The UN’s followup to the Paris Climate Agreement kicks off next week for the Conference of Parties climate negotiations.
This site of this year’s meeting, known as COP24, will be in Katowice, a city in southern Poland surrounded by a coal-mining region that is one of the most polluted in Europe. And it comes amid rising alarm about the impacts of climate change, some of which are visible daily, and the worse effects that are in store if nations don’t dramatically reduce global emissions. A grave UN report, released in October, focused attention on the threat posed by inaction in a way that few past UN reports have.
Yet the momentum the world had going into the Paris deal negotiations in 2015 appears to be running out. Confidence in the deal was shaken by President Donald Trump’s election and his announcement in 2017 that the U.S. intended to pull out of the agreement. Brazil’s election of Jair Bolsonaro this October delivered yet another setback: On the campaign trail, he promised to follow in Trump’s lead and pull his country out of the agreement as well. He later walked back that statement, saying he hadn’t yet made up his mind whether he would leave the deal or not, and that he would uphold it if it allowed him to implement his agenda.
And while countries with emerging economies remain committed to the deal in theory, the world continues to be heavily reliant on coal, with coal use increasing in China in 2017 and 2018 after appearing to fall in 2016. (Coal would need to be phased out of the global energy mix by 2050 in order for the world to hit the 1.5 degree target.) Very few countries are on track to meet their goals, and many critical, high-emitting countries, including the U.S., continue to push the world toward a high degree of warming.
ON THE AGENDA
The key agenda item at this conference will be finalizing the rules that govern the Paris agreement. Though the broad strokes were figured out in 2015 and 2016, the fine print that will control how the agreement is implemented in practice remains un-finalized, and drafting it has led to a number of disputes.
Drafting the rule book requires negotiators to make decisions about how nations report their progress toward their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), the Paris agreement’s term for emissions-reduction goals, and rules for how the UN audits those reports to determine that they’re accurate. Most nations agree that there is a need for some flexibility in how countries report their progress, but the degree of flexibility remains hotly debated. The EU and the U.S. want a common set of reporting rules, but a contingent of developing countries, led by China, are less enthusiastic about that idea. They argue that assessing their progress is a task that they can’t do with the same level of accuracy as more developed countries, and they have suggested that some reporting requirements apply only to wealthier countries.
There’s also an open question as to the extent that countries will include assessments of how much damage climate change has already caused in these reports. Wealthy countries worry that assessments of loss and damage could lead to calls that less affected and wealthier countries help foot the bill.
CLIMATE FINANCING FALLS SHORT
Speaking of which: Climate finance is not where it needs to be under the Paris agreement. Wealthy countries only mobilized some $55 billion to help poor countries prepare for and respond to climate change — or $70 billion if you count funding from private sources in those countries — according to the Financial Times. That falls far short of the $100 billion that countries are supposed to be delivering annually by 2020.
In a statement on Friday, India, China, Brazil and South Africa called out developed nations that were “far from realizing their climate finance commitments of mobilizing $100 billion per year by 2020.”
Michal Kurtyka, an official at Poland’s energy ministry who will serve as the president of this year’s Conference of Parties, said he wants countries to make climate financing a priority at this year’s summit.
AN OLD DEBATE RENEWED
The fight over whether developing countries should be held to different standards than developed countries flared up during negotiations in Bangkok this September. But it is a long and bitter debate that dates back more than two decades, to the Kyoto Protocol. Amjad Abdulla, a diplomat from the Maldives who is the head negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, summed up the crux of this argument in a September interview: “Developed countries are responsible for the vast majority of historic emissions, and many became remarkably wealthy burning fossil fuels.”
But not all developing countries are as disadvantaged as the severely threatened small island states. Take, for instance, China, which some developed countries say can hardly be considered “developing” when it is perhaps the key economic player in the world.
But China’s positions — which often align with those of developing nations — are influential. It has emerged as a chief power broker in climate negotiations, rivaled by the EU, following Trump’s election. (Before 2016, an agreement between the U.S. and China to cooperate on climate laid the groundwork for the Paris deal; the U.S. has since become a less important player.) In the run-up to the the Katowice summit, China is hosting diplomats from both the EU and the U.S. to make its positions known.
China has historically had a dual identity in climate talks: The country’s leadership is worried about climate change and is rushing to implement sustainable fuels, yet China continues to hold fast to coal, at least in part because the national government’s position does not always filter down to regional governments, which continue to push coal projects forward. What once appeared to be a Chinese trend away from coal has stopped — Chinese-funded coal plants continue to come online, both in the country and beyond its borders as China invests in less developed nations through its One Belt, One Road initiative.
With China at the helm, taking the mantle the U.S. dropped, climate talks could move more slowly, and could be more lenient on countries like India, which takes a similar position to China’s: Its economy is still emerging, and, to continue growth, it wants to rely on fossil fuels even as it embraces cleaner forms of energy.
In the meantime, the U.S. continues its bipolar approach. State Department officials, including many career civil servants who worked on climate change under President Barack Obama, when the deal was initially cut, are continuing to negotiate the agreement. “The White House seems to have taken the view that it’s important to let technocrats complete the work of the rule book,” one source familiar with the U.S. delegation’s plans told Reuters. “It’s in the U.S. national interest to be at the table and see an outcome that emphasizes transparency, holds countries accountable.”
Notably, leadership at the State Department has changed since 2017 — now Mike Pompeo, an opponent of the pact and a climate change denier during his days in Congress, is at the helm of the department; he’s taken over from Rex Tillerson, who supported the agreement.
Though the U.S. has announced its intention to leave the Paris agreement, it can’t formally do so under the rules of the agreement until November 4, 2020 — four years after the agreement went into effect and, by coincidence, one day after the U.S. presidential election. In the meantime, alongside negotiations, the U.S. delegation will be running its usual sideshow, hosting events aimed at highlighting the role it believes fossil fuels, including coal, can have in a clean-energy transition.