The COP24 meeting in Poland drew to a close at the weekend with 196 states adopting a set of guidelines - or common ‘rulebook’ - to make the Paris agreement operational. This includes standards for how countries will measure, report on and verify (as well as provide finance for, in the case of lower income states) their emissions reductions. However, key issues around how nations will step up efforts to limit global warming levels - given the IPCC’s stark warning two months ago - were largely absent from the Katowice discussions.
Nevertheless, the outcome has left some green commentators breathing a sigh of relief, given President Trump’s promise in 2017 to pull out of the Paris agreement, the anti-environment stance of Brazil’s president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, and fears whether the UN process for international climate co-operation would continue to work at all.
Camilla Born, senior policy adviser for environmental think tank E3G said: "This outcome sends countries home to begin consulting with their citizens, business and investors to come up with new plans for strengthened climate action. With a growing social unrest at the failure of government to act across a whole range of social, economic and environment issues, governments need to find the transformational solutions that bring their populations along with them."
However, there were some significant bumps in the road, not least clashes over carbon credits - which are awarded to countries for their emission-cutting efforts and carbon sinks such as forests - with Brazil and some other countries insisting on revised wording, which critics believe will allow the double-counting of credits, thereby potentially undermining the system. These discussions have now been deferred to next year.
Some observers say the deal does not go far enough in addressing the urgency of the situation. Greenpeace International executive director Jennifer Morgan 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.
"Without immediate action, even the strongest rules will not get us anywhere. People expected action and that is what governments did not deliver. This is morally unacceptable and they must now carry with them the outrage of people and come to the UN Secretary General’s summit in 2019 with higher climate action targets."
Further tensions emerged during the course of the twelve-day conference when the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait all objected to COP24 unilaterally "welcoming" the recent IPCC report - which recommends keeping global warming to within the 1.5C above pre-industrial levels and at the same time warns that we are completely off track in doing so (EA 10-Oct-18). This led to a much-watered down statement that the summit welcomed the "completion" of the report and invited countries to make use of it.
In spite of the US and Australia’s somewhat out of kilter celebrations of their indigenous coal industries, other state actors including the EU plus some other developed nations and dozens of lower income countries affirmed that they would strive to meet the IPPC’s advice to limit warming to 1.5C. Although, there was little to flesh out how this would actually be achieved, the key deadline is now 2020 when countries must show they have met emissions targets set a decade ago, and crucially to affirm new, tougher targets for 2030.
Chair of the Least Developed Countries Group, Gebru Jember Endalew, said: "While there are parts of the package that could and should have been stronger, the implementation guidelines adopted today provide a strong basis to start implementing the agreement. The next step, of course, is for countries to take urgent, ambitious action to fulfil their Paris agreement commitments.
"Parties need to revise and enhance their Nationally Determined Contributions before 2020 in line with their fair share."
The UN will meet next year in Chile to thrash out the final elements of the Paris rulebook, but the crunch meeting will be the following year - likely to be in either the UK or Italy. But with potentially only twelve years to stave off catastrophic climate change, according to the IPPC, it seems the transition to low carbon energy will need to come quicker and smarter.
Skills, tech and management systems to drive change
Nick Blyth, the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment’s climate change policy lead and vice chair of the ISO Climate Change Task Force, said that skills and capacity building will both prove crucial in driving change and an equitable transition: "Many of the solutions to tackling climate change have already been developed, but we need rapid deployment - at scale - to stand any chance of stabilising to 1.5 degrees of warming. Skills development and capacity building programmes are essential to mainstream emissions reduction and catalyse change."
IEMA’s chief policy advisor Martin Baxter added that international standards are essential to mainstreaming climate change action: "Internationally relevant and recognised frameworks have the power to support, guide and monitor climate performance, especially when combined with sustainability skills across businesses and society.
"International standards for environmental management, carbon footprinting, climate change adaptation and vulnerability assessment will prove ever more valuable. That is why we are using our presence at COP24 to encourage political and business leaders to understand the power of standards as strategic and practical tools to tackle climate change at organisational level."
At the same time, the private sector has been looking to this meeting for a strong signal from international decision-makers that addressing climate change is high priority (EA 06-Dec-18). In this respect, there have been some significant announcements during the course of COP24 proceedings, including container shipping giant Maersk’s pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, and five leading banks (ING, BBVA, Société Générale, Standard Chartered and BNP Paribas) committing to quantify the climate alignment of their lending portfolios and to explore ways to steer financial streams towards Paris agreement objectives.
Also of note was the C40 cities alliance’s launch of a new report in collaboration with the IPCC report authors, providing a summary for urban policymakers detailing what the report on limiting global warming to 1.5°C means for cities and 1.5°C-compliant pathways.