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As UN climate summit winds down, signs of a path forward?

Why We Wrote This

Delegates at the UN climate talks are tasked with uniting some 200 nations behind a single set of rules. The process has been somewhat unwieldy. But it has also shone a light on the power of compromise.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters
Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama of Fiji (l.) talks with the president of COP24, Michał Kurtyka, as Polish President Andrzej Duda looks on during the opening of the 2018 UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland, Dec. 3.

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As the 2018 UN climate summit comes to a close, the enormity of the challenge of forging a unified path toward a low-carbon future has never been more apparent. Delegations bring to the table diverse priorities that reflect their respective economic climates, political perspectives, and levels of dedication to collective global goals. Despite the logjams that occur, moments of breakthrough happen, particularly during the last few days of the two-week conference and as alliances and coalitions form on the sidelines. Once the final outcome is agreed upon this weekend, there will be plenty of opinions on whether the negotiations have done what they needed. But one thing is already clear: This summit is just the beginning of the process. “How we do this is not going to stop in Katowice,” says Yamide Dagnet of the World Resource Institute. “What we want are strong guideposts to go at least in the right direction – to make it a race to the top and not a race to the bottom.”

How do 197 countries, representing vastly different circumstances, interests, and political realities back home, arrive at consensus around the details of how they’ll tackle climate change?

The enormity of the challenge is one reason the 2015 Paris Agreement was hailed as such a landmark achievement, and it’s why negotiators this week in Katowice have been struggling to achieve the goals of this year’s 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, known by everyone as COP24.

The urgency of the problem has never been clearer, with a recent report emphasizing that just 12 years remain to drastically reduce global carbon emissions or face stark consequences. And current targets set under Paris fall far short of what is needed.

The challenges of finding a path forward are also daunting, and some of the barriers go to the heart of nations’ differing values and circumstances. Delegations bring diverse priorities that reflect their respective economic climates, political perspectives, and levels of dedication to collective global goals.

This has been hailed as the most important COP since the 2015 summit launched the Paris Agreement. This year’s attendees are tasked with finalizing a rulebook that lays out just how the Paris goals will be achieved, ensuring countries are prepared to set tougher emissions targets by 2020, and tackling the problem of financing help for developing nations. The results of these two weeks of negotiations are likely to come this weekend, and while talks have often seemed sluggish, observers say that’s partly the reality of an unwieldy process that’s both frustrating and necessary.

“This is the only place where there’s a global framework to solve the global problem,” says Lou Leonard, senior vice president for climate and energy at the World Wildlife Fund.

Conflicting priorities

One challenge is that there is no standard for how nations set their ambitions for emissions reduction targets.

“That means we need to use all of the tricks of creating processes and political moments and pressure and momentum,” Mr. Leonard says. “It’s like the physics of geopolitics.”

“You need to put it all together into a process that puts pressure on countries to do things they may not always want to do, but they feel compelled to do,” he adds. “We did that in Paris in 2015 ... and we need to do it again.”

Some of the most basic tensions are rooted in countries’ differing economic climates and the extent to which they’re already seeing the effects of climate change. Wide variations in those circumstances mean that nations come to the table with very different senses of how to prioritize the actions they take, says Harjeet Singh, the global lead on climate change for the international development organization ActionAid.

For many developing countries, he says, the top priority is securing immediate assistance for people who have been harmed by floods, storms, or other disasters. After that comes investment in adaptation efforts to be better prepared for future disasters, and finally, if there are enough resources, shifting away from fossil fuels and mitigating emissions. But for developed countries, priorities are the reverse.

“Very naturally, developed countries are far more interested in mitigation. Then they talk about transparency, and they want to see robust reporting. The problem is, they stop at that,” says Mr. Singh.

“If everybody is going to be thinking from their own perspective, and not even willing to appreciate what the other country is going through, we will only be fighting and not honestly negotiating,” he says. “We are talking to developing countries whose houses are on fire, and their first priority is to put out that fire.”

To help with that, developing nations have asked for references to “loss and damage” to be put into the final COP document – a term for international aid that can help with those direct impacts – but it’s an issue that developed countries are reluctant to engage with.

Breaking through gridlock

Despite the logjams that occur, moments of breakthrough happen, particularly during the last few days of the two-week conference and as alliances and coalitions form on the sidelines.

On Thursday, for instance, China signaled it would be open to using “uniform” rules for cutting emissions that would apply to all countries, a point Chinese officials had been reluctant to sign onto. China’s change of heart came after the European Union agreed to include a voluntary component, with countries choosing when they’re ready to join, up to a deadline.

Andy Wong/AP/File
A delivery man rides an electric bike past steam emitted by an under-street heating pipe near a construction site shrouded by a smoggy haze in Beijing. China is the world's largest carbon emitter.

 

And on Wednesday, another step forward came when a “high-ambition coalition” – including island states such as Fiji and the Marshall Islands; Latin American countries such as Colombia and Mexico; and major developed nations such as Germany, New Zealand, and Britain – pledged to significantly ramp up ambition on their 2020 emissions targets.

A coalition of Small Island Developing States has been able to amplify the voices of these small nations here – as they did in Paris – far beyond the reach of their typical political clout. With their very existence at stake, island nations have the most to lose and are on the front lines of the climate change battle, earning them a significant role of moral authority at these talks. Often, they try (with mixed success) to be bridge-builders between developed and developing countries.

This year, Fiji brought the Pacific tradition of using storytelling to build empathy and bridge divides with the Talanoa Dialogue. Participants – which have included nongovernmental organizations and businesses as well as countries – have been participating in round tables for the past year, and the process culminated this week in Katowice. In a diplomatic process that often seems mired in constant revisions of text and technical nuances, a dialogue that hinges on empathy stands out.

“The Talanoa Dialogue has brought this idea of storytelling and inclusivity and the ability to speak human to human about climate change,” says Cassie Flynn, a climate change adviser for the United Nations who advised the prime minister of Fiji as he hosted last year’s COP23. “The fact that countries who have maybe been in different groups, or on different sides of different issues, can come together as people all experiencing the impacts of climate change, and people wanting to do something about climate, and really start to talk about it in a human way ... that is really game-changing.”

Beyond Katowice

Once the final outcome is agreed upon this weekend, there will be plenty of opinions on whether the negotiations have done what they needed: whether the rulebook is robust enough on issues like transparency and reporting; whether there are enough financing mechanisms in place to help countries get where they need to go; whether there is a strong mandate for countries to ramp up their ambition on emissions targets by 2020 and match the scale of their action to the urgency of the problem.

While Paris was the pivotal breakthrough when it comes to international cooperation on climate, negotiators say that in some ways what they’re trying to accomplish now – moving from abstract goals to a detailed roadmap for implementation – is even more complicated.

“If the Paris Agreement was a clock, we are figuring out the gears of that clock,” says Ms. Flynn. “We’re figuring out how big they have to be, and how they fit together. They all have to fit together in a way that makes that clock run, and figuring out the gears of this clock is incredibly challenging.... No system like this has ever been created before. We’re creating it as we go.”

In many ways, COP24 is just the beginning of this process.

“How we do this is not going to stop in Katowice,” says Yamide Dagnet, a senior associate with the World Resource Institute’s International Climate Action Initiative. “What we want are strong guideposts to go at least in the right direction – to make it a race to the top and not a race to the bottom.”

One of the biggest challenges is with the incongruities in timing – both in the negotiation process and the geological one. Where the rulebook needs to be agreed upon by this weekend, the commitments on finance and ambition that some developing countries want in exchange for agreeing to tougher transparency and reporting rules may not come fully for another year or two.

And there’s a tension between the slowness of the diplomatic process and the increasing severity of climate change.

A constant backdrop to these talks has been the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October report warning of the dangers of going past 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F.) of warming. On Dec. 5, the Global Carbon Project released its annual data on carbon emissions, showing that emissions are rising for the second year in a row. And this past Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its annual Arctic Report Card, showing that surface air there continues to warm at twice the rate seen around rest of the globe, with effects that cascade down to lower latitudes.

“Things are accelerating. Climate change, arctic melting – all these things get faster the worse they get,” says Jesse Young, a senior adviser on climate and energy for Oxfam America and a former adviser to the US special envoy on climate change. “This process needs to sync up with the severity the crisis demands.”

This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.

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