On Monday, December 1, climate negotiations billed as the most important U.N. cliate conference since the Paris 2015 deal began in the Polish city of Katowice, the capital of the country’s Silesian coal mining district. The major hope and expectation of COP-24, the 24th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was the finalization of a “rule-book”, that is a set of procedures, that nations must follow to have any hope that the world could achieve the warming limit goals set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement of as close as possible to 1.50 C but no greater than 2.0 0C. Shortly before 190 countries met in Poland on the first day of the two-week COP-24 negotiations, prospects for the international community working together to avoid catastrophic warming had become much gloomier due to several recent scientific papers that concluded the world was running out of time to prevent catastrophic warming. At virtually the same time, the additional bad news was breaking that global CO2 emissions had risen in 2018 by more than 2% after having flattened out two years earlier.
At the Katowice COP, 32,800 people had registered, most of whom who were representing governments, international institutions, scientific and civic organizations, higher education, business and financial institutions, along with a large media presence. In addition to the two-week long negotiations, the Katowice COP, like the 23 that proceeded it. was a setting for scores of side events at which speakers made presentations on myriad scientific, technical, civil society, financial, and educational topics relevant to human-induced warming.
Many of the COP participants from non-government organizations had come to pressure the governments of the world to greatly ramp up their climate change policies. Also in attendance was a much smaller group of pro-coal activists including a small delegation from the United States while many nations sought to negotiate a timetable for the world to get out of coal. In the midst of growing gloom about potential catastrophic climate change impacts, delegations from local and regional governments were providing some hope of preventing climate change catastrophe because several thousand sub-national governments around the world have made commitments to seriously reducing GHG emissions.
On October 8, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a Special Report on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial temperatures. This report, along with several additional recent scientific studies published in the last few months, including a paper published by the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences on July 21, 2018, Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene by Steffen et. al., and a paper published in mid-August of this year in Nature Communications by Anthony et. al., 21st-Century Modeled Permafrost Carbon Emissions Accelerated by Abrupt Thaw Beneath, lead to the conclusion that the international community is facing an urgent existential crisis that threatens life on Earth. Preventing this catastrophe now requires the entire international community at all levels of government (i.e., national, state, regional, and local) to engage immediately in an unprecedented effort to rapidly reduce GHG emissions to net zero in the next few decades. These papers also revealed that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had been previously underestimating likely climate change impacts. Another paper, What Lies Beneath: On the Understatement of Existential Climate Risk, recently published by the Breakthrough Institute, claimed both that climate change risks are far greater than is evident from recent conclusions of IPCC and examined why IPCC has often underestimated threats from climate change. This report attributed the overly conservative conclusions of the IPCC to the consensus building nature that IPCC must follow to get governments to approve IPCC final reports and to the peer-reviewed science synthesized by IPCC was produced by scientists who follow scientific norms that condemn speculation. As a result, the What Lies Beneath report concluded that much of the climate research on which IPCC has relied has tended to underplay climate risks.
The Katowice negotiations began in the heart of Poland’s coal fields with nations mindful that although the use of oil and gas is still rising worldwide, and some countries are still using coal to fuel their economic growth, the international community needed to agree on a set of rules that would allow the international community to evaluate clearly and transparently national progress in implementing and increasing the ambition of nationally determined commitments (NDCs) under the 2015 Paris Agreement. The COP 24 negotiations sought agreement among nations on how they would report, in a clear and transparent way, on national progress on GHG emissions reductions and developed country financing of emissions reductions and adaptation programs in poor vulnerable nations around the world.
As the Katowice negotiations began, the best hope for getting the international community on a GHG emissions reductions pathway required to prevent catastrophic climate change rested on establishing a clear set of rules on national GHG emissions reporting and financing emissions reductions and adaptation programs in developing countries. Yet in the first week of COP-24, deep disagreements between high-emitting developed countries and lower emitting more vulnerable developing countries continued to plague the negotiations. The disagreements were over elements of the proposed “rule-book” and which provisions should apply to both developed and developing nations. Since international climate negotiations began in 1990, efforts to find an adequate global solution to prevent catastrophic climate change have been plagued by the unwillingness of some high-emitting nations with large fossil fuel resources to agree to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, as well as conflicts between developed and developing countries about developed nations’ responsibility for funding GHG reduction programs and adaptation responses in vulnerable developing countries.
Throughout the large Katowice negotiating complex, anger and frustration with US President Trump’s backward movement on climate change were loudly evident. Several times, I heard charges from some COP participants that President Trump was guilty of some kind of vicious crime against humanity given that the US was the second largest GHG emitter in the world after China but a much greater emitter than China in historical emissions and per capita emissions, yet the Trump Administration was in the midst of rolling back regulations on electric power plants, rules for measuring methane leakage from natural gas production facilities, and on fleet mile average on automobiles and trucks. Furthermore, the US also announced its unwillingness to provide finance at levels previously promised under the Obama administration for mitigation and adaptation programs in developing countries. Anger at the US unwillingness to participate in the Paris deal was intense because President Trump had justified his announced intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on the basis he was putting US economic interests first, a justification which flunked minimum ethical scrutiny because US emissions were already contributing to great human suffering from intense storms, droughts, flood, spread of tropical diseases, killer heat waves, and loss of plants and animals around the world. Any country that justified its unwillingness to help minimize such massive suffering and destruction on the basis of economic self-interest was beyond moral comprehension at the very time much more aggressive US climate change policy is believed to be urgently needed to prevent a human catastrophe.
At the end of the first week, a text which initially “welcomed” the IPCC Special Report on limiting warming to 1.50 C was blocked by the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait even though their governments had approved the final IPCC report before it was released in October
The US had also cosponored along with Australia a pro-coal event as the world was seeking to negotiate a global agreement to eliminate coal combustion.
COP 24 ended with some progress on the “rule-book” but disappointment on developed country support for mitigation and adaptation programs in developing countries.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence and Professor
Sustainabiliy Ethics and Law
Widener University Commonwealth Law School