The outcome of the UN climate change talks in Katowice, Poland, deserves a guarded welcome, although it is short of what is required to address a global crisis threatening civilisation in less than two decades.
It brings a rules-based global order to the 2015 Paris Agreement. From 2020, it will be driven by actions rather than promises on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It defines 195 signatory states’ responsibilities for tackling climate change, reporting progress and intensifying their efforts for decades to come. At a moment of deep global divisions and instability, governments have reached a deal on climate rules and secured a victory for multilateralism.
There is much unfinished business and lack of collective acceptance of what is urgently required. If the key aspiration of the Paris pact – to contain the global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees – is to have any chance of happening, the verdict of leading climate scientists in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report must be the platform to build future actions.
The blunt message at COP24 to governments was that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is possible but the window for action is narrowing. Scientists delivered; it’s up to governments to take unprecedented action. And yet a small band of countries, emboldened by Donald Trump’s impending withdrawal from the agreement, while defending their huge fossil fuel interests, found it impossible to “welcome” its findings.
Significantly, the deal introduces transparency around action and, if outstanding issues are resolved next year, will end rogue accounting practices – such as double counting of reductions.
Separately, the talks struck a delicate balance between concerns of the smallest, poorest and most vulnerable countries, developed nations most responsible for global warming, and emerging economies wary of being saddled with a bigger burden to act. At last, there is a clearer path to tangible, ongoing financial supports for adaptation.
Negotiators believe the rulebook is a strong enough tool that, if coupled with political leadership, it can prevent the worst impacts. But reality reveals gaps; national climate pledges to date put the world on track for up to 4 degrees of warming, double the target agreed in Paris. Many will be bitterly disappointed a political statement urging governments to commit to increased ambition before 2020 did not materialise, though the EU, including Ireland and many other countries, consistently pushed for stronger ambition.
Katowice was never going to be the big climate action breakthrough many demanded but it has shown once more the resilience of the Paris pact. It now has a solid road map for climate actions. The missing elements are leadership, necessary urgency and scaled-up national ambitions.