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COP24 - how did it go?

By Lidia Wojtal

As the Parties gathered at the COP24 summit in Katowice agreed on its final outcomes, they also passed the credibility test for their actual willingness to meet the Paris Agreement’s targets. As expected, the summit was difficult, and emotional, and longer than officially stated in the calendar. With nearly 30,000 participants logistics played an important, and successful, role. All in all, it would be fair to say that COP24 will be listed as a significant achievement in the history of global climate change negotiations. It would also, however, be fair to say that after this COP there will be a significant amount to do on the ground, that’s for sure.

The successes

COP24/CMA1 had two major tasks to fulfill: the adoption of the implementing rules for the Paris Agreement Work Programme (the PAWP/Katowice rulebook), and the conclusion of the Talanoa Dialogue - a stocktake of global efforts in fighting climate change conducted at ministerial level.

Adoption of the rulebook required an enormous amount of highly detailed work. In the end, negotiators agreed on a set of rules governing, inter alia, the new reporting rules under the Paris Agreement (PA). These will form the new transparency framework starting in 2024, and encompass mitigation, adaptation and finance. The information will be gathered from all Parties - as opposed to the pre-Paris arrangements where only developed countries were obliged to report. It will allow for tracking of progress towards the achievement of the PA goals. Thanks to the two public registries also agreed upon in Katowice, data on all Parties’ efforts will be available to everybody and easily comparable. Also thanks to agreement in Katowice countries’ climate plans, the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), will be much more uniform and evenly structured.

To many countries, agreeing to these new obligations in Katowice was difficult because currently they simply lack the capacity to gather the data and prepare the reports. Knowing this, they could only agree to embrace these new commitments if reliable, adequate financial support was offered by developed states. Even with this support, not all of them may be able to report as often, comprehensively, or in as much detail as required currently from the (developed) countries which have had these obligations since the 1990s. All this, and much more, was taken into account under the Katowice package.

On the finance side, many countries argued that they needed to know when the new, increased (from the current USD 100 billion annually) collective global financial goal was finally going to be discussed. This decision will need to be taken by 2025 at the latest. In Katowice it was agreed that this discussion will start soon enough, in 2020.

The completion of the Talanoa Dialogue marked the start of the first, though preparatory, cycle of review and ambition under the PA. Five years from now, in 2023 and every five years thereafter, the process of reviewing the progress made globally will be conducted under the global stocktake. The formal results of the Talanoa Dialogue were included in the non-negotiable declaration, 'The Talanoa Call for Action' of the two COP Presidents, Fijian and Polish.

The Talanoa Dialogue with ministerial and non-governmental participation in Katowice showed what the future global stocktake might look like. The rulebook set up clear guidelines on the preparatory process, the final event, and the sources of input into the discussion under the stocktake. After both the Dialogue and the stocktake, Parties are expected to reflect on their level of ambition in the preparation of their next NDCs. In the year following the 'stocktake COP', viz. 2019, 2024, 2029 (etc.), they can present their announcements on ambition at the UN Secretary General’s summit held on the margins of UN General Assembly.

Last but not least, the compliance system under the PA was operationalised. The Committee to facilitate its implementation and promote compliance was given clear guidance on its structure, manner, and scope of work.

The shortcomings

Two major disappointments were voiced by the summit’s participants. The first refers to the absence of a conclusive decision on the final shape of the new market mechanisms under the Agreement’s Article 6. Although substantial progress was made in this area, the discussion at COP24 never reached the stage of “finishing touches”, and got stuck on issues such as avoiding the so-called “double counting”, i.e. ensuring that reductions from one project aren’t used to show fulfillment of mitigation targets more than once. With many stakeholders being interested in starting carbon reducing projects, I hope this issue can be finalised at COP25 in Chile.

The second relates to the way in which Parties referred to the IPCC report on 1.5°C. The final, overarching COP24 decision is neither “welcoming” nor “noting with concern” the report and its recommendations, but only welcomes its “timely completion”. This reference was deemed weak and entirely insufficient by most governmental and non-governmental delegates. The fact is, for anything more to have been reflected in the decision’s text there would need to have been consensus, and there was none. Nevertheless, the reference acknowledges that the IPCC did deliver a report reflecting the best available science.

Other issues which were not finalised at COP24 include common metrics for calculations of greenhouse gases, and common timeframes for the targets presented in the NDCs. Many organisations also spoke of having neglected the issue of broadly defined human rights in the rulebook.

Yet another, bigger, issue is connected with the way the Polish government as a host interacted with civil society. Compared to other COP host cities, the summit’s venue was hardly surrounded by climate marches or demonstrations. One can suspect this was because of the rather inclement weather, but the reasons were of a different nature. Poland adopted a special act for the organisation of COP24 which forbade spontaneous gatherings and increased surveillance of all the summit’s participants. The one major march for climate, which was officially arranged for Saturday in between the negotiations period, was surrounded by the shocking news that over a dozen activists had been stopped at the Polish border. The official reasons for this action were not provided, although the UNFCCC Executive Secretary promised to investigate.

The Silesian coal-elephant

Speaking of shortcomings, this elephant wasn’t very discrete. From the miners’ band welcoming delegates on the second day of the summit and the Katowice pavilion clad in coal, to the briefing with the Polish President in which he promised not to abandon coal, one could not escape the feeling that the host government was very much missing, or dismissing, the - fundamental - point about coal and climate protection. Certainly, the low-emission transition will affect the mining industry and societies, and it is only right to secure the livelihoods of the people employed in the mining sector and to discuss how it is going to happen. However, the prominence - and prevalence - of displays ‘celebrating’ coal throughout the venue was highly unlikely to convince delegates that Poland is ambitious with regards to climate action and protection. On the contrary, it seemed to undermine the very purpose of the summit and its, increasingly urgent, calls for carbon emissions reductions - predominantly those from coal.

The Presidency and its tools

The COP24 President and his team had to engage on a variety of topics and levels, and use adequate tools. A kind of novelty in the process was the use of a head of delegations meetings format throughout the first and second week. Together with regular stocktake meetings, it allowed transparency of proceedings and trust of Parties to be secured and maintained. A good, and already proven, idea was to also employ pairs of ministers to lead on the negotiations of the most difficult issues in the second week. Another format, the so-called “Sejmik”, in honor of the 550th anniversary of the first meeting of the Polish Parliament, was arranged at the ministerial level in the second week. Although this sounded new and exciting it was not fully successful; in the second week it was still necessary to discuss very technical issues relating to the rulebook, and many ministers felt discouraged from participating in the Sejmik’s discussions, leaving them to their senior negotiators. I am glad that in the end this did not discourage Parties from finalising the rules altogether.

Apart from guiding the negotiating process, the COP24 Presidency also embarked on the promotion of three topics. The 'Solidarity and Just Transition Silesia Declaration’, adopted at the Leaders’ Summit on 3 December and noted in the COP decision, recognises the need to take into account the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs. The electromobility initiative was transformed into the 'Driving change together: Katowice Partnership for Electromobility' launched by the COP24 President in cooperation with the UK. It is expected to encourage development of zero-emission transport. Finally, the 'Forests for Climate' Ministerial Declaration, which despite raising some concern about the idea of substituting emission reduction measures with forest enhancement, was considered in the end a positive initiative by many Parties. All of these initiatives were presented quite late in the year, and are rather general as they aimed at securing the widest support possible. The forestry declaration for example, without specific targets or mechanisms, and encouraging “removals by sinks” offsetting emissions, not curbing them, was undoubtedly, regrettably, lacking ambition.

The unavoidable drama

Many expected that the main points of controversy would come from the negotiating position of the United States, but this was not the case.

The first great uncertainty, just about the day before the summit started, came from the Turkish side. Turkey came to COP24 armed with procedural and legal claims aimed at changing its place in the Annexes to the Climate Convention and formally become a developing country. Such a solution would allow it access to financial support for climate-related projects, and to some extent limit its obligations. Needless to say (other) developing countries, especially the least developed ones, were not amused by this idea. This translated into groups of countries (AILAC, Arab Group, Asia-Pacific) asking to be awarded a status recognising their “special needs and circumstances”. If these discussions had been allowed to start at COP24 no other discussion would have been concluded: mainly due to lack of time but also because of increasing political tensions. Fortunately, the COP24 Presidency managed to contain the problem. Turkey agreed to be consulted during the summit on the issue, and not have a formal discussion, while the other groups withdrew their claims.

The issue of Turkey returned once more just before the closing of the session, and together with last-minute consultations on market mechanisms with Brazil caused considerable delay in the closing of the summit. Yet all things considered, given the notorious complexity, difficulty, and delicacy of the negotiations, of compromise and conciliation, the COP24 Presidency’s assured interventions were demonstrably successful. Thanks to this the negotiating process could progress.

The second controversy came at the end of the second week during the discussion on the reference to the IPCC Special Report. “Welcoming” the report was not acceptable to Saudi Arabia, the US, Russia, or Kuwait, while the reference to only “take note” of it was fiercely opposed by the majority of Parties. Despite the efforts of the SBSTA Chair moderating the discussion, no acceptable-to-all formulation was found. Afterwards, many participants felt disappointed, and stepped into the second week of negotiations with a heavy heart. As explained above, no real solution to this problem had been found by the end of the summit.

Signs of hope

To finish on a positive note, however, it is worth stressing that no international agreement has the power to push countries into something they are not willing to implement. If the majority of Parties want to act according to the recommendations of the IPCC Special Report, there is nothing to stop them. For instance, the EU has already started its discussion on decarbonisation by 2050 and will continue it this year. I hope other countries will follow. Furthermore, the ambition issue, even if not fully addressed at COP24, will be back on the agenda in September at the UN Secretary General’s summit.

Meanwhile, the UNFCCC negotiations can focus on the unfinished business of the carbon market, and Parties can prepare themselves for their new challenges. Thanks to the Katowice rulebook all the post-2020 declarations on ambition will be fully accountable and internationally verifiable. This is something entirely new to this process, and I am glad to have seen how this new reality was born.

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