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The Paris Agreement, itself a compromise that is not enough to combat climate change, was further weakened in the details as the work programme was signed off in the annual UN climate summit 

Developed countries, historically responsible for the majority of emissions, have only promised that the “probability” of climate finance will be available, disappointing many (Photo by Joydeep Gupta)

Developed countries, historically responsible for the majority of emissions, have only promised that the probability of climate finance will be available, disappointing many (Photo by Joydeep Gupta)

A Paris Agreement Work Programme (PAWP) was just about saved as the UN climate summit concluded a day behind schedule in Katowice, Poland, but only with compromises that make it more difficult to combat climate change with any seriousness.

People around the world already face floods, storms, droughts, heat waves, a rising sea, all worsened many times by climate change. Scientists warn of the danger of inaction. Researchers calculate that national pledges to control emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) are nowhere near enough. There is little money to help developing countries adapt to climate change effects, leave alone deal with the loss and damage it is already causing. See: 1.5 degree ambition demands radical change, UN warns, Governments leading world to disastrous warming: UN

Still, government negotiators continue to bicker in their bubble. Rich nations demur at helping poor nations, though most of the GHGs that are warming the world have been emitted by them since the start of the Industrial Age. US President Donald Trump’s negotiators have almost killed any notion of historical responsibility at this summit. See: UN pleads for climate action, US remains sceptic

The bickering that delayed the summit finale arose because Brazil wanted credit for the emissions it has reduced over the years. These Certified Emission Reductions (CER) are part of the Kyoto Protocol regime that ends in 2020. Brazil wanted to carry CERs beyond 2020 under the Paris Agreement regime – otherwise they will turn into scrap. Rich nations objected, saying they were not satisfied if these CERs had been collected with “sufficient accounting”, as a EU delegate put it. India and China supported the Brazilian position, but neither strongly nor publicly. The matter remains unresolved, and will be taken up next year.

What was resolved was a PAWP under which all governments will update their climate plans by 2020. Several countries – mostly from the developing world – have announced during the December 2-14 summit that they have already started their preparations. With that, the PAWP was signed off, which means the Paris Agreement can become legally operational in 2020. A relieved UN Climate Chief Patricia Espinosa said, “This is a roadmap for the international community to decisively address climate change.”

In a message delivered at the end of the summit, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres spoke of the high level climate meet he has called next September and added that his five priorities would be “ambition in mitigation, ambition in adaptation, ambition in finance, ambition in technical cooperation and capacity building, ambition in technological innovation.”

No differentiation 

But the work programme was signed off only when developing countries agreed to report and account for their climate actions in the same way as developed countries. In turn, rich nations agreed to increase the “predictability” of the money they will provide for this purpose. This last assurance was wrung in the teeth of opposition from the US government delegates, who remain in the negotiating rooms because the country cannot legally withdraw from the Paris Agreement till 2020, though their President wants to do so. A day before the summit ended, linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky had said, “President Donald Trump should face the international court of justice in the Hague on charges of crimes against humanity.”

Civil society organisations said they were disappointed over the outcome of the climate talks held in Katowice, Poland (Photo by Soumya Sarkar)

Civil society organisations said they were disappointed over the outcome of the climate talks held in Katowice, Poland (Photo by Soumya Sarkar)

There was considerable disquiet over the requirement that rich and poor nations will have to account for all their climate actions the same way. At the finale, India’s chief negotiator Ravi Shankar Prasad, expressed his distress about this lack of “differentiation” now and in 2023, when a “global stocktake” is scheduled to see if governments are still on track to stick to the Paris Agreement. By current trends, they will be nowhere near it.

Some participants and observers still saw signs of hope. Laurence Tubiana, key architect of the Paris Agreement and now the head of CEO European Climate Foundation, said, “Despite all the headwinds, the Paris Agreement has stayed course at COP24 (the 24th Conference of Parties), demonstrating the kind of resilience it has been designed for. The decisions made here on the Paris rulebook give us a solid foundation to keep building trust in multilateralism and accelerate the transition all across the world.”

Christiana Figueres, former head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said, “No one is entirely happy with this rulebook, but it is an important step. Next year is critical.”

R.R. Rashmi former chief negotiator and now a Distinguished Fellow at the New Delhi-based The Energy and Resources Institute, said, “This COP has made reasonably good progress despite all odds. The conclusions adopted by the COP on the rules and modalities for implementing the Paris agreement are fairly substantive if not as ambitious as were expected.”

Chinese reality

Li Shuo, Senior Climate and Energy Policy Officer at Greenpeace East Asia, said, “In Katowice, China has provided support in keeping the spirit of Paris alight and shown its commitment to the climate multilateralism process. Over the last two weeks of complex negotiations, China was an enabler of a solid rulebook with binding common rules for transparency and review. These talks also showed China’s increasing role as the principal broker between developed and developing countries. This role helped to nudge developing countries into taking on more responsibilities.”

“Reality bites back in Beijing, however,” he continued. “Leaders in Beijing must take urgent action to wrest emissions away from the upward path they have returned to after three years of plateau and decline. With just 12 years to reduce global emissions by almost half, as science has made abundantly clear, we do not have time for this.”

Bai Yunwen, Director, Greenovation Hub, China, said, “The IPCC 1.5 Special Report clearly shows that the world needs to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, and renewable energy investment needs to expand quickly. The world is seeing an increasing trend of decarbonisation, thus, China’s investment under the Belt & Road Initiative must be in line with the Paris Agreement.”

Ella Wang, Practice Head, Climate, Energy & Green Finance, WWF China, said, “Current progress isn’t enough in the face of climate emergency. National government, cities and business partners need to accelerate the energy transition in China and in Belt & Road countries to meet the NDC and beyond.”

Civil society responds

Anirban Ghosh, Chief Sustainability Officer at Mahindra Group, India, said, “Renewables, energy efficiency, electric vehicles are clear wins today, and make economic sense. There are several stories of change around the world where climate ambition is happening as a result of faster mitigation actions. Policy makers should return from COP with one clear message – an increase in ambitious climate commitments, coupled with clear and confident policy signals to business, will enable companies to help deliver the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

Chair of the Least Developed Countries Group Gebru Jember Endalew said, “This year, it has been made very clear that no country is immune to the impacts of climate change, but it is the nearly one billion people living in the 47 least developed countries that are often hit the hardest, suffer the most, and have the least capacity to cope. Countries need to revise and enhance their nationally determined contributions (to the Paris Agreement) before 2020 in line with their fair share.”

Mohamed Adow, International Climate Lead of the NGO Christian Aid, said, “Countries have just about scraped a C minus when the scientists of the IPCC showed that they needed to get straight As.”

Sven Harmeling, Global Policy Lead on Climate Change at CARE International, said, “The world now requires much faster and stronger climate action at the national level, and support for poor countries to build climate resilience.”

Harjeet Singh, Global Lead on Climate Change at ActionAid International, said, “Our governments have failed us. Some of the most powerful countries in the world are led by reactionary climate deniers and their views have been allowed to water down the ambition and cooperation needed to avert catastrophic climate change. Rich countries have a moral and a legal responsibility to provide money and technology to developing countries to make their economies greener and tackle the impacts of climate change. Instead of taking this seriously, they pushed through a rulebook riddled with loopholes allowing them to avoid this responsibility. The climate crisis simply cannot be fixed without financing. It’s hugely frustrating to see a Paris Rulebook that goes backwards on delivering real finance and real action.”

“The worst affected communities have shouted from the rafters about the loss and damage they’re experiencing right now. More than 20 million people a year are being forcibly displaced by sudden, extreme weather events. The agreement to now officially monitor losses shows that, although these communities are finally being heard, the world is still standing back and watching climate change like it’s a slow-motion car crash.”

Some scope for hope

While the outcome of the formal negotiations at this year’s UN summit disappointed many, there were many bright moments too. The World Bank announced it will double investments in climate action to about USD 200 billion from 2021. More money was pledged for the Green Climate Fund and the Least Developed Countries Fund, while the Adaptation Fund crossed the USD 100 million mark for the first time. More than 400 global investors with over USD 30 trillion in assets called on global leaders to increase climate action.

The world’s largest container shipping company Maersk pledged zero emissions by 2050. US energy giant Xcel Energy promised zero-carbon power by 2050 while IKEA Group has pledged to cut carbon emissions from production processes by 80% in absolute terms by 2030 from 2016 levels. 43 leading fashion brands, retailers and supplier organisations launched the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action to collectively address the climate impact of the fashion sector across their entire value chains.

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