Headline: It will take more than a rulebook to protect the climate

In Katowice, it became clear that some states have strong reservations when it comes to aligning their future efforts with the 1.5°C target. But swift action is needed to mitigate climate change.

Three years after the Climate Conference in Paris, the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change have agreed in Katowice, Poland, on a new set of rules for the implementation of the Paris Agreement. There is no doubt that this “rulebook” is an important milestone. Nevertheless, the results of the Climate Change Conference (COP24) can only be described as disappointing given the global community’s awareness of the speed and scale of change needed to slow climate change impacts.

The urgent need for action became all too clear during the summit. Earlier, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) outlined the efforts necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius in a special report published in October. However, emissions of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels and industry have risen again in recent years –with strong growth in global emissions expected in 2018 according to an analysis by the Global Carbon Project. Despite this, the 1.5°C report met with controversy at the summit: several states – the USA, Russia, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia – initially refused to properly recognise the new report. As a result of this, the wording adopted in the final document is ambivalent and merely “invites” State Parties to make use of the findings of the report in future discussions. The controversy surrounding the report highlights the politicization of research results and suggests that some states have strong reservations when it comes to aligning their future efforts with the 1.5°C target.

Meanwhile, the Polish Presidency also sought to set new priorities at the conference. The host nation, which has not exactly made a name for itself on the international stage for its ambitious climate policy, used its Presidency to push the issue of a just transition. Ensuring that transformation processes towards a low-carbon economy are just and equitable is crucial to efforts to overcome resistance to change. But the adoption of a narrow understanding of just transitions, focusing almost exclusively on employees in the fossil fuel industry, threatens to undermine climate protection ambitions. It is crucial that this debate is not used to further delay the necessary changes. The Climate Change Conference in Poland revealed the tension that exists between climate ambition and climate justice.

Nevertheless, this new focus on justice in transformation processes is a welcome opportunity for a robust debate, particularly among the industrialized nations, focused on the issue of how stakeholders can deliver on the promise of ambitious climate protection while ensuring that both the processes and outcomes are just and equitable. The former coal-mining region of Lusatia in Germany, for example, could benefit substantially from such a debate. The IASS, in cooperation with several partners, is currently undertaking a research and policy advice project focusing on the transformation of this region. Taking a broader view can help us to understand that Lusatia is not alone in the challenges that it faces and can offer insights into other experiences and approaches trialed abroad from which we can learn. While transformation processes do entail negative impacts, it is also true that they deliver benefits and present numerous opportunities. Here too, however, the question arises as to who can benefit where, how and to what extent.

The negotiations in Katowice rendered visible familiar conflicts between the negotiating states. In particular, the question of whether the industrialized and developing nations should be bound by the same rules was hotly debated. In the end, however, the negotiating parties were able to agree on a text that will ensure that largely the same rules apply for both groups of countries. Some leeway has been granted to those countries lacking the capacity to follow these rules. The rules governing climate finance are weak: under the new rules developed countries are allowed report the full value of loans as climate financing, for example. From the perspective of those most affected by climate change, this is a disappointing outcome – and bad news. No agreement was reached on the issue of market mechanisms and the issue will be taken up again at the next Climate Change Conference (COP 25), which will take place in Chile at the end of 2019 or early 2020.

All in all, the summit in Katowice yielded a mixed bag of results. Given the low expectations of both participants and observers, the complexity of the negotiations and the state of international diplomacy, the adoption of the Katowice Rules is in itself a success. But if we consider the enormity of the challenges posed by climate change, the outcome of this summit can only be described as faint-hearted. As 15-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden put it: “Until [we] start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.”

A version of this article was published by the German Climate Consortium (DKK) on 17 December 2018.