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COP24: Summit a step forward, but fails to address climate urgency

  • COP24 ran into overtime over the weekend as delegates rushed to approve the Paris rulebook to set up a detailed mechanism for accomplishing and gauging the carbon reduction pledges made by the world’s nations in Paris at the end of 2015.
  • But considering the urgency of action needed – with just 12 years left to act decisively to significantly cut emissions, according to an October IPCC science report – the COP24 summit proved to be less successful than many participants had hoped.
  • On the negative side: the U.S., Russia and Saudi Arabia tried to undermine the gravity of the IPCC science report. Brazil successfully scuttled plans for an international carbon market. And COP24 failed to address the bioenergy carbon counting loophole, which incentivizes the harvesting and burning of trees to make energy by calling the process carbon neutral.
  • On the positive side, “1,000 tiny steps” were made, including an improved transparency framework for reporting emissions; regular assessments called Global Stocktake to gauge emissions-reduction effectiveness at national levels starting in 2023; and an agreement to set new finance goals in 2020 to help vulnerable nations adapt to a warming world.
The neon COP24 logo was a popular place for delegates to meet and pose during the two-week climate summit in Katowice, Poland. The summit ended with mixed results. Image by Justin Catanoso.

KATOWICE, Poland – COP24, the most important United Nations climate summit since Paris in 2015 ­– and one shadowed by dire scientific warnings of impending climate disaster – produced “1,000 tiny steps forward” but not the robust global consensus on climate action that observers demanded in order to meet the urgency of the moment.

That urgency will have to wait until September, when UN General Secretary António Guterres convenes a special week-long meeting in New York City of the same delegates and leaders who were in Poland. That gathering will focus on a single task: increasing climate-action ambition.

“From now on, my five priorities will be: ambition, ambition, ambition, ambition, ambition,” Guterres said in a statement read to delegates at the conclusion of COP24, the Conference of the Parties. “Ambition in mitigation. Ambition in adaptation. Ambition in finance. Ambition in technical cooperation and capacity building. Ambition in technological innovation.”

Poland’s COP24 President Michal Kurtyka being interviewed by a Polish journalist. After the negotiations ended, he told global delegates, “Under these circumstances, every single step forward is a big achievement.” Critics attacked the overlarge presence of Polish coal companies at the event. Image by Justin Catanoso.

Delegates and ministers from nearly 200 nations grappled with each of those issues during their two weeks in Katowice, and claimed myriad levels of technical success. Importantly, they completed the Paris rulebook, said to fully operationalize the Paris Agreement by 2020, and a solid step toward meeting the accord’s topline goals to reduce emissions and protect forests.

Polish COP24 President Michal Kurtyka hailed those “1,000 tiny steps” that also included an improved transparency framework for reporting emissions; regular assessments called the Global Stocktake to gauge emissions-reduction effectiveness at national and international levels starting in 2023; and an agreement to set new finance goals in 2020 to help vulnerable nations cope with climate-change damage and pay for strategies to adapt to a warming world.

“Despite all the headwinds, the Paris Agreement has stayed the course at COP24, demonstrating the kind of resilience it has been designed for,” said Laurence Tibiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation. “The decisions made here on the Paris rulebook give us a solid foundation to keep building trust in multilateralism and accelerate the transition all around the world.”

The biomass burning boom now occurring in the developed world due to IPCC’s carbon counting loophole is beginning to put tropical forest biodiversity at risk. Both Brazil and Peru are looking seriously at supplying large amounts of wood pellets for burning in the EU and elsewhere. Photo credit: Katie@! on / CC BY-NC-SA

Falling short on forests

Tibiana’s remarks overlook some dark COP24 moments including the U.S., Russian, Kuwaiti, and Saudi attempt to undermine the gravity of the alarming October report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a document warning that the world has just 12 years to act with unprecedented urgency to prevent climate catastrophe. Other negatives include Brazil’s successful scuttling of plans for an international carbon market – seen as a necessary incentive to encourage intensified climate action by nations – and Saudi Arabia’s persistent attacks on climate science.

Of great concern, COP24 failed altogether to address the bioenergy issue: an IPCC carbon counting loophole that originated in the Kyoto Protocol, and was carried forward in the Paris Agreement. It allows the harvesting of trees to burn as bioenergy, and incentivizes the process by calling it carbon neutral. The UN loophole threatens intact forests as well as the critical biodiversity living within them. Recent studies show that burning biomass is far from carbon neutral, and can be as carbon intensive in its emissions as burning coal.

Pleas for emissions-accounting reform by NGOs fell on deaf ears at COP24 and among leaders of developed nations, especially in Europe. According to critics, the loophole threatens the emission-reduction goals of the Paris Agreement, making them difficult, if not impossible, to meet, while encouraging deforestation where we can least afford it – old-growth forests in Eastern Europe and tropical rainforests in South America. Both Brazil and Peru are already gearing up to meet Europe’s demand for wood pellets to be burned as fuel.

“The rulebook does not address the biomass loophole, and never really tried to,” said Kate Dooley, an expert with the Australian-German College of Climate and Energy at the University of Melbourne. “The best solution would be to remove the incentives to burn bioenergy by counting those emissions, not calling them carbon neutral.” But for that to happen, UN climate delegates will need to stop dodging the issue and put it high on their agendas.

Industrial-scale operation that once burned coal but now burns wood pellets to make electricity at the Drax power plant in Britain. The process start-to-finish is officially called “carbon neutral” but it is more carbon intensive in the short term than burning coal. Photo credit: nican45 on / CC BY-NC-SA

Where’s the political will?

Many observers walked away from COP24 angered by the lack of political will displayed by delegates, and wondering what climate horrors it will take for nations to meet the existential threat posed by climate change.

An array of high-level scientific reports emerged this fall documenting rapidly rising emissions, a massive buildup of heat in the world’s oceans, dual melting polar icecaps, the potential for unprecedented sea-level rise, and economic hardship and food insecurity – while the world delivered extreme weather events, including record heat, drought and storm, throughout 2018.

Patti Lynn, executive director of Corporate Accountability International, a U.S. NGO, said that political will is largely absent because “the root cause of this failure – the fossil fuel industry’s interference – was on full display at these negotiations.”

It wasn’t just the overlarge presence of ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies, and the U.S. fracking industry in Katowice, that enraged activists and NGOs. It was also the looming presence of Poland’s powerful coal industry, a co-sponsor of COP24. Even as the world warms, coal interests are building and planning 1,200 new coal-fired power plants across Asia. Meanwhile, a fast growing biomass industry, burning wood instead of coal without reducing or counting emissions, is thriving in the United Kingdom, European Union and beyond.

With U.S. leadership under Barack Obama replaced by the denialism and obfuscation of Donald Trump, observers have looked increasingly to the EU to step up. But during COP24, continental leaders were distracted by economic malaise in France, right-wing uprisings in Germany and Italy, and an ever-present concern over the looming impact of Brexit.

“It’s very clear that the world expects the EU to lead in climate politics,” said Christoph Bals, policy director of German Watch. “In the end, we have seen some attempts by EU countries to play a constructive role in the high-ambition coalition. Yet only far-reaching transformational partnerships between EU members and other countries can develop the necessary geopolitical dynamics for transformation.”

Youth protesters made their voices heard at the negotiations. On the last official day, 14 December, joined by NGOs and other environmentalists, they staged a demonstration on the main steps of the venue. The banner at top reads: “Which side are you on?” Image by Justin Catanoso.

The bright spots

The UN process can only be negotiated by sovereign nations. But subnationals made their presence strongly felt at COP24, as world leaders from cities, states and major corporations made real commitments to reduce emissions, invest in innovative technologies and promote sustainable practices in emissions-heavy industries like agriculture. The substantial and growing subnational effort in the U.S., for example, is expected to get the country two-thirds of the way to its Paris carbon-reduction pledge. That’s an amazing feat considering active resistance by the Trump administration.

“The signal from business is clear coming out of COP24: businesses will continue to transform and innovate at pace,” said Nigel Topping, CEO of We Mean Business, an international coalition of major companies. “Governments can best support this by creating a regulatory landscape that enables everyone to accelerate progress toward a zero-carbon future.”

Another sign of hope and transformation: young people from around the world achieved an unprecedented presence at Katowice; they were loud, persistent and unsparing in the demands they placed on their leaders.

“Climate change is a threat to the future of young people,” said Sebastian Rood, director of the European Youth Forum. “Millions of young people like me across the European Union want greater climate action. We want our leaders to end subsidies to fossil-fuel companies and divest from fossil-fuel investments. And we want to participate directly in future negotiations.”

Another ray of hope: now, with the completion of the Paris rulebook, international negotiations will shift in coming months to a reckoning for the world’s nations, as each is expected to devise enhanced strategies to ensure the civilization-saving goals of the Paris Agreement.

“By the UN secretary general’s high-level climate summit in September, nations should have clearly committed to increasing their national targets before 2020,” said Lou Leonard, World Wildlife Fund’s senior vice president for climate change and energy.

“Collectively, this new round of targets needs to help bring the world’s emissions in line with what science shows is necessary to limit planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius [2.7 degrees Fahrenheit],” Leonard said. “National governments should set their new targets in collaboration with the many businesses and local governments who are increasingly taking action consistent with what science demands.”

Justin Catanoso, a regular contributor, covered his fifth UN climate summit. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso

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Some 33,000 delegates, ministers, NGOs, activists, youth protesters and journalists from every nation on earth gathered for two weeks at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, passing daily through this entranceway. But critics say the summit fell far short of the urgent goals many hoped would be met there. Image by Justin Catanoso.
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