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UN pleads for climate action, US remains sceptic

The annual climate summit opens in Katowice, Poland, with no sign of agreement over how much money industrialised countries may provide to combat climate change
<p>The Spodek Arena in Katowice where the summit will take place [image courtesy: Conference Press Office COP24]</p>

The Spodek Arena in Katowice where the summit will take place [image courtesy: Conference Press Office COP24]

The annual UN climate summit in the former coal mining town of Katowice in Poland threatens to come unstuck over the promise of money.

In a year of climate disasters from California to Kerala, and Tonga to Japan, the summit opened with a plea by Patricia Espinoza, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). “This year is likely to be one of the four hottest years on record. Greenhouses gas concentrations in the atmosphere are at record levels and emissions continue to rise. Climate change impacts have never been worse. This reality is telling us that we need to do much more – COP24 (the official name of the summit) needs to make that happen.”

Billed as the most important climate summit since the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, this December 2-14 meet of 193 governments (and the European Union) is supposed to finalise the work programme of that Paris Agreement, so that it can come into force as scheduled in 2020.

But since industrialised countries are not even willing to say how much money they will pay to help developing countries combat climate change, negotiations over the work programme are stuck. And this, despite the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emphasising the danger of non-action and the advantages of holding global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees Celsius.

See: 1.5 degree ambition demands radical change, UN warns

A more recent report of UN Environment shows pledges made by governments for the Paris Agreement will not meet their own avowed goal.

See: Governments leading world to disastrous warming: UN

The big stumbling block at Katowice is Paragraph 5, Article 9, of the Paris Agreement, under which industrialised countries have to provide information on “projected levels of public financial resources to be provided to developing country Parties.” For the last two years, the US government is leading some industrialised countries to block any agreement on this, much less actually providing any money.

Among the followers of this US line, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has reportedly said he will neither implement carbon dioxide emission reductions, nor provide climate finance to developing countries.

US government negotiators under President Donald Trump have said they will not change their stance. Since all UN decisions have to be by consensus, they find it easy to block, since they are still in the negotiating rooms. Despite President Trump’s declaration that the US is pulling out of the Paris Agreement, the UNFCCC secretariat is yet to receive a letter from the US government to this effect.

Speaking to thethirdpole.net, R.R. Rashmi, former chief climate negotiator of the Indian government and now a Distinguished Fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute, said the American delegates have been insisting on “total transparency by every country to account for all climate actions” and will probably continue to do so. Given the myriad ongoing activities all over the world to combat climate change, such insistence is a recipe for inaction. Since all countries cannot account for everything they are planning to do, the US government and its followers are planning not to provide information on “projected levels of public financial resources”. That will hold up everything else.

Gebru Jember Endalew of Ethiopia, chair of the LDC group of countries, said, “The Paris Agreement cannot be implemented without finance for developing countries to take action. Trillions of dollars in climate finance is needed to cover the costs of adapting to climate change impacts, coping with loss and damage and pursuing clean development pathways to avoid emissions. In Katowice, countries need to agree clear rules to ensure adequate and predictable climate finance is provided. The longer poor countries have to wait, the larger the cost will become.”

In the past, developing countries have unitedly pushed industrialised countries in climate negotiations, especially over finance. This year, that may change with the election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s president. He has vowed to pull out of the pact. It remains to be seen if China, with its huge investments in Brazil, can persuade the new president to change his mind.

Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a network of Brazilian campaign groups, believed that China could potentially exert its influence over Brazil, given its investment in the country. “China is a very important commercial partner to Brazil. It’s possible to stimulate Brazil to engage, though it doesn’t seem like something one could hope for with this new government,” he said.

However that plays out, Rashmi was confident that “finance won’t be a deal breaker. The Paris Agreement is a much larger and broader entity than finance. The nature of the agreement is such that it is built on nationally-determined actions. Ambition in terms of international finance flow has gone down but the moment we agree on architecture where voluntary commitments take primary nature, conditionality becomes secondary.”

Paris rulebook

Finance is the most difficult, but by no means the only problem in preparing a Paris Agreement Work Programme, the supposed objective of this summit. “We are still facing an enormous challenge. We now have to work on hundreds of pages of difficult, technical text we are negotiating,” COP24 President Michał Kurtyka said after the last preparatory meet in Bangkok ended in a near-stalemate this September.

The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) may push for a change in strategy to focus on adaptation to climate change impacts and on the loss and damage already occurring. This was suggested by Thoriq Ibrahim, former environment minister of the Maldives, who chaired AOSIS till recently. Despite the recent report by a section of his own government that the US is facing serious loss and damage itself, President Trump is unlikely to support this point of view.

“The Paris Agreement decided on a bottom-up and voluntary approach and was quite ingenious in concealing a number of real disagreements,” said Fu Sha, researcher at China’s National Centre for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation.

One of the most controversial aspects of the rulebook will be how allowances are made for differences in countries’ economic development. The predecessor to the Paris pact, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, had different rules for developing and developed countries, but this has had to change as countries such as China, India and Brazil have themselves become large carbon dioxide emitters.

Despite the rulebook

Some observers believe that leadership of individual countries is more important than the rulebook. “Rulebooks are important, but it is easy to over-state their relevance because the Paris process is, by design, decentralised – it relies on countries and regions to take the lead with pledges of action and commitments to take the climate problem seriously,” said David Victor, co-chair of the Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate at think tank the Brookings Institution.

The chances of nearly 200 countries agreeing on all elements of the rulebook were slim, Victor said, so it was more important for them to demonstrate climate change action to create norms for others to follow.

The IPCC effect

The danger of runaway climate change was brought home in the recent IPCC report, and there have been many calls to governments to strengthen their actions to combat climate change.

Asked about the possible effect of the IPCC report on negotiations at Katowice, Rashmi did not expect 1.5 C to become a legally binding goal. It would be tough enough to get an agreement on the two-degree ceiling mandated in the Paris Agreement, he thought. Plus, “Any effort to redefine the global goal and fix 1.5 C might make it more difficult for those working to maintain under two. There will not be a re-negotiation of global goals but a demand for urgency of action at COP24.”

Guo Hongyu, climate analyst with NGO the Greenovation Hub, said that she hoped the IPCC’s report would push China to continue to make constructive proposals, particularly through the Talanoa Dialogue process, which was set up within the talks to encourage discussion of concrete solutions.

“China can use this mechanism to exchange lessons and experience acquired during its low-carbon transition – particularly in the fields of green finance, renewables, energy efficiency and grid construction. This will provide the foundation and confidence for more ambitious climate targets based on a global stocktake,” she said.

China has been very active in the Talanoa Dialogue, according to Guo Xiaofeng, first secretary at the Department of Treaty and Law in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “During this process we have encouraged Chinese think tanks, NGOs and government bodies to participate by submitting proposals to the secretariat and attending dialogues,” he said.

Ultimately, the fact that many countries’ economies – including that of China and India – were now aligned with the low-carbon agenda, meant that there was an overriding commitment to make Paris work, according to Camilla Born, senior policy advisor at environmental think tank E3G.

Just hours before the start of this year’s climate summit, the G20 summit ended in Buenos Aires with a split over climate change. The leaders of most G20 countries, except the US, talked about how climate change is the big threat of our times and the need to combat it far more effectively than is being done now.

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