The Paris Agreement just about remained on track as the UN climate summit concluded a day behind schedule in Katowice, Poland, but only with compromises that make it more difficult to combat climate change with any seriousness.
Following a year of extreme weather events including wildfires, heat waves, and hurricanes that were made even worse by climate change, scientists have warned of the dangers of inaction. Researchers calculate that national pledges to control emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) are nowhere near enough. There is little money to help developing countries adapt to climate change effects, let alone deal with the loss and damage it is already causing.
Still, government negotiators continue to bicker. Rich nations demur at helping poor ones, though most of the GHGs that are warming the world have been emitted by them. US President Donald Trump’s negotiators have almost killed any notion of historical responsibility at this summit.
The bickering that delayed the summit finale arose because Brazil wanted credit for the emissions it has reduced over the years. These Certified Emission Reductions (CER) are part of the Kyoto Protocol regime that ends in 2020. Brazil wanted to carry CERs beyond 2020 under the Paris Agreement regime, but richer nations objected, saying they were not satisfied that CERs had been collected with “sufficient accounting”, as one EU delegate put it. India and China supported the Brazilian position, but neither strongly nor publicly. The matter remains unresolved and will be taken up next year.
A positive from this year’s talks is that governments did agree to update their climate plans by 2020. Several countries – mostly from the developing world – announced during the two-week talks that they were already making preparations. With that, the work programme was signed off, which means the Paris Agreement can become legally operational in 2020. A relieved UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa said, “This is a roadmap for the international community to decisively address climate change”.
In a message delivered at the end of the summit, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres spoke of the high-level climate meet he has called next September and added that his five priorities would be “ambition in mitigation, ambition in adaptation, ambition in finance, ambition in technical cooperation and capacity building, ambition in technological innovation”.
But the work programme was signed off only when developing countries agreed to report and account for their climate actions in the same way as developed ones. This places an additional burden on countries that lack resources and capacity. In turn, rich nations agreed to increase the “predictability” of the money they will provide to help developing countries respond. This last assurance came despite opposition from the United States, which remains in the negotiating rooms because the country cannot legally withdraw from the Paris Agreement until 2020, though President Trump wants to do so.
There was considerable disquiet over the requirement that rich and poor nations will have to account for all their climate actions the same way. India’s chief negotiator, Ravi Shankar Prasad, expressed his concern about this lack of “differentiation” now and in 2023, when a “global stocktake” is scheduled to see if governments are still on track to stick to the Paris Agreement. By current trends, they will be nowhere near it.
Some participants and observers still saw signs of hope. Laurence Tubiana, key architect of the Paris Agreement and now CEO of the European Climate Foundation, said, “Despite all the headwinds, the Paris Agreement has stayed course at COP24 (the 24th Conference of Parties), demonstrating the kind of resilience it has been designed for. The decisions made here on the Paris rulebook give us a solid foundation to keep building trust in multilateralism and accelerate the transition all across the world.”
Christiana Figueres, former head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said, "No one is entirely happy with this rulebook, but it is an important step. Next year is critical.”
The Chinese reality
Following another uptick in China’s carbon emissions this year, the country is under pressure to ramp up action. “Leaders in Beijing must take urgent action to wrest emissions away from the upward path,” said Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace East Asia.
But despite the problems at home, China continues to play a constructive role in the negotiations, he added. “China was an enabler of a solid rulebook with binding common rules for transparency and review. These talks also showed China’s increasing role as the principal broker between developed and developing countries. This role helped to nudge developing countries into taking on more responsibilities.”
Yet, with the IPCC saying there are just 12 years to reduce global emissions by almost half, concerns persist that while China is taking emissions reduction seriously at home, it’s still investing in high carbon projects in developing countries.
“The world is seeing an increasing trend of decarbonisation, thus, China's investment under the Belt and Road Initiative must be in line with the Paris Agreement,” said Bai Yunwen, director of Greenovation Hub, China.
Stronger action required
With developing countries already struggling to manage and adapt to climate change, civil society leaders expressed disappointment with this year’s talks.
Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change at ActionAid International, said, “More than 20 million people a year are being forcibly displaced by sudden, extreme weather events. The agreement to now officially monitor losses shows that, although these communities are finally being heard, the world is still standing back and watching climate change like it’s a slow-motion car crash.”
He added: “The climate crisis simply cannot be fixed without financing. It’s hugely frustrating to see a Paris rulebook that goes backwards on delivering real finance and real action.”
Chair of the Least Developed Countries Group, Gebru Jember Endalew, pointed to the nearly one billion people living in the 47 least developed countries that are often hit the hardest, suffer the most, and have the least capacity to cope with climate change. He called on countries “to revise and enhance their nationally determined contributions (to the Paris Agreement) before 2020 in line with their fair share”.
Anirban Ghosh, chief sustainability officer at Mahindra Group, India, said, “Policy makers should return from COP with one clear message – an increase in ambitious climate commitments, coupled with clear and confident policy signals to business.”
Cause for hope
While the outcome of this year’s UN summit disappointed many, there were bright moments, too. The World Bank announced it will double investment in climate action to about US$200 billion from 2021. More money was also pledged to help developing countries through the Green Climate Fund and the Least Developed Countries Fund, while the Adaptation Fund crossed the US$100 million mark for the first time. More than 400 global investors with over US$30 trillion in assets called on global leaders to increase climate action.
The world’s largest container shipping company Maersk put down a marker for the sector by pledging to bring its emissions down to zero by 2050. US energy giant Xcel Energy promised zero-carbon power by 2050, while IKEA Group pledged to slash carbon emissions from production processes by 80% by 2030. Over 40 major fashion brands, retailers and suppliers also launched the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action to collectively address their climate impacts.