'Only a miracle' can make vital UN climate conference successful

In what’s anticipated to be the most pivotal global meeting on climate change since 2015’s Paris Agreement, stakeholder nations across Southeast Asia are watching to see how the decisions by world leaders could affect the region, which is especially vulnerable to climate change because of its extensive coastal exposure

Christian Mihatsch
December 3, 2018

In what’s anticipated to be the most pivotal global meeting on climate change since 2015’s Paris Agreement, stakeholder nations across Southeast Asia are watching to see how the decisions by world leaders could affect the region, which is especially vulnerable to climate change because of its extensive coastal exposure

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Filipino farmers burn dried grass at a field with a backdrop of Manila’s skyline in Taguig City, south of Manila. According to a report by the United Nations, Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have gone up for the first time in four years Photo: Francis R Malasig / EPA-EFE

Southeast Asia’s extensive coastlines have made it particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which include rising sea levels and tropical cyclones that have increased in power and destruction. At this year’s 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24), running from 2 to 14 December in Katowice, Poland, world leaders will decide whether or not to adopt a plan of attack outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement talks, where world leaders committed to keeping global warming below 2 degrees C and limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees C.
This year’s climate conference is considered to be the most important since Paris in 2015 because now the operating manual for the Paris Agreement is to be adopted. But it remains unclear whether this will succeed.
The president of the UN Climate Change Conference is dubious about the chance for adoption: “Only by a miracle can we realise success,” Polish State Secretary for the Environment Michal Kurtyka said before the conference. But miracles, he said, are “a Polish speciality”. There are two reasons for this cautious optimism: the state of preparations and the many tensions in the world. “Undoubtedly, the geopolitical situation in 2015 was much easier for discussing global agreements than the situation we have in 2018,” Kurtyka was quoted by Reuters.
In 2015, the Paris Climate Agreement was adopted, and its operating instructions will now be submitted later this year. The German State Secretary for the Environment, Jochen Flasbarth, described the conference in Katowice as a “milestone in international climate policy”.
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Climate activists hold placards during a demonstration outside the United Nations Centre during the first day of the UN Climate Change negotiating sessions in Bangkok in September Photo: Narong Sangnak / EPA-EFE

The agreement combines two approaches, which Flasbarth described as follows: “The climate protection targets will be set nationally, but their implementation, measurement and verification must be binding for everyone at the international level.”

A race against time

In Paris, however, only the “shell” of this climate regime was created, and the “interior design” is now to take place in Katowice. Once again, the distinction between poor and rich countries is in the foreground. The EU and the US want to ensure that the same rules apply to China as to themselves. China and many other countries, on the other hand, demand different rules for industrialised and developing countries.
This contradiction runs like a red thread through the drafts for the various chapters of the rules and threatens to delay the negotiations. But time is extremely short: the negotiating texts are still “far too comprehensive in terms of quantity”, said Franz Perrez, head of the Swiss delegation. “The two weeks of negotiations will therefore be a run against time.”
Once the rules have been established, the countries will submit new, more ambitious climate plans to the UN Climate Secretariat. With the existing plans, the climate will warm up by 3 degrees by the year 2100 and then even more. A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has shown that warming by as little as 2 degrees will have catastrophic consequences and that the world should limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. This is still technically possible, but requires an extremely rapid change of course: CO2 emissions rose to 54 billion tonnes last year and will have to be more than halved over the next 12 years to stop global warming at 1.5 degrees. The IPCC report and the future climate targets of the countries will not be in the foreground until the second week of the conference, when the state of climate protection will be discussed at ministerial level.

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Waters in the Lam Takong Dam in Thailand dried up due to prolonged drought, allowing villagers to camp inside the dam to catch the remaining fish in 2005. Greenpeace linked climate change to the onset of one of the worst droughts to have struck Thailand Photo: Sataporn Thongma / EPA-EFE

Only a few countries are expected to follow the example of the Marshall Islands. The state of 53,000 inhabitants has already submitted a new climate plan that includes going carbon-neutral by 2050. Hilda Heine, the president of the island state, said: “If we can do more for climate protection, then other countries can do the same, and other countries must do the same.”
It is still unclear how important climate financing will be in the negotiations. A new report by the UN Climate Secretariat shows that the industrialised countries have increased their support for developing countries by 15% to almost $75 billion the year before last.
The response from the environmental organisation World Resources Institute rang a note of optimism: “If the flow of funds continues to rise at this rate, then the industrialised countries will be on course to reach the 100 billion target by 2020.”
Switzerland’s Perrez was sceptical that there will be less haggling over money: “As a matter of principle, certain countries will try to divert attention from their own responsibilities by pointing out insufficient support.”

Southeast Asia Globe spoke with Wendel Trio, director of the Climate Action Network Europe, an association of over 150 European environmental organisations, ahead of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24), running from 2 to 14 December in Katowice, Poland

Wendel Trio, Director of Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe at a press conference on evidence for the need to keep temperature rise to 1.5°C Photo: Stephanie Lecocq / EPA-EFE

Who decides success or failure?
The EU and China are the two main actors. The sooner they can reconcile their positions, the more success we will have. The EU has tried to build strong cooperation with China, but China is a little reluctant. For China, it is a bit difficult that the EU is not a single bloc, and it depends on who they talk to – with France, Germany or the EU Commission – and then hear different perspectives.
Could Katowice fail if the two do not come to an agreement?
There is a danger. The discussions about the rulebook are very technical, but they are a political debate about differentiation between countries, and that will be evident in all the working groups. If it becomes too political, for example by China adopting a very tough stance on accounting rules, then it could be difficult. In a fierce dispute between the EU and China, I do not see who could solve it. But I do not expect it to come to that.
Is the state of preparations sufficient for the success of the climate negotiations in Katowice?
In 14 days, the negotiators should be able to get through the more than 300 pages of negotiating text. The delegations always complain about lack of time, but the question is: when will they really start making compromises? If we postpone this to the last moment due to negotiating tactics, then at some point, it will be too late.
The EU Commission has just presented its climate vision for the year 2050 and signalled that it is aiming for net-zero emissions. What significance does this have for Katowice?
The vision makes a real difference for the EU. Until this week, the EU countries have tried to implement their climate target for the year 2030. The vision now opens a new debate: can the EU do more, and how can it? For the negotiations, however, the vision is of more atmospheric importance. It is a counterweight to the fact that in many countries, the debate is making no progress.
Germany has announced that it will double its contribution to the Green Climate Fund to 1.5 billion euros. Does that matter?
The fact that Germany has moved is a good sign. Other countries will now see how they can join Germany. It is very important for the negotiations that the issue of climate financing can be contained. The poor countries must have the certainty that money is available.

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