COP24: Through the eyes of an Observer

10th plenary meeting of the CMP (upon conclusion of the COP plenary) Credit: ©

By: Elena Crete, Climate & Energy Manager, UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network

Climate change is one of the world’s most complicated challenges, and nations are scrambling to organize around a common goal while maintaining their own interests. In 2015, the Paris Agreement was put forth as a unifying doctrine in which 196 countries agreed to work together to fight climate change and move toward a low-carbon future. Since then, country delegations have been working to identify the rules and pathways to implement the Agreement. One of the primary outcomes missing from the original agreement was a “Paris Rulebook” to establish concrete guidelines for all signatories. Between December 2-15, the delegations from 196 countries participating in the 24th annual United Nations Conference of Parties (COP24) met in Katowice, Poland and produced this rulebook to finalize important details of the Agreement and help nations reduce their emissions. 

What did COP24 accomplish?

Two concrete – and unprecedented – outcomes of COP24 are giving hope to policymakers, economists, scientists, and climate change activists around the world.

The Rulebook

After two weeks of intensive negotiating (stemming from many months of preparation), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) delegates agreed upon the guiding principles for implementing the Paris Agreement. As the world strives over the coming years to align national accounting and reporting protocols for GHG emissions, this 133-page document will serve as  the “rules of play.” It is the start to a long and ongoing process of revision, improvement, and reconciliation – but it’s a good start.

National interests and shared responsibility were among some of the challenges to creating the rulebook – not to mention COP24 itself. For example, outgoing Polish president Andrzej Duda was outspoken in supporting the country’s legacy coal industry, while Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki assured negotiators – and the media – of the country’s plan to transition away from its current 80% coal-based energy mix. As host of the COP24 negotiations, Poland’s display of coal-based jewelry and soaps on the grounds of the event turned heads as clean energy advocates tried to understand the motivation and purpose of promoting this dangerous industry.

Without strong leadership from Poland to head the negotiations, the first week of discussion lacked direction and promoted a sense of uncertainty and doubt among the 14,000 participating negotiators.

Another notable moment included an extended discussion on if, and how, to formally recognize the outcomes from the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 ºC, developed by thousands of climate experts at the request of the UNFCCC and meant to serve as the scientific basis on which to base accelerated action on emissions reduction efforts. The battle was over two words: “note” or “welcome”. Broadening the gap between science and policy, four big oil and gas producers blocked the UN climate talks from openly welcoming the IPCC’s warning that we must act fast in order to level and reverse emissions. Saudi Arabia, the United States, Kuwait, and Russia wanted the final statement to merely “note” the report, which documents the effects of a global temperature rise of 1.5°C. But small island states and others pushed to “welcome” the findings. The final decision? The UNFCCC gave “appreciation and gratitude” for the report.

This undermining of expert scientific evidence – on which all of these conversations and negotiations are based – is telling of just how complicated and politically charged this process can be.

Yet the very existence of a rulebook was also in question. During the first week of the negotiations, the Chinese delegation lobbied to draft two separate sets of rules for developed and developing nations respectively, illustrating common but differentiated responsibilities. With mounting consideration for separate and less stringent guidelines for developing nations, some negotiators feared a schism into a bifurcated system that would further divide negotiators. In the end, China became open to a “uniform” set of rules. A common set of guidelines that allows countries to adopt and navigate the rules of engagement to fit their own local contexts is vital and was achieved in the drafted text, mirroring one of the successes of the initial Paris Agreement: its inclusive and voluntary nature.

An Inclusive Approach

Talanoa Dialogue: Political Phase Credit: ©

The second successful aspect of COP24 was the inclusion of non-Party stakeholders. There have been growing calls for greater inclusion of non-state actors – including city and regional governments, companies, academia, and civil society – to more formally participate in the negotiations. Over the last few years the input, commitment, and innovations from non-party stakeholders have been invaluable to the COP process.The Talanoa Dialogue process, launched last year at COP24 and based on Fijian storytelling tradition, has been an ongoing activity throughout 2018, providing a forum for solution-sharing, joint learning, and collaboration. The Cities and Regions Talanoa Dialogues video captures the yearlong mobilization, and demonstrates just how important access for subnational leaders is in this process. Often, these leaders are the ones implementing the complementary policies that help national governments to realize their commitments and goals.

The Talanoa Dialogue culminated in a call-to-action for higher ambition from all stakeholders.

The Talanoa Dialogue builds on an initiative begun at the 2016 COP (COP22) in the form of the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action. The Marrakech Partnership, which is an ongoing part of the COP process, aims to increase coordination across climate action efforts. It is also the primary mechanism through which non-Party actors can submit opportunities and recommendations directly to national teams working to increase their NDCs and articulate their Low-Emission Development Strategies (LEDS) in the coming years as part of the Paris Agreement. While there is a limit to what can be negotiated and agreed upon by 196 nations with special interests and local contexts to consider, the Marrakech Partnership model seeks to mobilize knowledge and amplify lessons-learned to improve the overall efficiency of this process.

Where did COP24 fall short?

Despite these accomplishments, critical aspects of the Paris Agreement were not addressed – in particular Article 6., in reference to international carbon markets and carbon credit systems. The importance of natural carbon sinks (ex. forests) should not be underestimated and the way in which they are calculated, accounted for, and preserved will need to be significantly vetted in order to avoid double counting or corruption. Brazil was an important figure in this discussion and was accused of proposing a contested carbon accounting system that could potentially result in an opaque and questionable system, putting the Amazon and other important tropical forests at risk. This agenda item has been struck almost entirely from the current Rulebook, for now, and will be a central topic for discussion in the negotiations at COP25 next year.

Also missing was extensive discussion on financing, and specifically the lack of follow-through on financial commitment from some of the world’s biggest emitters.

3rd Ministerial High-Level Dialogue on Climate Finance – “Translating climate finance needs into action ©

Per Article 9 of the Paris Agreement, developed countries are meant to provide financial support to help developing countries to both adapt to and mitigate climate change. While a few countries stepped up – including Germany and Norway who both committed additional funds to the $100 billion Green Climate Fund to developing countries – most countries have not honored their funding commitments to date. The lack of focus on this issue and on the countries that repeatedly haven’t met their commitments is causing serious speculation on what will be possible for rapidly growing developing countries and the infrastructure they are locking in now.

What comes next?

Chile has been confirmed as the host of next year’s COP25 climate summit in November 2019. Ahead of that meeting, UN Secretary-General António Guterres is hosting a special Climate Summit in New York in September. This summit is a complement to the Global Climate Action Summit hosted in 2018 by California Governor Jerry Brown and others. The goal of this summit is to provide a separate forum for stakeholders to make progress, increase ambition, and push forward climate action outside of the formal national negotiations. The summit will work toward increasing financial commitments and identifying innovative mechanisms for money to flow seamlessly and transparently.

If this COP has taught the world anything, it’s that there is a limit to what can be accomplished in an annual, multilateral negotiation. With a growing consensus of concern for our uncertain future under the specter of climate change, we must leverage all of the tools at-hand, inside and outside of these formal negotiations.

And with globalization increasing and national boundaries blurring, it is imperative that all parts of our society realize their vested interests in the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Elena Crete is a Manager for the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), where she focuses on special initiatives for the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) and other climate and energy projects. She is the lead for the annual Low-Emissions Solutions Conference (LESC), launched at COP22 and helps to package low-emission solutions for decision-makers across sectors to help implement the Paris Agreement.