Countries have forged a climate deal in Poland — despite Trump

Polish students part of an international climate strike hold up signs at COP24, the United Nations conference for climate change negotiations in Katowice, Poland.
Monika Skolimowska/Getty Images

UPDATE, December 15: International climate change negotiators announced late Saturday that they have reached an agreement at COP24 in Poland. The text charts a path forward for countries to set tougher targets for cutting greenhouse gases under the Paris climate agreement, as well as stronger transparency rules for countries in disclosing their emissions. However, questions on how to use markets to limit carbon dioxide remain, and discussions will continue next year. Read on for the context around these negotiations and why environmental groups, governments, and private companies were so concerned about the outcome of this conference.

An agreement between 200 nations at a major international climate change conference in Katowice, Poland, is taking longer than expected. The two-week meeting was supposed to wrap Friday. But as of Saturday, a full compilation of the Paris Agreement rulebook had been released, but a final deal still hadn’t been announced as critical details remained up for debate.

The goal of the 24th Conference of Parties (COP24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is to hammer out critical the details of the Paris climate agreement. Under the 2015 accord, countries set out to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100 at most, with a preferred target of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

However, the original pledged cuts in greenhouse gas emissions would not put the world anywhere near meeting these targets.

So the agreement included provisions for countries to meet regularly and ramp up their ambitions, all of which are voluntary. COP24 is the first time since Paris that countries are actually talking with each other about going beyond their initial commitments. That’s why this meeting is so important. That’s also why scientists and activists are pushing for even more ambitious commitments to reduce emissions in the final days of the negotiations.

“If the Paris agreement is actually going to live up to that model of voluntary bottom-up commitments, ... ongoing ratcheting down of those commitments, then it has to happen at this first moment,” said Lou Leonard, senior vice president for climate and energy at the World Wildlife Fund, by phone from Katowice. “And if it doesn’t happen at this first moment, then it will call into question whether this ratcheting will actually work.”

The outcome of the negotiations became increasingly uncertain after President Trump in 2017 announced he would withdraw the United States from the accord.

For an agreement that hinges so much on cooperation and good faith, the worry was that without the US, the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter, the deal would fall apart, that other countries would weaken their ambitions or sign an agreement so full of loopholes as to be useless.

For delegates, the goal is to nail down critical details, like how to verify that countries are actually progressing in cutting greenhouse gases, creating market mechanisms to control emissions, and coming up with ways to help developing countries finance a transition to cleaner energy sources.

It turns out countries are making some progress in tracking their emissions, but are still struggling with many of the financial issues associated with mitigating climate change. It’s yet another example of the tension between the threat of rising average temperatures and the fears of economic strain that hinder ambition in cutting greenhouse gases.

Fighting climate change is only getting harder

The literal and metaphorical backdrops of the COP24 negotiations highlight the enormousness of the challenge. Katowice is in the heart of Poland’s coal country and the conference is sponsored in part by Polish coal companies. The conference venue is literally festooned with coal.

The country as a whole gets almost 80 percent of its electricity from coal, a major greenhouse gas emitter. During the negotiations, Poland’s environment minister, Marcin Korolec, who is also serving as the president of COP24, was fired from this government post (He is slated to be replaced by Maciej Grabowski, a former deputy finance minister in charge of taxing shale gas).

But it’s not just Poland that can’t quit dirty energy. Global greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high in 2018 and are accelerating higher.

That’s a huge problem given the October report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The special report, commissioned by the UNFCCC, focused on what it would take to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above preindustrial levels by the end of the century. The Paris climate agreement set out to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, with an additional target of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The IPCC report found that it would require an unprecedented international effort, demanding technologies that are still in their infancy, and that the world may have as little as 12 years to act. That would likely require current cutting global emissions in half by 2030.

Though the United States has managed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions while growing its economy, largely by switching from coal to natural gas, other countries have yet to satiate their appetites for dirty energy. China, for examples, emits more greenhouse gases than the United States and Europe combined, and its emissions are still growing.

The world as a whole needs to sharply bend the emissions curve as fast as possible if the planet is to stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming, let alone 1.5 degrees Celsius. And seven big countries, including the US, are well behind hitting the pledges they made in Paris, according to the UN Environment Program’s most recent annual “emissions gap” report.

So the agreement taking shape in Poland seems to be a mixed bag. “Some of the issues like transparency rules are going in the right direction, but market mechanism is a pretty big mess,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, speaking from Poland.

The first step in limiting greenhouse gases is to keep track of them and provisions on measuring and verifying carbon dioxide emissions inventories for different countries looks to be strong.

But countries are still struggling with the best way to deal with climate change around the world, whether it means deploying clean energy in their own countries, financing climate change adaptation in vulnerable regions, or pooling money to help more fossil fuel-dependent countries sever their ties to carbon-intensive energy. Some delegates, particularly those from island nations threatened by sea level rise, also want more stringent targets for greenhouse gases.

The US government is a major obstacle in climate negotiations, but not the only one

As Vox’s David Roberts has explained, the United States is undermining the success of the Paris agreement. It’s not just that Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the accord. The Trump administration has gone as far as to gleefully taunt delegates at COP24 with a panel promoting the use of more coal.

Unlike previous proposed international climate agreements, there’s no penalty or enforcement mechanism for breaching greenhouse gas targets. And the targets, remember, are set by countries for themselves.

Instead, the agreement hinges on peer pressure, which in turn requires countries to be open and transparent about their progress in fighting climate change.

So when the world’s second-largest carbon dioxide emitter decides not to play ball, it drastically weakens how much other countries can be shamed or prodded into limiting their emissions.

That in turn makes it more difficult to secure investments in clean energy, since the regulatory environment has become more volatile.

The US’s actions have given some cover to other countries who are less than enthralled with the prospect of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. At COP24, this manifested in a fight over how to acknowledge the findings of the recent IPCC special report on limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. A draft of the final text initially said that negotiators “welcome” the findings from more than 300 researchers.

But the US, joined by Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, objected to the language and want the final text to “note” the IPCC report rather than “welcome” it.

“The United States was willing to note the report and express appreciation to the scientists who developed it, but not to welcome it, as that would denote endorsement of the report,” the US State Department said in a statement to the Associated Press. “As we have made clear in the IPCC and other bodies, the United States has not endorsed the findings of the report.”

More recent drafts of the agreement now say that countries “appreciate” the IPCC report.

The federal government isn’t the only representative of the United States in Poland

Because of the rules of the Paris accord, the US can’t formally withdraw until after the 2020 election. But a consortium of US companies, investors, tribes, universities, and legislators have pledged to continue cutting carbon dioxide emissions in line with their commitments under the Paris accord.

Members of the We Are Still In coalition, which represents about half of the US population, are meeting with other negotiators as they highlight their own initiatives in fighting climate change to help encourage other countries to pursue their own. California, for example, has set a target of zero net carbon emissions by 2045, deploying aggressive policies to encourage electric cars, rooftop solar power, and batteries on the power grid to store variable renewable energy.

The hope is to bypass the Trump administration’s retrenchment on climate change action. However, activists are still not content with the pace of progress. Students in Poland staged a strike at the COP24 venue on Friday, demanding that countries set tougher emissions goals for themselves.

Observers say that whatever agreement that’s forged in Poland is only a first step. After representatives take the deal back to their home countries, their governments will still have to implement the rules and report back next year at the United Nations general assembly next September. That gathering will highlight just how far apart words and actions are on climate change.

“That will be the real acid test of ambition,” Meyer said.

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