It appears from all reports that the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) in Katowice, Poland is not going well for the environment. The UN climate conference, in the heart of Poland’s coal country, is being attended by delegates from 200 countries and 30,000 more from governments, businesses, industries, environmental organizations, various issue and technology exhibitors, journalists, and various and sundry other places. The goal of the COP24 is to write the rules to be followed by the signatories on the 2015 Paris Climate Accord.
The Paris Accord was truly historic in its having gotten 195 nations to agree to it. In this day and age getting any agreement between nations on a matter as politically sensitive as climate change ranks as a minor miracle. Getting everyone of the nations to live up to the agreement is quite another matter.
Technically every country on Earth, including the US, are still signatories to the Accord. Syria and Nicaragua, the two original holdouts, penned their signatures to the document in 2017 right around the time Trump announced the US was backing out. Whether the two late signers saw the environmental light or just an opportunity to punk Trump is anyone’s guess—although I have my suspicions.
Enthusiasm for the Accord has clearly cooled since 2015. The first hint that something was amiss in Katowice was a dispute over the words “welcomed” and “noted.” The US, Saudi Arabia, and Russia refused to accept the wish of all the other nations in the room to “welcome” the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report into the record of the proceedings.
It is the report released in October that bluntly states the need to cut global net CO2 emissions by 45 percent over the next 12 years through "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society" to have any hope of keeping rising temperatures below the Accord’s aspirational target of 1.5 degree Celsius. The three nations—now being called by some the Axis of Evil—demanded that the Report be only “noted” by the conference.
The brouhaha over the two words may seem trivial; it’s not. The report had been recognized in its full glory in various meetings leading up to the Katowice conference—although Saudi Arabia had complained along the way they didn't stop it before it hit the public stage. The report itself was fought for in the first place by developing countries at COP23 in Paris. In the in-between time, these nations thought the IPCC would pull its punches for political reasons. That the Report was a straight-up characterization of the problem was reassuring to these countries.
Developing and small island nations have a lot more at stake than many developed countries when it comes to climate change. Some countries-- Kiribati, Vanuatu and the Marshall Islands come immediately to mind—have more skin in the game than say the state of Kentucky when it comes to rising sea levels.
I may not see much difference between the words welcome and noted, since subtlety is often lost on me. The point is—these nations do. It should be a small gesture to recognize the Report that is on everyone’s desk and has been the subject of headlines throughout the world. The position of the US in this matter is reminiscent of Trump's reaction to the 4th National Climate Assessment released by his own administration just a few weeks ago.
Developing nations were not the only ones who had a problem with the troika’s belligerence. The science-community—many of whom contributed to the Report—felt that science was being shoved aside in the name of politics. The marginalization of science by politicians is in my judgment a huge problem when it comes to addressing the global problem before us. As an American—and a believer in mainstream climate-science—I’m sorry that the US was keeping company with murderers and that we couldn’t at least have been more gracious about things.
There have been other signs of failing enthusiasm for the Accord during COP24. There have been other signs of failing enthusiasm for the Accord. For example, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres thought it necessary to fly back to Poland in an effort to support struggling talks—after having left earlier in the week. Also, Australia has announced its intention to take advantage of a loophole it negotiated in the Kyoto protocol. As described by the Guardian:
An additional article negotiated in the dying hours of the conference – known as the “Australia clause” and condemned at the time by a European environment spokesman as “wrong and immoral... a disgrace” – allowed Australia to include land use changes in its emissions calculations which meant the target could be reached with only minor changes to land-clearing laws.
Having exceeded its Kyoto target, Australia is intending to use the “earned” credit towards meeting its Paris commitments. It’s estimated that the carry-over credits amount to nearly half of its 2030 goal. The Guardian also reports that this is the position of Australia’s current populist government as well as of the more liberal Labor party that was recently in power. Other nations—Denmark, Germany, the UK, Sweden, and the Netherlands—cancelled their Kyoto credits in 2015 and New Zealand has voiced its intention not use them as well. New Zealand also accused its neighbor of a cheap accounting trick.
Australia, like the US, scores poorly on the 2019 Climate Change Performance Index. The Index is designed to enhance transparency in international climate politics. It aims to put political and social pressure on those countries that have, until now, failed to take ambitious action on climate protection and to highlight those countries with the best practice climate policies. (See Figure below) The ranking results are defined by a country’s aggregated performance using 14 indicators within the four categories https://germanwatch.org/en/CCPI“GHG Emissions,” “Renewable Energy” and “Energy Use,” as well as on “Climate Policy. (The Report go here)
Also putting a pall on the proceedings is the omission of human rights guidelines in the latest draft of the rule book. According to the Climate Action Network (CAN), a worldwide coalition of more than 1,300 NGOs, the inclusion of a human rights reference in a set of guidelines for action was challenged by the United States, which argued that any such inclusion was an attempt to operationalize something that by definition wasn’t operational.
I admit to having difficulty understanding why human rights are not able to be “operation-alized.” Surely, something that can reasonably be defined and practiced can be made operational—or at least referenced. Insofar as human rights incorporate the notion of inclusiveness it is a practice that should be encouraged. The French yellow vest (Mouvement des gilets jaunes) demonstrations against the diesel fuel tax in France and the defeat of the carbon tax by Washington state voters offer valuable lessons, I believe, in how climate policies should be developed.
The US also chose not to sign the Solidarity and Just Transition Silesia Declaration that was drawn up by Poland that calls on governments to recognize that the move to low-carbon economies will cause disruptions in poorer countries and in nations whose economies are tied to fossil fuels. It’s not a coincidence that Katowice is in the heart of Polish coal country. Poland is the EU’s second biggest coal producer—next to Germany—and the world’s ninth largest.
There is concern over both the Declaration and Poland’s presidency of the COP24. Poland’s economy runs on coal and has indicated it will reduce its reliance in the future but “will never entirely give it up.” Although over 30 nations signed the Declaration, including Great Britain, suspicions run high that the document will be used to delay the urgent transition required to keep Earth’s temperatures below critical thresholds.
There’s no getting around the fact that transition to low-carbon economies is disruptive—in some places more than others. Time, as always is of the essence. The longer the transition takes, the closer to the threshold the world gets. The closer the threshold the more severe the sacrifices will be to stay to the right side of it. But—and there’s almost always a but—should this be done on the backs of the poor and middle-class—at least not without bringing them into the conversation and giving them the opportunity to assent?
The riots in France and the defeat of the carbon tax initiative in Washington state are saying something about what most of us are worried about—even those convinced that sacrifices need to be made. It is hard to fault someone for putting food for one’s family before a global problem so massive as to be hardly able to get one’s head around it. If richer nations don’t step up, can poorer populations be blamed for holding out?
The US is being blamed by everyone—including China—for the problems at COP24. I don’t disagree that the US is failing to provide the leadership and capital resources that it could, e.g., aid to developing and small island nations. If the future of the planet is contingent on the Trump administration, we might just as well give up now.
And really--who is China to point fingers? They’re the largest emitter of CO2 and hardly incapable of stepping up their contributions to developing and small island nations. Instead, state-owned Chinese companies are building coal plants across the world.
The point I’m trying to make is that there are numbers of nations who for one reason or another—be it political or economic—are backsliding on their Paris promises. There are likely to be more before COP25. Whether the threshold is 12 or 30 years from now, it’s not much time in terms of pulling the world together not just to agree—but to act. Politics and human nature seem always to get in the way.
To be honest, I think the problems encountered at COP24—if not entirely predictable—should at least not be considered particularly surprising. Disappointing, yes. I wish I had some brilliant idea as to how nearly 200 nations can come together in community to solve the problems, we all have had some part in creating. I don’t. Although like most of you, I will continue to do what I can.
I’m still trying to figure out how to help get the US back in the game. If you do have suggestions, please let me know.
Image credits: Friends of the Earth/Flickr
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MS, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.