The annual United Nations climate change conference (COP 24) got under way yesterday in Katowice, Poland, amid urgent calls for action in response to a year of back-to-back climate emergencies and repeat warnings that the window of opportunity for pathways to 1.5°C average global warming is just a dozen years from closing.
The major tasks at this year’s COP are to complete the “rule book” that will set the detailed terms for bringing the 2015 Paris Agreement to life, and to set the stage for countries to announce faster, deeper carbon cuts and more ambitious approaches to climate adaptation in 2020. International climate finance will also be a focus for tough discussion, with the UN’s troubled and perpetually under-financed Green Climate Fund now in dire need of replenishment.
On Saturday, the presidents of the last four COPs—Manuel Pulgar Vidal of Peru, Laurent Fabius of France, Salaheddine Mezouar of Morocco, and Frank Bainamarama of Fiji—issued an unprecedented message urging delegates to “send an unequivocal message from Katowice for enhanced ambition by 2020 that puts the world on a trajectory compatible with the objectives of the Paris Agreement.”
The world “is at a crossroads, and decisive action in the next two years will be crucial to tackle these urgent threats,” they wrote. “What ministers and other leaders say and do in Katowice at COP 24 will help determine efforts for years to come and either bring the world closer to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement—including protecting those most vulnerable to climate change—or push action further down the road. Any delay will only make it harder and more expensive to respond to climate change.”
The work on the Paris rule book will mean condensing a 300-page preliminary text down to a manageable series of negotiated agreements, Climate Action Network-Canada reports in the first edition of its COP newsletter, CANRaction. “Some parts of the negotiation have made steady progress, and parts of the rule book will likely be finalized in Katowice,” the newsletter states. “Other items need a lot more work, and are unlikely to be fully resolved this year.”
Meanwhile, “after seeing the dire impacts of climate change hit home around the world in 2018, delegates will also be talking about accelerating their commitments under the Paris Agreement,” CANRaction notes. “The push is on for countries to commit to reviewing and strengthening their Paris commitments before COP 26 convenes in 2020,” and “CAN-Rac is pressing Canada to promise to review its Paris promises in 2019, in time to communicate a more ambitious target to the global community in 2020.”
CAN-Rac Executive Director Catherine Abreu said it’ll be time for Canada to “truly step up” during this year’s COP.
“The lost lives and unprecedented community devastation of 2018 have redefined the politics of climate change. At COP 24, it will be up to national delegations to redefine their own responses to the crisis,” she said. “Scientists say we have 12 years to act to protect our future. Yet a small but powerful group of politicians around the world, wielding the disguise of populist rhetoric, has risen up to defend our lethal addiction to fossil fuels—despite the disruptive influence of cheap renewable power and clean innovation. In different ways big and small, their presence will be felt at this conference.”
But everywhere else, “the cry for climate action has become a deafening roar, with children, doctors, Indigenous peoples, and the world’s most vulnerable communities at the forefront,” Abreu added. “That makes COP 24 the essential moment for the world’s governments to respond with real action. 2018 has crystallized the depth of the challenge and given us an unmistakable sense of how much action is required, how fast, and the world is paying attention to what happens in Katowice.”
At the same time, “we’re at the point where the international process has really delivered much of what countries need to move forward on climate. So the call for urgent action isn’t mainly about the success or failure of this COP,” she said. “It’s about countries doing the hard and necessary work to implement the Paris Agreement at home. The technicalities of bringing the agreement to life still matter. But we also have to be real about what this process can deliver as one piece of a bigger puzzle.”
For Canada, “that will mean getting on track to implementing a comprehensive suite of climate policies so that it can exceed its insufficient 2030 Paris target, and contributing at least its fair-share commitment of C$4 billion per year for international climate finance.” The country “will also have to address the expected growth in GHG emissions from oil and gas to have any hope of meeting the first of those challenges.”
The International Institute for Sustainable Development and Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation(among many others) are both out with detailed analyses of what’s at stake and what to expect during the conference, the U.S.-based We Mean Business coalition is emphasizing the business opportunities to be gained through bold climate action, and Reuters is reporting on environmentalists’ concerns that costly carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology will be put forward to “perpetuate the fossil fuel status quo, when rapid and deep cuts energy use are needed to limit global warming”.
The politics surrounding this year’s COP have been unusually tense, with Brazil’s new climate-denying president Jair Bolsonaro announcing last week he was rescinding the previous government’s offer to host next year’s conference, COP 25. Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Chile all quickly stepped up with offers to lead.
Meanwhile, the conference convened under tight security after Poland’s far right government announced a terrorism alert for Katowice and the surrounding province. In the months leading up to the COP, civil society groups had expressed grave worries about draconian plans to collect personal information on delegates and limit public protests during the conference.
“We are concerned that the climate negotiations will be a farce if they are conducted in this atmosphere of fear, threat, and intimidation,” 116 civil society groups and individuals wrote in April, in a letter to the United Nations climate secretariat and the bureau of the Aarhus Convention, which guarantees public participation in environmental decisions. The legislation means “environmental defenders” attending the COP 24 face “great risks, barriers, and restrictions in…protesting against policies that accelerate climate change,” they added.
In a March 26 letter to UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights John Knox, Human Rights Watch warned that “these measures could be used to spy on environmental activists and Indigenous leaders” participating in the COP.
Poland is being far more accommodating to the three big European coal companies it has signed up as collaborators for the conference. “Polish Environment minister Henryk Kowalczyk told reporters in Warsaw that the state-owned JSW company, along with coal-based energy companies PGE and Tauron, were chosen as partners for the global talks, aimed at reducing global warming through cutting greenhouse gas emissions,” Agence France-Presse reports.
“Relying primarily on coal for some 80% of its energy, Poland is among the EU’s most polluted members,” the news agency notes. “In a policy paper published this week, its right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government said it aims to reduce reliance on coal to 60% by 2030 by boosting renewables and adding nuclear energy to its mix.”
In a separate dispatch, AFP reports that giant oil and coal companies “are exploiting a lack of conflict-of-interest protection at UN climate talks to push for continued fossil fuel use despite its contribution to harmful climate change.” Even after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its urgent call for rapid and drastic greenhouse gas reductions, and “despite the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions must be slashed in order to avoid climate disaster, the world’s only international action plan still reserves a seat for major polluters.”