‘We can move forward now’: UN climate talks take significant step

cop24 president michal kurtyka and un climate chief patricia espinosa
COP24 president Michal Kurtyka and UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa react after adopting the final agreement during the closing session of the conference in Katowice, Poland. Photograph: Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Delegates agree ‘rulebook’ for Paris goals, but key questions have been ignored or put off

— They lacked the drama, excitement and eventual breakthrough that marked the Paris agreement of 2015, but this year’s UN climate talks produced important steps forward in putting the landmark accord into practice.

After last-minute wrangling over wording, late on Saturday night delegates in Poland finally agreed a text that contains most of the “rulebook” needed to guide countries’ implementation of the Paris goals.

These include complex technical issues such as how countries should measure and report on their greenhouse gas emissions, and account for progress on meeting their commitments on curbing carbon, with an agreement to work on setting new targets for financial assistance to poor countries. Resolving these should mean countries can move ahead with meeting their targets.

“This is a good agreement,” the European commissioner Miguel Cañete told the Guardian. “We have more to do but we can move forward now.”

Nicholas Stern, author of the seminal review of the economics of climate change, said: “This has been another summit of tough negotiations, but it has ultimately succeeded in its crucial primary task of agreeing the so-called rulebook for the Paris agreement.”

One important issue that could not be resolved was over carbon markets, and how countries can gain credits for their efforts to cut emissions and their carbon sinks, such as forests, which absorb carbon dioxide. After Brazil, which hopes to benefit from its huge rainforest cover, insisted on wording that critics said would allow for double counting of credits and undermine the integrity of the system, this issue was postponed until next year.

While the conference broadly succeeded within its narrow technical remit, however, key questions on tackling climate change were ignored or put off. Foremost among these is the inadequacy of countries’ current national targets for curbing greenhouse gases. With current targets, the world is likely to face 3°C or more of warming, which scientists warn would bring disaster.

Paul Bledsoe, a former climate adviser to President Bill Clinton, said: “Gaining a strong regime of accounting for emissions is an essential step on getting a handle on global emissions, and a major achievement. But the biggest breakthroughs on emissions cuts must be done at the head of state level over the next several years, not in a few days by ministerial negotiators.”

The conference also failed to take account of the warnings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global body of the world’s leading climate scientists, which only two months ago presented a bleak picture of the damage that would be done if global temperature rises reached or exceeded 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

The panel said that the result would be heatwaves, droughts, floods, the die-off of coral reefs, and the decline of agricultural productivity in large swathes of the world. The Paris agreement binds countries to avoid a 2°C temperature rise, with an aspiration to limit warming to no more than 1.5°C. Time is running out: the IPCC’s findings imply that there is about a decade left to set the world on a new track.

This year was the fourth hottest on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization, and extreme weather – such as the heatwave in the UK, wildfires in Europe and the US, floods in India and storms in south-east Asia – affected every continent.

Jennifer Morgan, the executive director of Greenpeace, said: “A year of climate disasters and a dire warning from the world’s top scientists should have led to so much more. Instead, governments let the people down again as they ignored the science and the plight of the vulnerable. Adopting a set of rules for climate action is not nearly enough; without immediate action, even the strongest rules will not get us anywhere.”

The two-week conference, known as COP24, in Poland’s coal-fuelled heartland started with Sir David Attenborough warning of the collapse of civilisation if untrammelled climate change were allowed to take hold. “Right now, we are facing a manmade disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change,” the veteran broadcaster and naturalist told delegates. “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

The secretary general of the UN, António Guterres, also stepped up his rhetoric, warning it would be “immoral and suicidal” to fail to take strong action.

The 15-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, whose strike to raise awareness of the issue drew global attention, was scathing in her speech to the conference: “You’re not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to your children.”

There were encouraging signs of shifting geopolitics at the talks. China and the EU were able to settle differences on how to account for and verify greenhouse gas emissions, and the EU and a handful of other rich countries joined with scores of developing nations in promising to focus on the 1.5°C limit in setting their future emissions-cutting targets.

But while the conference ended in a show of unity, with the Polish minister in charge leaping from the podium table into the audience in glee as it finally closed 30 hours after the deadline, the talks also displayed new rift lines.

Brazil, under its incoming president, Jair Bolsonaro, who is hostile to the Paris agreement and sceptical of climate science, held up agreement for nearly a day by insisting on a change to the rules on carbon credits that critics say would undermine the system. That decision has been put off to next year, but the stance of Brazil under Bolsonaro – he also withdrew Brazil’s offer to host next year’s conference – troubles many other countries. Brazil previously acted as a powerbroker between developed and developing nations, and without that role future talks may be more acrimonious.

The US also showed how Donald Trump’s presidency is changing its role, when it joined with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to prevent the conference from fully embracing the IPCC’s findings. In previous years, while Saudi Arabia has played an obstructive and delaying role behind closed doors, it has rarely been willing to take a public stance against agreement, and Russia has remained largely quiet since allowing for the adoption of the Kyoto protocol in 2004. Australia, which has played a shifting role in the talks under successive governments, also joined with US supporters in a celebration of coal.

It seems that Trump’s hostility to climate science is emboldening other countries to take a more aggressive role in fighting progress. David Waskow, of the World Resources Institute, told the Guardian: “[The US’s new stance] is giving these countries more space for what they want to do.”

Despite the progress made at this year’s talks, some believe that the UN process will always be too slow to measure up to the scale and urgency of the problems, and new ways should be found to take action independently.

Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, said: “In the climate emergency we’re now in, slow success is no success. [The rulebook] is decades too late. It should be clear that the UN consensus process can never produce the muscular agreement we need to meet the emergency.”

He advocates sectoral agreements for heavy industries such as steel, aluminium and cement that would require companies in those industries to reduce their emissions, removing any competitive disadvantage to businesses in being first-movers in cutting carbon.


by Fiona Harvey | The Guardian