With the direst warnings yet of impending environmental disaster still ringing in their ears, representatives from nearly 200 nations gathered Sunday in Poland to firm up their plan to prevent catastrophic climate change.
Representatives of almost all the countries on the planet are gathering in Katowice, Poland, for the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). They will set the course for action on climate change by discussing the implementation plan for the 2015 Paris Agreement which aims to coordinate international effort to halt warming at 1.5°C.
The UN climate summit comes at a crucial juncture in mankind’s response to planetary warming. The smaller, poorer nations that will bare its devastating brunt are pushing for richer states to make good on the promises they made in the 2015 Paris agreement.
In Paris three years ago, countries committed to limit global temperature rises to well below two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and to the safer cap of 1.5C if at all possible.
But with only a single degree Celsius of warming so far, the world has already seen a crescendo of deadly wildfires, heatwaves and hurricanes made more destructive by rising seas.
In a rare intervention, presidents of previous UN climate summits issued a joint statement as the talks got underway in the Polish mining city of Katowice, calling on states to take “decisive action… to tackle these urgent threats”.
“The impacts of climate change are increasingly hard to ignore,” said the statement, a copy of which was obtained by AFP. “We require deep transformations of our economies and societies.”
In Katowice, nations must agree to a rulebook palatable to all 183 states who have ratified the Paris deal. This is far from a given: the dust is still settling from US President Donald Trump’s decision to ditch the Paris accord.
G20 leaders on Saturday agreed a final communique after their summit in Buenos Aires, declaring that the Paris Agreement was “irreversible”.
But it said the US “reiterates its decision to withdraw” from the landmark accord.
Even solid progress in Katowice on the Paris goals may not be enough to prevent runaway global warming, as a series of major climate reports have outlined.
Just this week, the UN’s environment programme said the voluntary national contributions agreed in Paris would have to triple if the world was to cap global warming below 2C.
For 1.5C, they must increase fivefold. While the data are clear, a global political consensus over how to tackle climate change remains elusive.
“Katowice may show us if there will be any domino effect” following the US withdrawal, said Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation and a main architect of the Paris deal.
Brazil’s strongman president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, for one, has promised to follow the American lead during his campaign.
Even the most strident climate warnings — spiralling temperatures, global sea-level rises, mass crop failures — are something that many developed nations will only have to tackle in future.
But many other countries are already dealing with the droughts, higher seas and catastrophic storms climate change is exacerbating.
“A failure to act now risks pushing us beyond a point of no return with catastrophic consequences for life as we know it,” said Amjad Abdulla, chief negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, of the UN talks.
A key issue up for debate is how the fight against climate change is funded, with developed and developing nations still world’s apart in their demands.
Poorer nations argue that rich countries, which are responsible for the vast majority of historic carbon emissions, must help others to fund climate action.
But wealthy states, led by the US, have so far resisted calls to be more transparent in how their contributions are reported — something developing nations say is vital to form ambitious green energy plans.
“Developed nations led by the US will want to ignore their historic responsibilities and will say the world has changed,” said Meena Ramam, from the Third World Network advocacy group.
“The question really is: how do you ensure that ambitious actions are done in an equitable way?”
The first COP meetings held in the 1990s led to the creation of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which set binding emissions targets for developed countries over two “commitment periods” (2008-2012 and 2013-2020). However, the Kyoto agreement failed as the US did not ratify it and because several inconclusive conferences followed its implementation.
COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 also failed to yield any agreement on binding commitments for the second commitment period. A few major countries agreed to a short accord recognising the need to limit global temperature rises to 2°C, but there were no substantial guidelines on how to do so.
Similarly, COP19 in Warsaw four years later did not finalise any binding treaty. It only recognised “a flexible ruling” on differentiated responsibilities and loss and damage. In Warsaw, the international community failed to take essential steps for the future. Some even think that the 2013 conference cast some doubt on the capacity of the Polish government to successfully lead COP24 in 2018.
Against this backdrop, COP21 in Paris in 2015 appeared to generate the most optimistic outcome in two decades of international climate negotiations. In Paris, the world leaders agreed on a general action plan that legally binds countries to have their progress tracked by technical experts.
The countries who signed up also agreed on a “global stocktake” – a process for reviewing collective progress towards achieving the long-term goals of the agreement. However, lots of details about the Paris Agreement still have to be nailed down. This is precisely what the international community seeks to do this December in Poland.
The major objective for COP24 is to agree upon the so-called Paris “rulebook” – the details of how nations should implement the Paris Agreement and report their progress. Three major areas of political discussion will receive most attention: finance, emission targets, and the role of “big” states.
In 2015, richer countries pledged US$100 billion a year by 2020 for poorer nations to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, the climate funding is still about US$20 billion short. COP24 delegates will need to discuss in more detail on when the rest of the money will be generated before committing to the rulebook.
Perhaps even more importantly, rules for where that money comes from, and particularly whether international loans are acceptable, still have to be agreed on. Because finance is closely linked to issues of justice and fairness in the international system, it is unlikely that this discussion will lead to more generous levels of climate aid – although there is space for improvement, and some past conferences have actually provided small but significant advances on this front.
COP24 also needs to set some form of flexible yet comparable rules that will govern the Paris Agreement. One groundbreaking feature of the Paris Agreement is that all parties agreed to commit to national contributions to climate action. In other words, the agreement is based on a bottom-up process in which countries largely determine their own contributions, and then act upon them.
This COP may settle on some basic strategies for verifying climate actions, but it is very unlikely that the international community will agree on any mechanisms for delivering sanctions to states that do not meet their targets, because of the high sensitivity towards financial costs for non-abatement.
Finally, while “small” countries will have an important role to play at the negotiations as usual, there are several question marks around the large countries that need to bear a lot of the efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
It will not help that President Donald Trump, who intends to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, decided in 2017 to cancel climate funding for poor nations. The US position at COP24 will also affect China and India, which are likely to continue disagreeing with rich countries on some fundamental issues. Additionally, the domestic politics of Russia and Brazilpoint to more uncertainty for cooperation.
The urgency to reach key milestones in the Paris Agreement and deal with climate change puts a lot of high expectations on COP24. Unfortunately, many challenges stand ahead of international climate cooperation.
Approaching the negotiations with the right level of reason and determination will be critical to manage expectations and avoid any media “hysteria”, as media coverage can hurt the climate talks by shifting attention from the policy issues to unproductive discussions of whether climate change is influenced by humans.
For a credible and valid rulebook, we need frank conversations about energy transition and compensating the “losers” of climate policies, such as people working in high-emission sectors.
There might be the opportunity to do so in Katowice, an industrial hub and coal-mining city. We will see if this COP will highlight the necessary transition from fossil fuel industry to renewable solutions as the negotiations unravel.
History shows that when the human race decides to pursue a challenging goal, we can achieve great things. From ridding the world of smallpox to prohibiting slavery and other ancient abuses through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we have proven that by joining together we can create a better world.
There are many success stories in all regions and all sectors that demonstrate the enormous potential of climate action. To start with, a growing number of cities and regions have adopted targets to achieve zero net emissions between 2020 and 2050. These targets are often developed in collaboration.
The rise of inclusive multilateralism, where not only national governments but local and regional governments as well as a diverse array of associations and organizations work closely together, is a powerful force for climate action.
Collaboration is also taking place among actors in particular economic sectors. Earlier this year, the global transport sector, which is responsible for some 14 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, created the Transport Decarbonisation Alliance.
We also see a growing list of individual corporations adopting emissions targets. Many have signed up to a Science Based Target to ensure that they are in line with the 1.5-2°C temperature limit enshrined under the Paris Climate Change Agreement.
To date, over 700 leading businesses around the world have made strategic climate commitments through the We Mean Business coalition’s Take Action campaign.
There are so many more inspiring examples from a wide range of actors. Their efforts, more than anything else, is what gives me hope that we can achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement and minimize global climate change and its risks. Their stories should inspire all of us to contribute more energetically to climate action.
(Originally published by the SDG Media Compact which was launched by the United Nations in September 2018 in collaboration with over 30 founding media organizations)