Climate and Water at COP24: Will We Catch the Current or Be Trapped in the Eddies?

KATOWICE, Poland

OOSKAnews Voices is a series of guest “opinion columns” written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community.

In this article, 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 this month's 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the evolving recognition and presence of "water" as a voice in the UNFCCC.

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.
 
I’ve just left COP24 in Katowice, Poland. The UNFCCC COP in Paris three years ago had the Eiffel Tower in its logo - today, we are still living in the shadow of Paris in the negotiations.

I’ve been tracking water in the COP process since COP15 in 2009. The period in between has seen vast changes in the recognition and presence of “water” as a voice in the UNFCCC. Back then, my first impression was that everyone was talking about water impacts but no one seemed to realize that they were constantly referring to water management decisions. Water was present but the water community was invisible.

The next year - 2010 - was the Cancun, Mexico, conference. Water was covered in a single unofficial side event organized by the World Bank; water was figuratively outside of the COP — but literally as well, some 20 km away from the negotiations. But word was leaking out. The message that climate adaptation for people and ecosystems was largely about water began to permeate the COP.

The 2015 Paris Agreement marked a huge transition. Overall, we had a clear framework for talking about both emissions and adaptation at national and global levels. Although water was not named in the Paris Agreement, the water community for the first time began communicating with largely one voice through #ClimateIsWater, while the French, Moroccans, Germans, Dutch, and others sponsored the first UNFCCC Water Action Day to recognize how the UNFCCC is in many ways really the first global water and climate convention — water for clean energy, for carbon sequestration, and for effective and enduring climate adaptation.

Making Polish Sausage at COP24: How Much Can We See?

This year - last Friday - we celebrated the third year of having water formally engaged, with extensive water events looking at climate mitigation and adaptation and how the water community can help achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. Many of our messages from 2009 and 2010 have become truisms - almost throwaway lines.

But the Paris shadow is long and dark, at least in places. So far, negotiators have not agreed on the urgency of action. The US and many Persian Gulf states have effectively opposed endorsement of the IPCC’s 1.5 degree report. The role of climate change in human migration and displacement remains deeply controversial and sensitive. And many countries are struggling with meeting and clarifying their national goals - the Nationally Determined Contributions to global targets, or NDCs - even as they must revise their first five-year targets to prepare for new, more hopefully more rigorous targets in 2020. The broad aspirations of Paris are becoming more pressing and also need to become more specific and strict. That transition is the challenge now facing negotiators this week.

Water too is facing new challenges. I was the only “sectoral” specialist to speak in an official UNFCCC event on water and finance. Most of the other speakers celebrated new finance vehicles for clean energy and mobilizing large pools of capital for climate mitigation. Only a few also mentioned adaptation.

My turn came to speak. I began by stating that the discussion had largely focused on the quantity of investment, but we had said almost nothing about the quality of that investment. Systemic risks were present in our investment frameworks if we did not recognize that the deep uncertainties in water management for both mitigation and adaptation threatened our ability to achieve most climate goals. Only within the past few years had the water community had only just begun to coalesce and promote methods to address these uncertainties, but few financial institutions recognized these concerns as significant issues. Thus, the finance community needed to use funding vehicles to signal to broader markets and decision makers that our long-term climate security and investment paradigm must float on a pool of resilient water resource for robustness and flexibility.

My points, however, were not heard.

I was silenced - my microphone turned off by the chair before I had finished my talking points. The moderator looked harshly at me: “These are not investment issues and thus not relevant to this discussion.”

Water still has some way to flow, some opposition to erode.

Free