Cop out: Can the UN Climate Summit deliver?

Cop out: Can the UN Climate Summit deliver?

yellow vest demonstration
Shutterstock Serge Goujon
Around 36,000 people took part in "yellow vest" demonstrations in Paris in November protesting rising fuel prices, ahead of COP24 in Poland.

There is no denying the mood music leading into next week's crucial United Nations climate summit in Katowice could be better. The annual pre-summit flurry of scientific reports warning of the ever-escalating climate threat have passed off with little more than a collective shrug from world leaders. The climate skeptic-in-chief in the Oval Office questioned who had written the latest alarming IPCC report — scientists, Mr. President, the world's best scientists wrote it — and then dismissed his own government's study on imminent climate impacts with a Victor Meldrew-esque, "I don't believe it."

At the same time, the summit's Polish hosts have done little to assuage fears they see the conference as an opportunity to reignite divisive talk of "clean coal." The presidency for the summit encouragingly has signaled that its priorities are action on forests, firmer plans for a "just transition" and increased investment in e-mobility, while the commitment to finalizing the all-important rulebook for the Paris Agreement is real. But campaigners remain concerned that the focus on a "just transition" easily could morph into a defense of carbon-intensive industries and a rationalization for a "go slow" on decarbonization — fears further fuelled by the news one of Poland's largest coal companies has been named as a major sponsor of the summit.

If uncertainty surrounds the role of Polish presidency, there is no such equivocation about the stance of the United States. Having kept a relatively low profile at last year's summit in Bonn, the Trump administration is poised to have a more muscular presence in Katowice built around a clear plan to promote "clean coal" and a stronger line on the importance of developing economies adhering to the same rules under the Paris Agreement as industrialized nations. It may be planning to quit the global climate accord as soon as possible, but that has not stopped the United States wanting to leave its mark on the agreement. The U.S. team already has managed to chalk up minor victories in the run-up to the summit, watering down language in support of the Paris Agreement in the upcoming G20 statement and reportedly tweaking a recent U.N. report on climate finance to dilute references to industrialized countries' funding obligations.

Things got even worse for the UNFCCC, as reports revealed Brazil has withdrawn its offer to host next year's COP summit, citing the current government transition and budgetary concerns. It is an unconvincing rationale that everyone will interpret as cover for President-elect Jair Bolsonaro's intense hostility towards both climate action and multilateralism.

Meanwhile, the advocates for bolder multi-lateral climate action — the European Union, the bloc of least developed countries and arguably China and India — have appeared more than a little distracted in recent months, as they wrestle with a raft of domestic issues and escalating geopolitical tensions. The EU is juggling Brexit, internal divisions over the pace of decarbonization, and the general uncertainty that will come with the transition to the post-Angela Merkel era. China has found itself pulled into an unwanted trade war with the United States that could serve to hamper green investment plans. The world's poorest countries have found that the moral authority that comes from highlighting how they are bearing the brunt of a climate crisis they did least to create holds no currency with Donald Trump and his fellow nationalist strongmen. The United Kingdom has managed to schedule its critical Brexit vote for the middle of the aummit's second week, raising questions over when ministerial representatives will be able to make it to Poland. And even the world's most high-profile climate hawk, French President Emmanuel Macron, is mired in domestic woes and protests over his efforts to put a higher price on diesel pollution.

Separately, civil society groups gathering in Katwice have been rocked by their own scandal, after Climate Home News revealed the executive director at the influential Climate Action Network International (Can-I) is facing an inquiry into "a number of serious complaints."

It is increasingly easy to envisage a worst case scenario where the United States, aided by an emboldened Saudi Arabia, a coal-obsessed Australian government, an isolationist Brazil and an ambivalent host, turn the annual climate summit into an ill-tempered row that serves to neuter the Paris Agreement's multilateral vision and decarbonization ambitions. The backdrop to the COP24's venue is provided by Katowice's Coal History Museum. It very much remains to be seen if the meeting will further consign the fossil fuel era to history or throw it a lifeline.

However, thankfully a counter-narrative is filled with credible reasons why COP24 could still prove to be a qualified success.

U.N. climate summits operate in two interlocking spheres: the staid, technocratic world of line-by-line treaty negotiation and the rough-and-tumble world of heavy-weight geopolitics. In both worlds, there is more cause for optimism than might first appear.

On the technocratic side of proceedings, the primary goal for COP24 is the finalization of the rulebook for the Paris Agreement, which needs to be agreed this year ahead of the treaty coming into full effect in 2020. Observers say there is still plenty of room for disagreement on the fine-point detail of the rulebook, much of which centers on the perennial division over whether rich and poor countries should face the same obligations. At the same time, a consensus is building in favor of a credible rulebook that ensures reporting on decarbonization efforts and national climate action plans globally is standardized.

The least developed group of countries recently issued a statement arguing that "agreeing a robust 'rulebook' for the Paris Agreement will be a vital first step" for the summit. "LDCs will be pushing for rules capable of ensuring that adequate action is taken to cut emissions, adapt to climate change and address loss and damage," it added. "Additional rules to facilitate the smooth transfer of finance, technology and support for capacity building to LDCs and other developing countries will be equally critical to achieving our Paris goals."

Big business is on much the same page. Speaking on a briefing call earlier this week, Michelle Patron, director of sustainability policy at Microsoft and a representative of the We Are Still In coalition of U.S. businesses, stressed the importance of a rulebook that ensures countries are transparent in reporting on their emissions reduction efforts. "If successful, the Paris rulebook would standardize how countries report, update and strengthen their nationally determined contributions," she said. "We believe it should have robust transparency requirements that apply to all countries. And then allow for more flexibility for the poorest countries that truly lack capacity. A strong rulebook would set the same transparency rules for developed countries and developing countries, which is critical to building confidence that parties are following through with their climate commitments. And when you think about it, it's necessary because countries' climate targets are voluntary — they are not legally binding. And so the greatest motivation for countries to fully implement their pledges is to know that the world is watching."

The main opposition is likely to come from large emerging economies centered around the BASIC group — Brazil, South Africa, India and China — which recently issued a statement reiterating the Paris Agreement's commitment to the "principles of Equity and Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities" and intensifying long-standing calls for a greater focus on climate finance, climate adaptation, patent reform and technology transfer.

Disagreements over the rulebook are likely to bleed into the perennial row over climate funding and the extent to which richer nations are delivering on their promise to mobilize increased levels of climate finance. The U.N. provided some good news last week, publishing an update that suggested total climate finance increased 17 percent between 2013-14 and 2015-16. However, even when private capital is added into the mix, still only around $70 billion a year is flowing from rich countries to poorer countries in climate finance, well short of the 2020 target of $100 billion a year. 

Either way, observers remain confident there is room for a deal on finance and the rulebook to be done. Poland has set the rulebook as the defining measure for the success of the summit and does not want to see it fail. The U.N. has proved itself pretty adept at unlocking negotiating logjams and finding a form of legalese to finesse disagreements since the Paris summit, and few experts fear a crisis going into the meeting. And if a deal can be brokered, it could trigger significant new investment. As Lou Leonard, senior vice president for climate change and energy at WWF, told reporters, a deal on the rulebook would have a tangible real-world impact. "One of the key parts of the rulebook to be agreed in Poland is really to get issues around carbon markets and the connections between the actions of different governments to have clear guidelines and rules for," he said. "That's a really important signal for the private sector to trigger more investment. Getting the rulebook right is a really important way to unlock and connect some of the action and investment the private sector is prepared to make."

This optimism is further fuelled by a combination of technological and economic progress, alongside growing calls for more ambitious decarbonization efforts. The other big test of COP24's success is likely to be the political text that closes the summit and the extent to which it locks in commitments from leading economies that they will strengthen their decarbonization plans before the Paris Agreement is fully activated in 2020. A bold pledge to reassess national action plans and strengthen emissions goals in response to the IPCC report would send a clear signal to investors that the international community remains fully committed to the accord and businesses should adjust their plans accordingly.

"At the negotiations in Poland, one of the key things that governments can do, and the outcome reached in Poland should do, is have clear decision text as part of the final outcome of the talks, where government agree to go back and revisit their targets and to specifically engage with and take into consideration the actions and leadership of the private sector and state and local governments," observed Leonard.

There are good reasons to think such a statement could be secured. The outgoing Fijian presidency's Talanoa Dialogue initiative will capture ample evidence of how leading businesses and economies are pursuing ambitious decarbonization plans that unlock multiple development and societal benefits. Around 30 countries, including big hitters such as the U.K., France, Canada, Mexico and Spain, already have signaled they are with planning to strengthen their climate targets before 2020 or are considering doing so. The European Commission published its draft proposals to make the bloc a net zero emission economy by 2050, while the tiny Marshall Islands secured the title of first country to resubmit a strengthened NDC action plan.

As Leonard noted, there is a huge opportunity for countries to strengthen their emissions pledges simply by capturing green investment activity at the state and corporate level that has occurred since the Paris Agreement. "So much of this activity from the private sector and local governments has happened over the course of the last three years or so, which has all been since the time that national governments prepared those first round of NDCs," he explained. "So there is a lot of activity and ambition that is sitting on the table waiting for those governments to consider it as they look to revise their targets."

Plummeting renewables and clean tech costs also serve to make deep decarbonization ever more economically attractive, while the pressure from civil society at this year's COP will be as unrelenting and high profile as ever, helped no doubt by an appearance from David Attenborough. No one is expecting major new net zero emission announcements in Katowice, but a meaningful signal that they are in the pipeline for 2020 would represent a big win for green businesses everywhere. 

This optimism is inevitably tempered by the huge potential for the world's autocratic opponents of climate action to spoil the party. A major row cannot be ruled out, especially in the current febrile climate. But equally in the messy world of international diplomacy, where murdered dissident journalists, trade spats and election upsets indirectly can inform how governments wrestle with seemingly unrelated issues, it is possible that mutual self-interest will coincide around a solid but unspectacular climate agreement.

The Republicans' poor performance in the U.S. midterms, coupled with the steady progress of the Mueller investigation, will fuel hopes the United States swiftly could return to the Paris Accord in 2020 under a new president. As such, those countries mindful to side with the U.S. in blocking progress in Poland may choose to think again. The Saudis, for so long a roadblock at the talks, will be under unrelenting pressure to play a more conciliatory role as the diplomatic blowback from the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi continues. The EU and China increasingly regard the climate talks as one of the few remaining successes of a multilateral, rules-based world order and will be highly motivated to defend it as such. Meanwhile, the growing attractiveness of clean technologies and the ever more stark evidence of climate impacts means savvy governments regard bold climate action as non-negotiable.

Given the volatile nature of the three years since the Paris Agreement, no one should bet against a wild card or two. But at the same time there is clearly a deal to be done, and ultimately the reasons for optimism rest on two of the most powerful forces in international relations: raw economics and even rawer realpolitik.

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