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What’s at stake at COP24?

The world’s media will descend on the site of an old coal mine at the start of December. Katowice’s Coal History Museum proves the unlikely backdrop for a meeting where many expect to see countries start to respond to the warnings and opportunities outlined in the IPCC 1.5C report. Logically you’d assume this is a moment when governments will pull together and take action. But these are not logical times, nor do the levers of government work in such linear ways. It takes some time for the alarm bells to run through the machinery of governments and follow up with action.

It's not only the science that is alarming. Global governance is on a knife edge. From Brexit to Bolsonaro, Trump to Turkey, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Polish hosts of COP24 in Katowice, there are forces picking at the seams of multilateralism at the very moment the world needs to work together. It makes for a fascinating UN climate summit: are governments willing to respect and protect the rules based regime, or will they veer towards the geopolitics of Great Powers?

This all makes for an awkward COP. COPs are just meetings and alone are only ever one part of the puzzle, but they are often seen as the ultimate climate Cup Final, the set piece moment for nearly 200 governments to deliver. Better instead to see COP24 an important moment to take stock ahead of the 2020 deadline for new climate targets.

The real significance of COP24 may be less its outputs and more its inputs. The IPCC 1.5C, the Talanoa Dialogue, a new review on global finance flows and defining the politics of a Paris deal rulebook will shape global climate efforts for years to come. They will provide the springboard for delivering the ambition mechanism of the Paris Agreement.

What can we expect at COP24?

  • Presentation of a global review of climate efforts, known as the Talanoa Dialogue 
  • Signals that countries should revisit their Paris pledges by 2020 
  • Pressure for countries to accelerate work on Fossil Fuel Exit plans 
  • An initial but clear set of guidelines in the form of a rulebook that will make the Paris Agreement fully operational and allow us to measure progress 
  • A signal from wealthy countries that climate finance flows will be boosted 
  • Anger and frustration from vulnerable nations off the back of IPCC 1.5C 
  • Polish-led declarations on a Just Transition, e-mobility and Forests (check the small print)
What should we not expect?
  • It's unlikely many countries will come to COP with new climate plans. The moment for this is 2020.
  • Finance will be an issue but don't expect wads of cash. Signals the Green Climate Fund will be replenished are possible, as is support for smaller climate funds.
  • Don't expect hundreds of world leaders to attend. The G20 just before makes that tricky, and the UN secretary general 2019 climate summit is the big one.

If you want a deeper dive, the following five elements are worth looking into...

1 - The Talanoa Dialogue ‘trampoline’

COP24 offers an important opportunity for governments to assess how far they have come since the Paris Agreement, and in particular evaluate how the IPCC 1.5C report’s dire warnings should influence future action. Together with the IPCC report the Talanoa Dialogue / Global Review will inform decisions on ambition levels required by 2020 – in particular the need for a new round of climate plans.

The Tuesday and Wednesday of week 2 is devoted to high level ministerial discussions on the findings from the Dialogue, with a formal declaration outlining next steps for action expected at the end of the meeting. This is a potentially significant moment, which could underline the importance of the 2019 UNSG summit as the moment for new climate plans.

2 - The Paris Rulebook

Transparency and accountability rules are the backbone of global action to combat climate change under the UN’s climate body – and the essence of a rules based regime. For the Paris Agreement to work, guidelines over reporting periods, frequency of climate plans and the metrics used need to be finalised.

A key sticking point is the desire of the US to see China - considered a developing country in the UN climate talks - abide by the same rules as it does. It’s not beyond the skills of negotiators to make that happen and allow emerging economies like China more leeway at first.

Other disputes cover the frequency of and type of information required in national climate plans, how climate finance contributions should be recorded, where to include the contentious issue of loss and damage and how the 2023 Global Stocktake will operate. Central to all of these is the question of what will be common to all and if different rules will apply to developed and developing countries.

Expect an initial rulebook to make the Paris Agreement operational to be agreed in Katowice. More detail will emerge over time, but if all goes to plan, the political decisions at COP24 about moving beyond a binary division of the rulebook will be essential to unlocking more technical discussions over the coming months.

3 - Finding Finance

If science is the foundation of the UN climate talks, finance is the engine that keeps the show on the road. Wealthy countries will need to offer signals they intend to maintain and - if possible - boost funding flows through 2020 and beyond. If they don’t many developing nations may find it hard to commit to tougher rules governing reporting and transparency.

We already have a number of useful metrics to assess financial flows. The first is the UNFCCC’s own biennial assessment on climate finance - due out ahead of COP. It measures how well wealthy countries are faring in meeting a 2010 promise to deliver $100 billion of funding a year by 2020. Early indications are broadly positive. One draft suggests climate flows are on course to meet the $100 billion.

The second is the myriad of smaller climate funds that support developing nations. The most high profile of these is the Green Climate Fund, which was launched in 2015 with $10 billion of promised support. It’s missing $2 billion after Donald Trump pulled support, but it’s open for business and is calling on other contributor nations to start replenishing its coffers in 2019. A signal this will happen from major donor countries is important.

These funds are comparatively small compared to global low carbon investments. According to a 2018 UNEP analysis global investment in renewable energy edged up 2% in 2017 to $279.8 billion, taking cumulative investment since 2010 to $2.2 trillion, and since 2004 to $2.9 trillion. But while coal investments slumped 18% in 2018, renewables funding also fell 7%, warned the IEA in its 2018 investment study.

4 - Geopolitical plates

Historically the US, EU and China have dominated these talks. All three land in Katowice weaker than usual. Since Donald Trump announced his decision to quit the Paris deal, the US has taken a back seat in talks.

The EU is navel gazing, beset by internal squabbles over its long term climate goals and losing a long-time climate champion in the UK due to Brexit. China appears at a crossroads: the US trade war is starting to bite, and while choking smog still cloaks major cities, Beijing’s war on coal seems to be waning.

Enter the troublemakers. Saudi Arabia has long tried to scupper global climate talks, but appears to have intensified these efforts through 2018 across multiple climate venues including the GCF and IPCC. Australia’s climate policy appears rudderless under Scott Morrision; Abe’s Japan seems disinterested despite a G20 presidency next year where climate change will be high the agenda. And what of Brazil under Bolsonaro? He becomes president in 2019 but could have an influence.

Add to the mix the hosts Poland: a country addicted to coal and - it seems - hosting climate summits, given this will be its third. The Poles have shown little sign of wanting an ambitious outcome that would shine a light on Warsaw’s dirty energy mix.

The question is what does the progressive coalition look like? France, Spain, perhaps the UK, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Netherlands. Chile, Mexico, Costa Rica, Pacific Islands and the Least Developed Countries bloc. Well over half the countries taking part. They have the numbers. Do they have the organisation?

5 - The final outcome

What really matters - come the closing hours - are the decisions in text that detail what countries commit to do through 2019 and beyond. The slick presentations, snazzy electric cars and indications of oncoming pledges are important, but what endures is the legally binding text that a COP typically concludes with.

“It is one of the most durable elements of a COP, guiding action of all Parties for years to come,” writes veteran climate lawyer and WRI advisor Eliza Northrop. She argues the outcome must include references to the following:

  • Key findings from IPCC 1.5C -Recommendations from Talanoa
  • Aims / targets for the 2019 UNSG climate summit
  • Call for new climate targets by 2020
  • Call for new long term 2050 climate plans

It’s worth noting that over 30 countries including Canada, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, the UK and Spain have already committed to explore new climate targets by 2020. Not enough, but a decent start two years out.

If we get all that plus clarity on finance and an initial rulebook, Christmas may yet come early in Katowice.

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