By Anders Lorenzen
In 2015 the world seemed to have reached the turning point on climate action, as countries agreed on the Paris Agreement, the first globally legally binding agreement on tackling climate change.
A changing political climate for climate action
Since then a lot has happened. The UK voted to leave the European Union (EU), Donald Trump was elected US President and Jair Bolsonaro President of Brazil. These events have all destabilised, or at least delayed, action on climate change at a time where action and progress are more important than ever before. Donald Trump has pledged to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. Bolsonaro has threatened to do the same. Both men are climate deniers. Meanwhile, the UK – once seen as a leader in climate negotiations – are over two years into the Brexit negotiations with no more clarity than in 2016, when the vote was held, about what will happen next. The UK and the EU’s priority on climate change has a result been pushed further down the political agenda.
And in the meantime, the urgency to tackle climate change has become ever more pressing as the days pass and inaction continues. In recent months, several scientific reports on climate change have been published. They detail how much work there’s still to do and has highlighted how urgent action is. Therefore the hopes were high for something meaningful to come out of COP24 held in Katowice, Poland, the UN’s annual climate negotiations. The talks had as usual entered into overtime. And on Saturday evening the Polish presidency announced that a deal had been reached.
The good news is that the nearly 200 UN members came together to agree on the rules that would implement the 2015 Paris Agreement which must come into effect in 2020. The bad news is that the ambition level is far below what is required to avert dangerous climate change. In Katowice consensus was agreed on the framework for the Paris Agreement which pledged to limit temperature increases below the threshold of 2 degrees C. However, controversially, a key UN report released in October which urged that temperature increases must not rise above 1.5 degrees C to avoid dangerous climate change was not adopted. This happened after just four countries, the US, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia objected to this.
At the 11th hour, ministers managed to break a deadlock between Brazil and other countries over the accounting rules for the monitoring of carbon credits, deferring the bulk of that discussion to next year, but missing an opportunity to send a signal to businesses to speed up their actions. As a result, ministers managed to bridge a series of divides to produce a 156-page rulebook. That rulebook is divided into themes such as how countries will report and monitor their national pledges to curb greenhouse gas emissions and update their emissions plans. Ministers acknowledged that it did not please everyone, but said that this puts progress still on track.
However, largely absent from these talks was the focus on upgrading on the current ambition level to avoid warming above 1.5 degrees C. Current policies means the world is on track for warming of 3 degrees C. As it stands right now, the world has warmed just above 1 degrees C – with no signs of slowing down. In fact, this year the world increased the amount of CO2 which was released into the atmosphere.
A lot of stuff was deferred to next summit, COP25 which will be held in Chile. That will include the final trash out of the rulebook and the work will begin on setting the new post-2020 targets which will aim to get closer towards the 1.5 targets. But 2020 is shaping up to be the key year; the summit that year is likely to be held in the UK or Italy and will be the deadline for both meeting the current emission reductions targets as well as setting new ones.
And in the meantime, some good news came out of COP24 which saw the re-emergence of a High Ambition Coalition. That grouping included developed and developing countries such as Marshall Islands, Fiji, Ethiopia, EU, Norway, UK, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Mexico and Columbia. The group pledged to enhance their national climate plans ahead of 2020. Looking ahead it is likely that climate leadership will come from any of these countries.
As expected green groups reacted with frustration to what had been agreed.
Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, Leader of the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Climate and Energy Practice said: “They’ve made important progress, but what we’ve seen in Poland reveals a fundamental lack of understanding by some countries of our current crisis. Luckily, the Paris Agreement is proving to be resilient to the storms of global geopolitics. Now we need all countries to commit to raising climate ambition before 2020 because everyone’s future is at stake.”
While a stronger condemnation came from the Executive Director of Greenpeace International, Jennifer Morgan who said: “A year of climate disasters and a dire warning from the world’s top scientists should have led to so much more. Instead, governments let people down again as they ignored the science and the plight of the vulnerable. Recognising the urgency of raised ambition and adopting a set of rules for climate action is not nearly enough when whole nations face extinction.”
Andrew Norton Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) was equally disappointed with the outcome, calling it a betrayal: “Far from picking up the pace of action needed to combat climate change, this meeting is betraying the women, children and men living in the most vulnerable countries who are already being hit by the devastating impacts of climate change. This is no time for further division or demands from the wealthiest for the poorest to accept even more trade-offs at their and the planet’s expense.”
But the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged countries to increase their ambitions: “From now on, my five priorities will be: ambition, ambition, ambition, ambition and ambition. And ambition must guide all member states as they prepare their (emissions reduction plans) for 2020 to reverse the present trend in which climate change is still running faster than us.”
And unsurprisingly the Polish COP24 Presidency called the talks a success: “It is not easy to find agreement on a deal so specific and technical. Through this package, you have made a thousand little steps forward together. You can feel proud,” Polish president of the talks Michal Kurtyka told delegates.
If Brexit negotiators feel it is difficult to negotiate Brexit, you would not want to be a climate negotiator because what they have to achieve feel almost impossible in turbulent political times. In Poland the term ‘a just transition’ has emerged, meaning that countries that are heavily reliant on fossil fuels were given time to transition. But just transition could also relate to small island states or poorly developed countries who are suffering the worst impacts of climate change despite having contributed very little to the problem. The just transition they want to see is very different than that of Poland’s as they want to ramp up ambitions and would want carbon cuts to be much tougher than what countries like Poland would like.
All eyes are now focused on 2020 and whether renewed ambition on targets can put a pathway on achieving just a slim hope of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C. In the period leading up to 2020 we will learn whether the world is motivated and ready to tackle the climate crisis. The recent climate science tells us: it is now or never.