A view of the plenary meeting during the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland. Photo by: cop24.gov.pl

KATOWICE, Poland — The final plenary session was postponed nine times before negotiators in Katowice, Poland, were finally — exhaustedly — able to assemble on Saturday evening and adopt a Paris Agreement “rulebook.”

Disputes over reporting rules, financing obligations, and emissions accounting pushed the negotiations into multiple overnight marathons, and some of those disagreements — particularly one about “market mechanisms” and carbon trading — were tabled for later debate. While negotiators and observers breathed a sigh of relief that COP24 delegates managed to reach an accord that will keep the Paris Agreement on climate change on track at a politically contentious moment, many also acknowledged that the rules now in place are a far cry from what will be required to prevent dangerous climate change and help vulnerable countries adapt.

Now that COP24 has concluded, international policymakers, activists, and communities working to build a low-carbon future and tackle the impacts of climate change face a critical year ahead.

While delegates applauded their consensus on Saturday — prompting Poland’s COP24 President Michał Kurtyka to leap over his podium — the rulebook will mean very little unless it comes with clear country commitments to curb emissions and support vulnerable communities.

Here are Devex’s three takeaways from COP24 in Katowice, Poland:

1. Some financing pledges, but the devil is in the details

COP24 kicked off with some positive signals: Germany announced it will double its contribution to the embattled Green Climate Fund, which has just launched its next replenishment push; the World Bank released new climate targets that include $200 billion in financing over five years.

These pledges are meant to help fulfill a commitment developed countries made in 2009 to provide $100 billion per year in climate finance to developing countries. That commitment is viewed as a critical framework of trust that undergirds the Paris Agreement’s success — even if it represents a fraction of what low- and middle-income countries will require. LMICs will agree to put forward ambitious climate mitigation and adaptation plans if they know high-income countries will be there to support them with financing, capacity building, and technology. Each successive funding announcement helps to build that trust between parties.

The problem, which existed before COP24 but has been highlighted in discussions about the rulebook, is that not everyone agrees about what climate finance is, or what countries should be required to report on what they are providing.

In Katowice, civil society groups were dismayed by what they considered an effort to “water down” the definition of climate finance. Even if countries meet the $100 billion target — and then agree to a new, longer-term target — it won’t mean much if the financing they provide is so loosely defined that it doesn’t actually require new resources on the table.

The language adopted on Saturday includes caveat phrases like “as available” and “indication of,” which civil society groups say open the door to countries counting as climate finance even items such as export credits and loans that have to be paid back with interest.

“Rich countries have a moral and a legal responsibility to provide money and technology to developing countries to make their economies greener and tackle the impacts of climate change. Instead of taking this seriously, they pushed through a rulebook riddled with loopholes allowing them to avoid this responsibility,” wrote Harjeet Singh, global lead on climate change at ActionAid International, in a statement.

2. International negotiations survive, but country action matters

The Paris Agreement will take hold in 2020 with an agreed rulebook to support its implementation. Faced with persistent climate denialism, pressure from fossil fuel interests, major governments retreating from multilateral cooperation, and growing geopolitical and economic rivalry, advocates found reason to celebrate that the basic foundation of climate action remains intact after this round of difficult negotiations.

Still, the Paris rulebook provides a comparable set of expectations for how countries should record and communicate their progress in dealing with climate change. It does not dictate what countries should do, or how they should do it. Those plans are laid out in every country’s “nationally determined contribution,” and the sum total of those proposals still has the world on course for about 3 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100.

“The temperature rise from existing NDCs is completely crazy. It needs to be clear they understand that,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International.

A core pillar of the Paris Agreement is that these national pledges must be continuously strengthened to bring them in line with the actual demands of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Given the International Panel on Climate Change’s recent findings of how quickly emissions need to drop to avoid warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, climate negotiators have tried to devise a process for countries to commit to revising their NDCs to put the world on a safer trajectory when the Paris Agreement takes effect in 2020.

In Katowice, several countries joined together to commit to producing more ambitious NDCs next year, but negotiators fell short of an official, unanimous decision to do so. Attention will now turn to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres’ climate summit in September 2019 in New York. He has dedicated the summit to securing bolder plans and commitments from world leaders ahead of COP25 — which will be hosted by Chile after Brazil withdrew its offer to chair the next round of talks.

3. Loss and damage is (still) the elephant in the room

At a certain point in these negotiations, it was unclear whether the issue of how to address loss and damage due to climate change would be dealt with in the text of the rulebook itself, or merely in a footnote.

The IPCC’s report on the effects of a 1.5 degrees warming showed that even that amount of warming will carry significant impacts for vulnerable countries.

At COP24, food security experts warned that increases in global temperature will cause more frequent food shortages and that this will, in turn, require greater amounts of humanitarian assistance. They have been urging countries to take proactive measures to improve forecasting and enhance resilience. Yet without a significant reduction in emissions, those efforts will fall short. Meanwhile, sea-level rise threatens low-lying islands, whose leaders must respond to the displacement they expect will ensue — with, they hope, financial and logistical support.

Ultimately, negotiators did agree to include language about loss and damage in the rulebook. Parties “may take into account, as appropriate” issues related to loss and damage when they gather in 2023 to take stock of their collective efforts; and countries “may provide, as appropriate” information about the observed and potential impacts of climate change and the actions they are taking to avert, minimize, and address those impacts.

While civil society groups say that is better than seeing the issue relegated to a footnote as it was in an earlier draft of the agreement, it falls well short of establishing any kind of financial mechanism for addressing loss and damage.

“The agreement to now officially monitor losses shows that, although these communities are finally being heard, the world is still standing back and watching climate change like it’s a slow-motion car crash,” Singh wrote in ActionAid’s statement.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.