Ten things we’ve learnt from the COP24 climate change summit
The good news and the bad news from the latest round of talks to save planet Earth
A participant jumps for a picture during the final session of the COP24 summit on climate change in Katowice, Poland. Photograph: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images
1. The Paris Agreement lives: Imperfect, incomplete but moving forward with the world’s countries, bar one – the United States – on board. It has been bolstered by a common rulebook coming into force in 2020.
Up to now, the agreement was only as good as the willingness of national leaders to keep their word. Now transparency and accountability on emissions reductions will bring it to life. Questions remain about levels of urgency, given climate breakdown threatens civilisation and all life on Earth.
2. Big oil and gas producers have not gone away: Scientists, NGOs and many delegates in Poland were shocked as the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait could not rise to “welcome” the findings of a definitive UN report setting out starkly where the world is at in terms of potential climate breakdown, and where it needs to get to.
3. An unstoppable global “sustainability revolution” is not enough: Cheap renewable energy exploiting the best of smart digital technology is helping to transform the world but there is a deficit in policy, a lack of urgency in implementing actions, and too many subsidies of polluting fossil fuels still in existence.
4. Big gains can be made if obvious avenues are pursued: If the richest 10 per cent of people in the world cut their CO2 to average EU levels, and the other 90 per cent made no reductions, global CO2 emissions would fall by one-third. Wealthy people, frequently flying business class and driving big cars, are among the worst emitters.
5. Extreme weather update: The argument that you can’t link climate change to a particular weather event is dead. More than 100 papers have been published in the past three years, three quarters of which find positive links between particular events and climate change. It’s called attribution, and it surfaced in many scientific briefings at COP24.
6. The climate clock is ticking... and getting faster: Headlines from Katowice confirm the obvious. “There is NO BREXIT for Climate Change!”...”12 years left: don’t waste this one!” The clock can’t be reset: the Arctic is already facing a climate change catastrophe in 2018, and what happens there affects us all.
7. Coal is Earth’s enemy No. 1: Some 3.5 billion tonnes of coal are burnt globally for power and heat every year, contributing to 45 per cent of the world’s emissions. It was the single biggest factor in rising emissions this year.
The UK has gone more than 1,800 hours of power generation without coal this year, Ontario closed its coal mines and its smog days reduced to zero. The dividend is obvious but it’s difficult; a just transition is critical for workers and communities. Moneypoint power station aside (it burns coal), peat is Ireland’s coal.
8. Ireland is starting to get serious: We did not join the “Coalition for Greater Ambition”, an alliance of 27 countries promising to step up efforts to tackle climate change. We did at least join some progressive countries leading efforts to use carbon pricing more effectively. This will send clear economic signals. In short, investing fossil fuels will get increasingly expensive, while decarbonisation technologies will be supported.
9. You can’t escape the shadow of Trump: It overhung Katowice like the smog that comes and goes due to its nearby coal mining activities and is never far away.
“The US has an abundance of natural resources and is not going to keep them in the ground,” Donald Trump’s emissary declared. What’s worse, the US president’s impending withdrawal from Paris has emboldened others; Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Australia being the chief culprits.
10: The grassroots uprising is underway: Student strikes, unprecedented numbers participating in protest marches and direct action - typified by the Extinction Rebellion - all seek greater urgency on climate action. Politicians, separate to those heading up new “climate denier countries”, ignore such grassroots uprisings at their peril.
At COP24 there was evidence of leaders’ lacking the urgency felt by communities on the frontlines of the global threat. The coming generation is much more demanding, and will be a lot less forgiving.