COP24: one step forward, two steps back


Picture of John Sweeney
John Sweeney

Emeritus Professor of Geography at Maynooth University, Ireland, a climatologist and a researcher in climate change

As a veteran of eight United Nations Climate Change Conferences (COPs), one can usually get a sense of the prevailing sentiment early on in the first week. Sometimes, however, things can change dramatically as the meeting proceeds.

Take, for instance, the disastrous COP15 meeting in Copenhagen in 2009. There, we saw hope and optimism give way to disappointment and recriminations. Deals were done behind closed doors and Europe ultimately lost leadership over global climate change politics.

Paris in 2015 had a very different mood. It was clear from the outset that countries were there to do business (and do business they did) in what was considered an inspirational event that renewed belief that a corner had been turned.
Fast forward to Katowice’s COP24 in 2018 and the tone was also made clear from an early stage. In an unprecedented move, four countries – the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – refused to welcome the findings of the IPCC Special Report, which highlighted the harmful impact of the rise in global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. Ironically, this report was commissioned at the end of the Paris COP in a unanimous decision that included the four countries concerned, three of which are, coincidentally, the top three oil producers in the world.

The face of COP24 was undoubtedly that of Greta Thunburg’s, a 16-year-old Swedish girl, who cut through the diplomatic and bureaucratic mist with her down-to-earth comments

The conference itself was held in the middle of the Silesian coalfield with active coal mines nearby – a pointed reminder of the scale of transformation needed for Poland to fulfil the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. At the opening of COP24, the seriousness of the climate emergency was emphatically stressed by Sir David Attenborough in a speech that gained significant global attention. But the face of COP24 was undoubtedly that of Greta Thunburg’s, a 16-year-old Swedish girl, who cut through the diplomatic and bureaucratic mist with her down-to-earth comments:

“You say you love your children above all else – and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes… Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope… We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

There were two primary objectives for this COP. The first was to standardise the rulebook for countries in terms of their Paris pledges. These had come with a variety of ‘weasel words’. There were countries that pledged reductions in their emissions per capita, but concealed the fact that increases in their population would negate this completely. There were those that offered major reductions, but later revealed that this was conditional upon receiving financial support and then there were those that pledged large reductions, but asserted that the delivery of such reductions was contingent upon ending the occupation of their land by external countries.

It was thus made clear at the COP that national negotiators had largely been sent in to protect national self-interest rather than the well-being of ‘Our Common Home’. Nonetheless, a rulebook was hammered out. UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, made several interventions to try and force progress and eventually the Polish Presidency took charge to break the deadlock.

The rift between developed and developing countries has bedevilled attempts to make progress throughout the 24 years of the COP. Some progress occurred in Katowice on financial transfers from the developed world to the developing world – implicit recognition that they had created the problem – to prevent them from making the same mistakes and to cope with the loss and damage inflicted on them. But while progress was made, a long-term budgetary commitment from developed countries was not forthcoming. For some developed countries, their purses stayed closed.

The second primary objective of the conference was to raise the ambition level of emission reduction pledges before 2020. Of course, this was an acknowledgement that the Paris pledges were simply not enough for the prevention of dangerous climate change and especially not enough to stave off the impacts predicted by the recent IPCC report. Here, the main disappointments were experienced.

The rift between developed and developing countries has bedevilled attempts to make progress throughout the 24 years of the COP

Among many of the high emitting countries, there was no apparent appetite to recognise the need for more radical action. Though there were exceptions. Around 26 countries, including many European countries, committed themselves to stepping up their pledges both in the short and long-term. But while the EU Climate Commissioner signed into this group, it was notable that several EU member states declined, including Ireland and Poland, the former now acknowledged as a ‘climate laggard’ by the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.

For many of the 23,000 delegates from 196 countries that went to Katowice, the outcome was a mixed bag. The buzz around the many side events was energising, particularly from the youth groups and non-governmental organisations that injected a dynamism and urgency into the two-week event. But ‘hard-nosed’ negotiators did not reflect the public mood. For some countries, the COP was treated almost like a trade fair; for others, a chance to ‘greenwash’ their industry or agriculture. In the policy vacuum created by populist leaders, the powerful interest groups opposed to taking steps that might damage their business plan are thriving. When COP1 was chaired in 1995 by a young Minister for the Environment called Angela Merkel, I wonder if she envisaged that 24 years later, the world would still be dithering about tackling climate change while the sands of time run out?

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