WASHINGTON — The 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — COP24 — kicked off Sunday in Katowice, Poland, a city that traces its history through the discovery of rich coal reserves.
“We are facing the most important COP since Paris.”— Jens Mattias Clausen, climate change adviser, Greenpeace Nordic
While Poland’s presidency of this year’s international climate change conference — and its partnership with fossil fuel giants — has already raised some eyebrows, delegates to COP24 will spend more time focused on a difficult task of negotiating the rules that will give shape to the historic Paris Agreement on climate change.
Perennial issues of finance, transparency, capacity building, and ambition will top the agenda. But they will also contend with a more challenging geopolitical context, with stark divisions emerging between those nations at the forefront of climate change leadership — and those turning increasingly inward and away from international cooperation.
As the impacts of climate change grow more visible, from the Great Barrier Reef to the Arctic to California, country leaders, development organizations, private sector partners, and climate-vulnerable people are tasked with taking more decisive action in a narrower window of time.
“We are facing the most important COP since Paris,” said Jens Mattias Clausen, climate change adviser at Greenpeace Nordic.
Here are four things to watch as COP24 gets underway in Poland:
1. Can climate leaders hold the line?
While the Paris climate agreement was forged in a spirit of international cooperation, the coalition that came together to build the treaty has begun to fracture. United States President Donald Trump’s administration openly doubts that man-made climate change poses a threat — or even exists. On Wednesday, Brazil’s new President Jair Bolsonaro, who has said that he plans to open the Amazon to mining and agricultural development, announced that his country will no longer host the COP25 climate talks in 2019, as it had previously committed to.
As these and other important constituencies withdraw, the stakes will be even higher for those national leaders who have attached their names to a successful international climate policy regime. Heads of state such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel “need the COP to be successful,” Camilla Born, senior policy adviser at climate change think tank E3G, told reporters in a briefing ahead of COP 24.
“We envision that major economies will be pushing for a satisfactory outcome by the close of this COP,” she said.
2. Will coal companies get a foot in — or be shown — the door?
In the eyes of many climate change activists, COP24 has begun under an inauspicious cloud. The European Union’s largest producer of coking coal — the majority Polish state-owned corporation Jastrzębska Spółka Węglowa — announced just days before the talks began that it would be a corporate sponsor. By welcoming JSW’s name to the conference agenda, Poland has raised questions about whether fossil fuel companies will be able to influence climate policy at these talks — and what kind of access to policymakers their sponsorship of COP24 might buy.
The talks will likely see two competing narratives about the role coal should play in the world’s energy mix. The Polish hosts have made it clear they want to focus on a “just transition” when it comes to the future of the coal industry, according to Jesse Bragg, media director at Corporate Accountability.
Through its sponsorship of COP24, JSW said it wants to highlight how the coal mining sector is embracing innovative technologies that can be part of a lower carbon future. That is a similar message the Trump administration’s delegation brought to Bonn, Germany, for COP23 last year, when industry representatives advocated for carbon capture and storage and other technological strategies for maintaining coal power in the global energy future.
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On the other hand, more than a dozen European nations have pledged to phase out coal by 2030, as part of the “Powering Past Coal Alliance.” The World Bank and its private sector arm, the International Finance Corp., have also sought to distance themselves from coal power investments in recent years.
3. Is climate finance accounting a hero or a villain?
The signature outcome to be negotiated by the close of COP24 is a “rulebook” to guide implementation of the historic Paris Agreement. The rulebook is meant to ensure that countries operate transparently under the same framework for planning and reporting their climate change mitigation, adaptation, and financing actions.
Financing has been a particularly sticky issue. In 2009, in Copenhagen, Denmark, developed countries committed to scaling up climate finance to low- and middle-income countries, to $100 billion per year by 2020. LMICs countries — which also happen to be the most climate-vulnerable nations — have argued that the scale-up isn’t happening quickly enough, or predictably enough to allow them to do effective planning.
The Bangkok negotiations closed with optimism from the U.N. climate secretariat. But frustrated countries and rights groups fear the stubborn stance in Thailand could also derail progress in Poland.
They also take issue with some of the accounting measures being used to measure how much money is flowing. When the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently reported that the amount of climate finance delivered rose to over $56 billion in 2017, large portions of that sum included loans. Some climate advocates argue that is not the kind of public assistance LMICs countries were expecting.
Delegates at COP24 will be working to clarify that common definition of “climate finance,” in hopes of avoiding a situation where delivering more money devolves into an “accounting exercise,” Greenpeace’s Clausen said.
4. Can the world start to close the ambition gap?
On Sunday, the World Bank released a new set of climate targets to guide its work from 2021-2025. They include a commitment to double the amount of climate financing the bank provides to $200 billion over those five years.
The bank also committed to boosting its direct financing for adaptation to $50 billion over that period, and to develop a new “rating system to track and incentivize global progress,” according to a press release.
The World Bank will not be the only institution asked to do more on the climate front than ever before.
A new report released by IPCC provides much-needed evidence to governments worldwide on the difference between a rise in global temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius and the 2 degrees pledge in the Paris Agreement.
Against the backdrop of an International Panel on Climate Change report released in October, which warned of significantly worse consequences of 2 degrees Celsius warming compared to 1.5 degrees, leaders at COP24 will be asked to show that they are committed to more ambitious actions. The Paris Agreement created a system for national planning and action that begins in 2020, but the commitments countries have made so far fall well short of what would be required to limit warming to 2 degrees — let alone 1.5 degrees.
One measure of success for the COP24 in Katowice will be whether it initiates a groundswell of new commitments, pledges, and targets that supersede an important, but ultimately inadequate, set of plans that exist today.
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