Are we getting closer to saving the world from climate change? As a postgraduate student at LSE studying Environment and Development, I was fortunate enough to be observer at the COP24, the United Nations conference on climate change, held in Katowice, Poland from the 3rd to 15th December 2018.
Conferences Of the Parties are, since 1995, held every year in a different country. The most notorious one was probably COP21 in 2015, when for the first time all the nations of the world pledged to undertake significant efforts to stay under a 2°C temperature increase by signing the Paris Agreement. The Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) agreed upon at this conference set long-term goals for each country to reduce its carbon emissions and adapt to climate change, with an obligation to report on their progress. Often considered as an unprecedented diplomatic success regarding climate change, the Paris Agreement remains technically quite vague. COP24, which I attended in Katowice, was of crucial importance as its goal was to establish the “Paris rulebook”, a comprehensive, detailed guide on how the 184 countries that ratified the accord are to going to implement it.
For an environmental enthusiast like myself, COP24 is an exciting place to be. 22,000 people are gathered under one roof to have their voices heard, and put forward their proposals on how to solve the climate crisis. Representatives of civil society were pressuring their national delegations to accelerate the negotiations while big industries’ often tried to slow them down.
Beyond the negotiations that are usually held behind closed doors, there were approximately ten panels taking place simultaneously with world experts, ranging from climate education to plant-based diet researchers. Around 40 countries had their own pavilion, displaying their national cutting-edge technologies and promoting their most innovative ideas. One got my attention more than any other.
The Polish pavilion was the best spot to hear interesting insights on climate change mitigation. In contrast to other eco-friendly pavilions, Poland had decided to swim against the current. The structure’s walls, floors and even jewellery were entirely made of coal and Polish miners were distributing flyers in front, titled ”Be co@l”.
The Polish government did not disguise its political stance either. President of Poland Andrzej Duda opened the conference stating how continuing to use coal “wasn’t in conflict with climate protection” and that “experts point out our supplies will run for another 200 years, and it would be hard not to use them”.
Needless to say those remarks did not get the conference off to a great start. Indeed, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report urges states to reach a near-total reduction in coal use for electricity generation by 2050 to stay within a 2°C temperature increase scenario.
Today, 80% of Poland’s electricity generation comes from coal. This is by far, the biggest proportion of coal in any European country’s energy mix. For a nation that disappeared from the map of Europe for 123 years, and only recovered its territorial integrity in 1918, matters of energetic independence are of a prime importance, especially regarding the Russian energy giant which floods the European market with its “blue fuel” (gas).
Yet, Poland’s coal dependency is not without sacrifice: 33 out of the 50 most polluted city in the European Union are Polish, as ranked by the World Health Organisation in 2016. While Polish public opinion seems increasingly concerned by air pollution, coal still holds privileged place in the nation’s collective heart. Any decisions involving closing a coal mine entails loss of employment and a social uproar.
The dilemma is simple: coal is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and a major employer in the country. Poland’s answer is an attempt to conciliate both: it is investing in nuclear and renewable energy but still intends 50% of its energy to be produced from coal in 2050.
And yet, Poland has hosted more COPs than any other country (three times in eleven years) and its presidency role during this COP proved significant. Although the country was harshly criticised by the participants for its obvious promotion of coal, everyone agreed on the need for a “just transition” to a low-carbon economy.
The fact that energy policies have to address not only the security of supply and environmental sustainability, but also equity (affordability, accessibility) makes reaching an agreeable outcome even more difficult. Delegates would discuss the Yellow Vests movement in France, as an example that illustrates the extent to which even a strong political will towards an ecological transition is a nonstarter without social dialogue.
The movement has now reached proportions that by far outstrip discontent regarding the implementation of a simple fuel eco tax. France was one of the main absentees from the conference, as Prime Minister Edouard Philippe had to cancel his travels due to the protests and President Macron never intended on coming. For the country that is the guarantor of the most successful international treaty on climate, it was seen as a failure not to be able to implement it in its own country.
Interestingly, France’s absence at the COP24 was not the only source of contention. I also attended a conference on Brazilian deforestation in Bolsonaro’s era. For a country that holds about a third of the world’s remaining rainforests, the election of an environmentally sceptic president is all but encouraging. Ernesto Araujo, the new Foreign Minister believes climate change is a plot by marxists to slow down western economies and encourage China’s growth. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro already announced he will open the Amazon forest to mining and farming industries.
The resulting deforestation rate could cause yearly forest loss equivalent to the the size of the UK. As rainforests are nature’s best defence against global warming – as they absorb a large amount of carbon emissions – it would be difficult for Brazil to achieve its climate commitment of the Paris Agreement following drastic environmental policy changes. Many environmental NGOs shared their concerns regarding being banned in Brazil and many worried about subsidies being cut.
Ironically, the next COP was to be hosted by Brazil. 26 years ago, the first Earth Summit was ever organised in Rio de Janeiro – Rio 1992, and was landmark event in the world’s history of environmental governance.
Bolsonaro announced shortly after his election that Brazil will not be hosting next year’s COP and may have suggested the South American country would back out of the Paris climate accord. Although the so-called “Tropical Trump” announced this during his presidential campaign, he recently reversed his decision under the condition that Brazilian sovereignty is respected by international organisations, especially regarding the governance of the Amazon.
Back in Poland, as panel speakers promptly reminded nervous audience members, there are time safeguards ensuring a lengthy withdrawal process.
The best example is that of the world’s first economic power. Indeed, the final decision regarding the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris agreement is deeply tied to the outcome of the 2020 American Presidential election. Article 28 stipulates that notice of withdrawal can only be given at minimum 3 years after the agreement comes into force in the signing country. Having only been in force in the US since the 4th of November 2016, the earliest possible date for notice will be November of this year. Once notice has been given, the departing country must then allow a 1 year period before the withdrawal is effective, making the earliest possible date for withdrawal the 4th of November 2020, exactly one day after the next presidential election.
Consequently, the upcoming election will be crucial in determining the fate of the world’s largest carbon emitter in regard to international climate cooperation.
Fortunately, popular and influential guests were at the COP to remind the urgency of the situation and speed up the delegations. The beloved British scientist David Attenborough, the former vice-president of the US Al Gore, the well respected intellectual Noam Chomsky, and the 16 year old environmental activist Greta Thunberg (who is organising the worldwide “school strike for the climate”) made brilliant speeches that shook the audience, including myself.
Noam Chomsky warned the audience of governments’ inertia before calling for a “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. He highlighted that the need to be lucid on the dire situation of our planet should never make us become disillusioned and complacent.
Climate change is often presented as a complicated and overwhelming topic. For example, the plenary sessions of the UN I attended were riddled with acronyms and complex statements, which were difficult to understand unless one is well versed on climate governance. I often found it disheartening to see all these countries speaking such a cold language on such pressing human issues.
Yet, it is in this instance that civil society, namely; artists, lawyers, parents, students and activists among others, have a crucial role to play. The Talanoa Dialogue implemented for the 1st time at this COP led to some positive outcomes.
The term means “storytelling” in Fijian. The goal of the Dialogue was to employ a simpler language for civil society members to enter the conversation and express its views. Young people, farmers and indigenous people were able to stand before the assembly and speak up about their hope, expectations and the way they are fighting climate change on their scale. People working in permaculture, recycling, and plant based advocates took the floor to present local solutions that are easily adoptable.
Some might say the solutions they offer are too little, too late. I believe that those who think like this are disillusioned and have given up hope. In fact, I strongly believe that these small steps, advocated for by such individuals, are part of a bigger enterprise where each of us can contribute.
Such actions allow people to transform an indiscernible and endless battle into intelligible contributions on a human scale. We are the most collaborative species that ever existed, and as such, small initiatives can lead to far greater changes.
During the COP24, the collaboration skills of the participants were challenged. Negotiations occasionally came to a standstill, for example when the latest 1.5 IPCC report that warned that the impacts of climate change will be much worse and rapid than expected was presented.
Yet the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait, the world’s biggest fossil fuel exporters, only agreed to take “note” of it because of “scientific gaps”. In UN jargon, this means these countries do not endorse the report. This slowed down the final plenary sessions.
After two weeks of tense negotiations – sometimes extending all night- and with two days of delay, the COP was finally able to end with countries adopting the notorious Paris rulebook, thus paving the way for a new international climate regime.
If this achievement was not certain until the very last moment, the COP24’s outcome is a lukewarm result. Countries did not raise their climate ambitions beyond those promised in the Paris agreement, especially in the light of the last IPCC report. Some significant topics such as Loss and Damage – which concern the unavoidable effects of climate change in vulnerable countries – were barely mentioned and this agenda item was postponed to the next COP.
Overall, meetings like COPs are absolutely necessary, as they act as a decision-making forum and a catalyst for citizen initiatives. Yet, it is worth questioning ourselves if gathering 22,000 people and spending billions of dollars on a conference with such a big carbon footprint each year is the best way to deal with the climate crisis.
Global carbon emissions increased by 1.6 percent in 2017 (relative to 2016) following a three-year decline and are projected to rise even more in 2018. It is clear that the world is not yet doing nearly enough to mitigate the effects of climate change. The “practice what you preach”’ motto of the 16 year old environmental activist Greta Thunberg could perhaps be better applied by the signatories of the Paris accord.