COP24 ignores dire climate warnings

Katowice, Poland — The 2015 Paris Agreement delivered hope that nations could come together to fight catastrophic climate change, but the ensuing battle to draw up its rulebook has left the world on the edge of a precipice three years after the historic deal was negotiated.

Now two climate change conferences in 2019, in New York and Chile, will have to try to salvage the failures of the 2018 effort, most notably getting nations to commit themselves to cutting their emissions even further to save the world.

Although negotiators from 196 countries finalised a rulebook for the Paris Agreement at December’s annual two-week climate change conference, hosted in Katowice, Poland, talks progressed at a snail’s pace, with many countries stalling.

The elephant in the room was the gloomy report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCCC) and the UN Environment Programme warning that time is running out.

Although the rulebook was finalised in the nick of time this year, critics say it does not bring the world closer to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, which seeks to keep the rise in global average temperatures to well below 2˚C from pre-industrial levels.

The Paris Agreement consists of just 27 pages and its 133-page rulebook is crucial to the deal.

At one point, the rulebook negotiations threatened to end in a stalemate, but some political manoeuvring, which the South African delegation help to facilitate, saved the day.

Maesela Kekana, South Africa’s chief negotiator, said he was happy with the deal struck in Katowice. “We can’t really complain. All South Africa’s expectations were met. We delivered finance and transparency, two crucial pillars of the rulebook.”

He said South Africa wanted two things from the talks this year. The first was a clear rulebook and the second was for nations to increase their “ambition” in cutting emissions. “Unfortunately the ambition part never materialised,” he said.

Much of the conference was spent haggling over language on how to deal with the IPCC’s damning climate report. The Trump-led United States, Kuwait, Russia and Saudi Arabia faction worked hard to bury the report, insisting in heated exchanges that the report’s warning should only be “noted”.

The IPCC released its special report in September detailing the urgent need to accelerate climate policy to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The latest report from the UN Environment Programme also shows existing climate targets would need to be increased “around fivefold” for a chance of limiting warming to 1.5˚C.

Climate activists say the newly agreed rulebook does not do enough to put the world on this trajectory.

“This was the first opportunity since the IPCC report for countries to prove to the world that they were taking this seriously,” said Mohamed Adow, Christian Aid’s International Climate leader. “They have just about scraped a ˚C minus when the scientists of the IPCC showed that they needed to get straight As.”

He said countries such as the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Australia and Brazil had clearly shown that they were not prepared to do what they said they would.

Sven Harmeling from CARE International agreed that “multilateralism” was held hostage at COP24 by a few powerful countries.

Getting countries to be more ambitious about cutting their emissions was the big disappointment of Katowice. It was expected that countries would give some indication of their willingness to do more than their current pledges.

“There is nothing here with ambition. Absolutely zero,” Kekana said. “But even earlier this year we could see it was never going to be part of this year’s outcome.”

Kekana said 2019’s conference in Chile would be crucial for putting ambitious commitments centre stage in the negotiations. “And we have the confidence that they will. The issue of ambition is not lost; there is still time to resolve it.”

He said the climate summit in September in New York would also compel nations to table their actions. 

Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald is a South African environmental reporter, particularly experienced in the investigative field. After 10 years at the Mail & Guardian, she signed on with City Press in 2011. Her investigative environmental features have been recognised with numerous national journalism awards. Her coverage revolves around climate change politics, land reform, polluting mines, and environmental health. The world’s journey to find a deal to address climate change has shaped her career to a great degree. Yolandi attended her first climate change conference in Montreal in 2005. In the last decade, she has been present at seven of the COP’s, including the all-important COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. South Africa’s own addiction to coal in the midst of these talks has featured prominently in her reports.
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