform for organizations and individuals to promulgate their views and messages.

In this piece, John H. Matthews, co-founder and secretariat coordinator for the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA), which is chaired by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) and the World Bank, reflects on his experiences at the recently concluded COP21 talks in Paris.


Matthews’ work integrates technical and policy knowledge for climate adaptation for practical implementation. John has worked globally on these issues since 2007 and has authored many publications on adaptive management for water infrastructure and ecosystems. He has a PhD in ecology from the University of Texas and is based in the United States.

The opinions expressed in this article represent the views of John Matthews, and are not endorsed by OOSKAnews Inc.

Since I returned from the Paris climate change meeting, I’ve been flooded with questions about the conference, usually referred to as COP21. Sponsored by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), this year’s meeting was a “big COP,” attended by almost 50,000 participants, with high expectations for reaching a significant global agreement.

A major agreement was announced, to widespread coverage about its ambition and scope. But press attention on the connection of water to the COP has been uneven. Many announcements about on-the-ground actions and investments were symbolic and did not represent new sources of funding or meaningful coordination between groups. Many sources have even remarked on the absence of the term “water” in the overarching agreement.

However, like many other "water people," I came away energized and pleased. Several innovative trends did emerge at the COP. You can find water in the UNFCCC now, if you know where to look. And those rising waters of climate policy are relevant to the full water community.

Climate finance may be the most influential topic. Until recently, the topic of climate finance focused on commitments of new sources of aid to low- and middle-income countries, primarily through UN and other public sources, as well as additional “new” finance and novel financial institutions, such as the Green Climate Fund.

This year, though, finance became a much broader issue. Although new climate aid is intended to surpass $100 billion USD annually by 2020, this year I saw very serious attention paid to ensuring that existing investment mechanisms, including private sector investments, reflect a broader understanding of water and deliver resilient, robust benefits -- “repurposed” finance and aid intended to combine water and climate knowledge in energy, agriculture, WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), and urban investments.

For instance, “climate” or “green” bonds drive investment for water authorities, development banks, governments, and companies, totaling more than $40 billion USD in 2015 alone -- supplementing today almost half of the UNFCCC’s target for 2020. However, investors cannot easily compare the climate benefits for mitigation or adaptation within these bonds -- so how green are they, in fact?

A group of NGOs (including my organization, AGWA) have worked over the past 18 months to develop a new standard for evaluating water and climate risks/benefits for green bonds. The standard reflects the insights of more than 50 experts from science, engineering, finance, and economics, including both the private and public sectors.

To my surprise, the potential for mobilizing existing finance to enable climate mitigation and adaptation goals -- while also acknowledging the special role of water in climate -- went viral during the COP as a model for how to amplify dramatic change and fuel effective implementation, appearing in at least a dozen sessions during the the conference.

In one press conference, senior COP policymakers and members of the water community strongly advocated similar approaches. The draft water climate bond standard market has recently been released for public consultation.

The other important impact of water on the COP came from the emergence of a small set of umbrella “voices” for water. Policy influence from any community requires both cohesion and visibility, and having a limited number of voices (with complementary messages) proved critical and decisive for the water community. From my experience, the water community’s influence at the COP was unprecedented.

These voices were centered around four primary vehicles: the Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA, primarily focused on negotiators, foundations, and multilaterals); the Business Alliance for Water and Climate Change (for the private sector), #ClimateIsWater (many types of organizations), and the Paris Pact on Water and Adaptation to Climate Change (water management groups).

Each of these networks held major events with integrated media campaigns that spanned traditional press, twitter, and video. #ClimateIsWater, for instance, produced a short set of messages in advance of the COP, while the French Water Partnership released a follow-up video immediately after the final plenary on behalf of the same coalition.

An enormous number of events were branded ClimateIsWater for the COP.

Given the inter-linkages between these groups, the water community had direct and sustained interaction with the negotiations for a variety of key governments, most notably those who hosted recent COPs, France (the current host), and Morocco (which will host the 2016 COP).

What did these groups produce? While water is not mentioned in the overall agreement, the water community’s influence was felt in three substantive ways. First, language that excluded water or that treated water as a sector rather than as a cross-cutting resource was removed or blocked. Water was not hurt by the Paris agreement, which in itself is an important advance.

Second, the real meat of the agreement is embodied in the national-level commitments (called Intended National Determined Contributions, or INDCs) and through specific UNFCCC programs. The INDCs express country-level adaptation and mitigation targets within the overall framework, and they are flooded with water-related commitments. One of the new finance vehicles, the Adaptation Fund, has provided over $300 million USD in project-level support over the past three years, with some 80 percent of these projects connected to water -- mostly disaster risk reduction, urban water management, ecological restoration, and agriculture -- without necessarily applying broader water knowledge.

Until very recently, the UNFCCC and party governments did not recognize the blue thread of water running through these INDCs and UN processes and institutions. But many countries have shifted their awareness in just the past few weeks, very much as a result of these unified water voices.

Lastly (and very much the fruit of the above efforts), Morocco has committed to preparing the way for water in the agenda for COP22, which will be held in Marrakesh in December 2016. The clearest indication is that Morocco will host a water and climate event in preparation for COP22 in about six months. If we are lucky, this meeting should provide a major platform -- beyond the water community -- to develop a formal and explicit mechanism for a climate-water-nexus in policy, investment, and practice.

COP21 is not a perfect vehicle, but those of us who attended can be forgiven for feeling that our boats are on a rising tide.