Great expectations, low execution: The Katowice climate change conference COP 24


The Katowice climate package brings minor progress, but COP 24 failed to deliver on the most fundamental issues such as raising ambition of national contributions, implementing human rights, and ensuring support for developing countries.

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Inside COP 24 in Katowice
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Inside COP 24 in Katowice: Will real action to prevent cataclysmic climate change emerge from the UNFCCC hallways?

The Katowice Climate Package, a compilation of Paris Rulebook documents – without rules for carbon trading – was adopted at COP 24 along with other decisions and action points that bring minor progress in specific areas such as finance, gender, and indigenous peoples. But overall, COP 24 failed to deliver on the most fundamental issues such as raising ambition of national contributions, implementing human rights in the Paris Rulebook, and ensuring fair and reliable support for developing countries to assist them in their efforts to combat global warming and its effects.

This detailed analysis

High expectations for high ambitions

The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, released 8 October by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body that assesses the science related to climate change, sounded a last minute alarm to save the world.

Its key messages are unwavering: limiting temperature increase to 1.5°C is feasible only if carbon emissions are reduced by half by 2030 – only 11 years from now – and reach “net zero” by 2050. Such radical emissions cuts will require massive transformations in the global energy and transport systems, and the protection and restoration of natural ecosystems.

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So optimism was high for increased ambition – on emissions reductions by all countries and scaled-up finance for developing countries to implement those reductions – among the more than 22,000 participants at the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP 24) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Katowice, a city in Poland’s coal-producing heartland, which began on 2 December, nearly three years after the adoption of the Paris Agreement.

An early – and dramatic – push-back on climate ambition

What should have been the routine adoption of a document under a subsidiary body (SBSTA – the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice), which compiled scientific studies published in 2018 – including the IPCC Special Report – transformed into high drama during a mid-session plenary on 8 December. The document merely “noted” the IPCC report but the Maldives, speaking for the 44 members of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) – among the countries most vulnerable to climate change – proposed to “welcome” the report. They were supported by nearly every nation in the world.

But not the United States. “As the United States stated at the IPCC plenary on October 6, acceptance of the report and approval of the Summary for Policy Makers by the IPCC does not imply endorsement of the specific findings or the underlying contents by the United States.” Kuwait, the Russian Federation, and Saudi Arabia rapidly stood behind the US. Saudi Arabia and a few of its oil-exporting partners had also fought to water down the IPCC report’s conclusions at its session in October, even trying to eliminate all mentions of the Paris Agreement.

The plenary was abruptly suspended and, after more than an hour, compromise language to “welcome the effort of the IPCC experts” was roundly rejected. Under UN rules, with no consensus, the document was scrapped.

The COP final decision agreed one week later found compromise language which “Welcomes the timely completion” of the report and “Invites Parties to make use” of its information. But that stand-off set the tone for the remainder of the talks.


What happened at COP 24?

Week 1: Technical talks reveal long-standing divisions, with no consensus

The first week of the Katowice talks saw no evidence of consensus on any of the elements of the Paris Agreement Work Programme. Developed and developing country parties dug in on long-standing positions and different interpretations of the Paris Agreement itself. For years, these positions have centered on scope, differentiation, and finance. With regard to scope, the division was whether guidance for NDCs should be about mitigation only or, rather, on all potential elements of NDCs (mitigation, adaptation, and means of implementation).

On differentiation: should identical guidance be applied with flexibility or should different guidance be created for developed and developing countries. And on finance, developing countries demanded assurance that developed countries are willing and sincere to provide sufficiently detailed quantitative and qualitative information on public finance – in advance, and after it is provided – in order to enhance predictability and accountability.

Week 2: Ministerial talks move behind closed doors

On Monday of the second week, talks moved behind closed doors with pairs of ministers (one from a developed and one from a developing country) – under the guidance of COP 24 president, Michał Kurtyka, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who made three trips to the COP – charged with hammering out consensus on each Rulebook item. Limited information combined with rumors of chaos led to fears that negotiations would collapse, similar to the outcome at COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009.

Friday 14 December: The day time stood still

Friday 14 December was to be the final day of COP 24 with the closing plenary slated for 12:00 noon. New texts had begun to appear across most items late Thursday evening and Friday morning, but clearly delegates would not have enough time to examine the documents prior to the plenary. And so, the plenary was postponed until later that afternoon, then later that evening, then 4:00 AM on Saturday morning, then 10:00 AM. This wasn’t just a matter of examining documents. There was a problem.

The problem centered on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, rules for voluntary cooperative approaches between countries in the implementation of their NDCs – carbon markets. In an international carbon trading system, a country – or a fossil fuel producer or an aviation company -- with too many emissions can “offset” them from a country with fewer emissions. Article 6 doesn’t actually use the term “markets” but rather “international transfers of mitigation outcomes,” and a “Sustainable Development Mechanism” to replace the Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol, widely viewed as a failure to provide additional mitigation. It also includes a program to develop future non-market based approaches.

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Throughout the year, Brazil in particular had been pushing for a weak set of rules on the accounting of carbon credits, which could result in a situation where a country could count emissions reductions elsewhere toward their own targets, even if that other country had already claimed those reductions for itself. Brazil refused to compromise on this issue – known as double counting – by resisting rules for the application of “corresponding adjustments” (an accounting procedure where a country which transfers its emissions reductions to another country or entity then adds those reductions back to its own emissions account, to ensure an accurate net transfer of mitigation outcomes.) on transferred credits. Many parties and most observers define double counting as, simply, cheating.

Saturday 15 December: Rulebook adoption but a key issue postponed

By mid-afternoon on Saturday, it was clear that no consensus on Article 6 would be reached – Brazil would not compromise. A one-page document requests the subsidiary body to continue consideration of the matter at its next meeting in June.

With this major logjam and potential collapse in the negotiations out of the way, the COP President presented delegates with a compilation of Paris Rulebook documents – without rules for carbon trading -- on Saturday at 7:30 PM. The plenary finally convened at 9:30 PM, the Rulebook, now branded the Katowice Climate Package, was adopted, and COP 24 was gaveled closed at 12:36 AM Sunday morning.

What's in the Katowice climate package

The 133-page compilation of decisions which will be officially published as the Katowice Climate Package later this month covers each of the elements of the Paris Agreement Work Programme. Following is an overview of some of those elements.

Guidance on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)

The ongoing argument between developed and developing countries on the scope of NDCs referred to above – narrow (mitigation only) or wide (also adaptation, support, and capacity building) -- is over, at least until 2024. Scope has been narrowed to mitigation. Although the decision does “emphasize that the guidance on information… is without prejudice to the inclusion of components other than mitigation in a nationally determined contribution…,” this is a major victory for developed countries and was a long-standing red-line for the United States.

The danger is that a mitigation-centric NDC regime going forward will relegate adaptation, finance, technology transfer, and capacity building for developing countries further and further into the background. Parties also decided, however, to “continue consideration of further guidance on features” of NDCs in 2024, creating an opportunity to revisit these issues in the agenda for the second round of NDCs.

Global Stocktake

A key element of the Paris Agreement is the Global Stocktake - a five-yearly assessment of whether countries are collectively on track to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals to limit global warming. The Rulebook affirms that this process will consider “equity and best available science.” But it does not elaborate specifically on how these inputs will be used, and how the outcomes of the Stocktake will increase ambition.

This raises concerns that while the Rulebook will ensure that we will know if we are falling behind on climate action, it will offer no prescription for fixing things. This risks failing to address one of the biggest issues with the Paris Agreement so far: that countries are under no obligation to ensure their climate pledges are in line with the overall goals. A successful, ambitious, and prescriptive five-yearly review process will be essential to get the world on track.

Transparency Framework

One of the aims of the Katowice talks was to develop a common set of formats and schedules for countries to report their climate policy progress.

The new rules allow a degree of flexibility for the most vulnerable countries, who are not compelled to submit quantified climate pledges or regular transparency reports. All other countries will be bound to report on their climate action every two years, starting in 2024.

Climate Finance

Several obstacles related to climate finance were among the last to be resolved at COP 24, a common occurrence at climate summits. This is yet more proof that issues of trust, good will, ambition of the overall package, and collaborative efforts are all tied to signals from developed countries that they are willing to fulfill their end of the bargain and provide adequate, accountable, and predictable financial support to developing countries in accordance with long-standing financial obligations under the UNFCCC and in a manner supportive of the Paris Agreement implementation. The ambition of developing countries’ NDC commitments, and their willingness to revise them upward, depends on it, as many NDCs are conditional on additional finance provided by developed countries.

COP 24 was unsuccessful in providing those reassuring signals. Efforts by developing countries to leave Katowice with a comprehensive climate finance package that would tie together indicative, advance (ex ante) reporting on expected public finance provision with a clear reporting procedure as part of the Paris Rulebook of how much climate finance developed countries have actually provided (ex post) over the past two years failed.

Developing countries were thwarted in attempts to anchor a clear commitment in finance texts that new and additional financial resources must be provided on top of official development assistance, that finance should be also provided for loss and damage, that developed countries will use common reporting time frames, that a narrow definition of climate finance to be reported is used that would, for example, exclude commercial loans, export credit guarantees, or non-financial efforts such as capacity building or technology transfer, and that reporting on the grant equivalent value of all finance provided becomes mandatory, not voluntary.

Instead, in approved reporting guidelines on finance provided over a two-year period now included in the transparency framework of the Katowice Climate Package, developed countries are given much leeway to interpret “new and additional” according to their own understanding, not a commonly agreed definition, and are free to include an almost limitless set of financial flows and even non-financial efforts as climate finance provided, thus limiting the comparability of the finance they provide.

Developing countries, having hoped for more, can list a few modest, largely procedural wins. While advance information on finance provided will not be cross-referenced with actual financial flows to create implementation accountability, the forward-looking information developed countries must provide starting in 2020 will at least be collected by the UNFCCC Secretariat on a new publicly accessible web portal, and analyzed and fed into biennial in-session workshops and a high-level ministerial dialogue, both to start in 2021. These procedural features serve as a de facto continuation of the long-term finance work program tied to the commitment by developed countries from Copenhagen in 2009 to provide USD 100 billion per year by 2020, which will formally end in 2020.

While the decision accompanying the Paris Agreement stipulated that this amount serves as a baseline for scaling up toward a new collective quantified climate finance goal to be set by 2025, developing countries pushed in Katowice to have the process to determine the new finance goal start sooner rather than later. It will now begin at COP 26 in 2020. This is to avoid that a future collective climate finance goal would be a random number politically set by developed countries (as was the case in Copenhagen), rather than one informed by joint deliberation and the assessment of developing country needs.

Human Rights

One of the most significant victories of the Paris Agreement was the inclusion of language on human rights in its Preamble, although such language was not anchored in any of the articles of the Agreement.

Going into COP 24, a broad coalition of civil society advocates and a few country champions were hopeful that a joint push coupled with the timely 70th Anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would be enough to firmly anchor some of the human rights references in the Preamble, the “Great Eight” -- poverty alleviation, rights of Indigenous Peoples, public participation, gender equality and women’s empowerment, food security, just transition for workers and decent work, intergenerational justice, and ecosystem integrity – into the Paris Rulebook operationalizing the Paris Agreement. They were proven wrong.

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As negotiations progressed, specific human rights language was stripped off each new iteration of text on NDC guidance, adaptation planning and monitoring, enhanced transparency framework, and the

Global Stocktake. Efforts to reference the Preamble, at the very least, in these relevant sections to provide an anchor for further efforts also failed. Thus, the 133-page compilation of decisions contains not a single explicit reference to human rights. Civil society advocates who highlighted the importance of human rights with many colorful and creative actions in the conference center decry the Katowice outcome as incompatible with the Paris Agreement, which promised to protect, respect, and consider human rights in climate action. The approved Package offers little people-centered, rights-based guidance for countries to jointly deliver on the Paris promises.

What happened? Some countries, primarily developed, have opposed operationalizing human rights language since Paris, which is why that language only exists in the Preamble. For others, primarily developing, human rights language conflicts with national sovereignty.

What else happened at COP 24?

Finance Pledges in Katowice

Whether developed countries were on track to fulfill their long-term finance commitments was very much in contention at COP 24 as two new climate finance reports made the rounds: the Biennial Assessment of the Standing Committee on Finance, and an OECD report looking at public flows. While both found that flows increased during the period 2013-2017, criticism centered on accounting methods and thus that quantitative reporting tells only part of the climate finance story. The quality of climate finance provided has to improve significantly. The High-Level Climate Finance Ministerial, held mid-way through the COP, was an opportunity to raise ambition of climate finance provision, but was underutilized.

The Green Climate Fund (GCF), the main multilateral fund under the financial mechanism of the Paris Agreement and developing countries’ primary hope for supporting their NDC implementation, is now in its first replenishment phase. While it snatched a few important pledges from Germany and Norway which promised to double their previous contribution, most other developed countries sat on the sidelines, waiting to see governance reforms in the GCF before committing to additional funding.

The Kyoto Protocol Adaptation Fund, now confirmed in Katowice as serving the Paris Agreement as of 2019, received pledges of nearly USD 129 million in its perpetual fundraising efforts to stay afloat, and is saved for another year. While welcome, those commitments do not represent collective finance ambition by developed countries, which certainly had an impact on the remainder of the COP 24 negotiations.

Talanoa Call for Action

The Paris Agreement and Decisions mandated the COP to convene a “Facilitative Dialogue,” a test run for the “Global Stocktake” which all countries will conduct every five years starting in 2023 to assess and strengthen their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and global progress toward reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The facilitative dialogue was rebranded by Fiji, last year’s COP presidency, as the Talanoa Dialogue, derived from “tala” meaning “talking or telling stories,” and “noa” meaning “zero or without concealment.” Launched in January 2018 under the leadership of Fiji and Poland, it was structured around three topics: “Where are we?”, “Where do we want to go?”, and “How do we get there?” Some 220 inputs were received, mostly from non-party stakeholders. An Overview of Inputs was published on 23 April, a Synthesis of the Preparatory Phase was issued on 19 November, and a wrap-up of the preparatory phase was held on 6 December.

In the political phase held on 11 December, high-level representatives and ministers took stock of the collective efforts of parties. A summary of key messages – the Talanoa Call for Action – was issued at its closing meeting the next day.

Sad to say, there are no specific pathways to ambition in the Talanoa Call to Action. Even more disappointing, the COP 24 decision merely “takes note of the outcome, inputs and outputs of the Talanoa Dialogue” and “invites Parties to consider (them) in preparing their nationally determined contributions…”  A weak outcome for a process which had high expectations.

High Ambition Coalition

The High Ambition Coalition (HAC) of countries who played a pivotal role in the adoption of the Paris Agreement re-established itself near the end of COP 24. Gathered in the European pavilion on 12 December, environment ministers from Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, EU, Ethiopia, Germany, Grenada, the Marshall Islands, Norway, and Switzerland (with former Coalition member US not surprisingly missing), said it was not acceptable to leave Katowice without a decision that welcomes the IPCC 1.5 report and a decision on Talanoa Dialogue.

The HAC Statement on Stepping Up Climate Ambition notes their determination to step up ambition by 2020, in line with the long-term temperature goal of the Paris Agreement, through increasing climate pledges and short term action, and through long-term low emission development strategies.

Geoengineering: Here to Stay but Little Appetite As Yet

Two months after the release of the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, geoengineering proponents at COP 24 saw their chance to push for consideration of a host of technologies as solutions to tackle climate change. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) and related “negative emission” or “carbon removal” technologies such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and direct air capture with carbon storage (DACCS) were widely discussed in numerous official side events and off-site events (including those organized by Polish research and government institutions), all accompanied by lavish presentations and glossy brochures.

A new twist in Katowice, however, was the presence of carbon capture and utilization (CCU) in these debates: representatives of the International Energy Agency, World Bank, European Commission, British and Polish governments, and many others echoed the call for investments into CCU technologies to produce products such as fuel or plastics – and thus provide new subsidies for the fossil fuel industry without any positive effect on the climate.

As for Solar Radiation Management or Modification (SRM), several key researchers (including media darling David Keith from Harvard University) walked the COP 24 halls, spoke at side events, were welcomed with open arms in the business hub of the IETA (International Emissions Trading Association), and sought discussions with civil society to influence the formulation of specific positions of those who have not yet gone public.

The renewed launch of the HOME Manifesto (now signed by close to 200 groups) just a few weeks before COP 24 was thus just as timely as the preview of a groundbreaking new piece of research presented by Carroll Muffett of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). "Fuel to the Fire," a report to be launched in early 2019, investigates the early, ongoing, and often surprising role of the fossil fuel industry in developing, patenting, and promoting key geoengineering technologies. It examines how the most heavily promoted strategies for Carbon Dioxide Removal and Solar Radiation Management depend on the continued production and combustion of carbon-intensive fuels for their viability.

It analyzes how the hypothetical promise of future geoengineering is already being used by major fossil fuel producers to justify the continued production and use of oil, gas, and coal for decades to come. And it exposes the stark contrast between the emerging narrative that geoengineering is a morally necessary adjunct to dramatic climate action, and the commercial arguments of some of its key proponents that geoengineering is simply a way of avoiding or reducing the need for true systemic change – even as converging science and technologies demonstrate that shift is both urgently needed and increasingly feasible.

Finally, it highlights the growing incoherence of advocating for reliance on speculative and risky geoengineering technologies as critical to human rights while ignoring the pervasive and disastrous risks to human rights these same technologies present for both present and future generations.

Geoengineering – it can no longer be denied – has entered center stage in the mainstream climate debate and is here to stay. But the outcome of that debate is far from clear. While some have argued for inclusion of at least Carbon Dioxide Removal into the UNFCCC process over the past year (for example, through the Talanoa Dialogue, the Global Stocktake, or the update of NDCs – see new Climate Analytics / C2G2 paper), the success of these efforts seems very limited: CDR is still not on the official negotiation agenda. There are still potential entry points for it to enter the UNFCCC process, but political appetite on the part of governments appears to be lacking.

On the other hand, only a very few countries have demanded research and experiments into SRM, and the majority of governments from the Global South and civil society / social movements will fight any attempt to take control of the global thermostat.

Other issues (not part of the Paris Agreement work programme)

Given the difficulties in Katowice in advancing required work on the Paris Agreement Work Programme, and a pre-COP warning by the presiding officers that non-PAWP issues were not a priority for a Katowice outcome, it is astonishing that some “other issues” made any progress at all.

Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform

Most notable was the creation of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform, where parties agreed to set-up a “Facilitative Working Group”, with representatives from Indigenous Peoples holding an equal number of seats as parties, and to develop a two-year workplan to be approved at next year’s COP. This is one of only two COP decisions which contain explicit human rights language, as the human rights of Indigenous Peoples are explicitly confirmed as the basis for the platform’s operations.

Indigenous Peoples and members of local communities have been attending climate change negotiations and clamoring for a seat at the table since soon after the signing of the Convention in 1992. They are often the first to face the consequences of climate change since their livelihoods are nearly totally dependent upon the environment and its resources. Moreover, a 2016 study revealed that at least one quarter of all tropical forest carbon is found in the collectively managed territories of indigenous peoples and local communities, and peer-reviewed evidence demonstrates that they do a better job at maintaining forests than any other land management strategy. Still, without secure rights, these communities and their forests are at risk of illegal and forced encroachment, conflict, and capture by more powerful interests.

The need to strengthen the efforts of local communities and indigenous peoples in responding to climate change was finally recognized in the Paris Decision text. Although the platform was launched at COP 24, the path was far from smooth. Countries recognize their indigenous cultures in different ways, and distinct rights provided for indigenous peoples differ from those for local communities. The UN recognizes indigenous groups through seven indigenous sociocultural regions, but no such designations exist for local communities. China does not recognize indigenous people or local communities at all.

The final decision creates a working group of 14, seven from the indigenous constituencies and seven from parties, and a plan to add representatives from local communities when a process for their appointment is created. As for the platform’s proposed activities involving local communities, China demanded that no action “will dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity of sovereign and independent States.”

Loss and Damage

Loss and damage addresses irreversible loss and significant unrecoverable damage “beyond adaptation” and is recognized with a separate article in the Paris Agreement, but the issue was not formally part of the Paris Agreement Work Programme. Going into COP 24, however, developing countries, especially the small island developing states, pushed for commitments to address loss and damage. Unfortunately, efforts to anchor financial support for loss and damage in COP 24 outcomes failed, despite moral pleas from small island states in many high level COP meetings reminding developed countries that their very survival depended on raised ambition in climate action through increased finance provided.

The Katowice Climate Package does at least retain an opening for further discussions by including loss and damage in the Transparency Framework and with references to input to be provided for the Global Stocktake. COP 24 also approved the report by the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM), the body established in 2013 at the last Polish COP to address loss and damage in the climate negotiations, which is to be reviewed in 2019. Its five-year work program had been roundly criticized by small island states and civil society advocates as artificially narrowing the discourse about financial resources to address loss and damage only with insurance solutions.

The COP decision accepting the recommendations by the WIM on how to avert, minimize, and address human displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change is one of only two decisions (the other being the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform as noted above) that explicitly reminds parties of their human rights obligations in taking climate actions.

Gender and Climate Change

Deliberations on gender and climate change have been a standing agenda item of the COP since 2012, so COP 24 continued discussions to advance the implementation of the UNFCCC Gender Action Plan, established at last year’s Fiji COP 23 in Bonn but still lacking a decision. In a technical paper earlier this year, the Secretariat detailed entry points for gender integration in UNFCCC workstreams and also reported on advances in enhancing gender balance in national climate delegations, committees, and other constituted bodies under the Convention. Parties are now encouraged to formally nominate a national gender focal point for engagement with the climate process, which to date more than 40 Parties have answered.

Increasing the participation of women delegates and expanding gender expertise in constituted bodies are important, but only part of the gender integration efforts that are needed. This became quite clear when looking at how gender considerations are reflected in the Katowice outcomes. Gender considerations are mentioned in several parts of the Katowice Climate Package, but only tucked into annexes of decisions. They speak, for example, to the necessity for gender-responsive planning processes for NDC preparation to facilitate clarity, and to provide information on gender-responsive adaptation action under Adaptation communication. The need for gender-responsive technology and innovation approaches and the consideration of a gender perspective in technology support are also acknowledged under the Technology Framework.

Lastly, some COP decisions on finance make reference – usually in passing – to gender. In the guidelines for the provision of ex ante information on public climate finance, developed countries are requested to highlight the gender responsiveness of the finance they plan to provide. And in the core recommendations of the Biennial Assessment by the Standing Committee on Finance, climate finance providers are asked to improve the tracking of and reporting on gender-related aspects of climate finance.

Ministerial Katowice Declaration on Forests for the Climate

One Katowice outcome touted early on by the Polish Presidency was a declaration, leaked in September, which would confirm the crucial role of forests in preventing runaway climate change. Environmental campaigners immediately reacted that the draft declaration’s language on “achieving a balance” between greenhouse emissions and absorptions by forests was inadequate and, essentially, a green light for continued use of fossil fuels.

Indeed, the Ministerial Katowice Declaration on Forests for the Climate, released on 12 December, retains that language. It “encourage(s) the scientific community to continue to explore and quantify the contribution of sinks, and reservoirs of greenhouse gases in managed lands, including forests, to achieving a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century…”

The Climate, Land, Ambition and Rights Alliance (CLARA) reacted strongly at a COP 24 press conference just before the release of the Declaration. “Forests cannot be treated as an offset. Not conceptually, not as part of the Paris Agreement market mechanism, and certainly not to excuse continued coal burning or any other use of fossil fuels. The dangerous misconception is the idea that the land use sector could balance out emissions from fossil fuels. It cannot.”

The Polish perspective on COP 24

The Presidency

The city of Katowice, in the heart of the Silesian coal-mining region of southwest Poland, may have seemed an odd choice for a climate conference when the location was announced last year. Poland obtains a vast majority of its electricity from coal and many residents still heat their homes with coal-burning furnaces. What Poland aimed to showcase at COP 24 was its gradual transition from coal and its diversification into other, green, industries. Fine in principle, but Polish President Andrzej Duda’s reminder at an early plenary that Poland has enough coal to burn for 200 years was anything but a positive confirmation of that strategy.

One of the priority ambitions of the Polish Presidency was to “adopt rules and tools that will create a systemic solution for the whole world, replacing the point-based discussion on fragmented objectives…”  The three declarations pushed under the theme “Technology, Man, Nature” serve as an example of their attempt to consolidate “fragmented objectives”:

Those declarations, however, don’t address the essence of climate change – the need to fight global warming through cutting emissions. And although just transition was an important topic for Poland, COP 24 was sponsored by leading Polish energy companies which, along with government officials, promoted the continued role of coal in the economy and stressed absorption of emissions through forests instead of reduction. Further, the presidency was perceived by many observers as having neither clear vision nor strong leadership.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres revisited the COP twice to informally advise the second-week ministerial negotiations, which only confirmed that perception. So it was not surprising that Poland was awarded civil society’s “Fossil of the Day” at the outset of the COP, and a rare “Colossal Fossil” near the end of the conference.

Media coverage and its effect on society

Coverage of COP 24 in the Polish press was mostly positive but split along political lines as expected. State and state-friendly media naturally praised the success and efficient organization of the conference, strongly highlighting the leadership of COP President Michał Kurtyka, and repeating the phrase “Katowice Climate Package” to encrypt the Polish role in adopting the rulebook. Centrist and private media, sensing an opportunity to criticize the government, labeled the talks a “COP of failed expectations.” Leftist and environmentally-inclined commentators emphasized immediate actions and the implementation of human rights. Tabloids and popular media criticized the cost of hosting the conference and its security measures.

The most positive outcome of COP 24 for Polish society is that climate change and its related catastrophic events -- in the Polish context, air quality and smog – are back in the news. This is a step forward from previous Polish COPs, as climate and energy issues, especially the need to limit coal in the Polish energy mix, are again a mainstream subject, but this time, here to stay.

Civil society actions

Several incidents against civil society actors occurred during COP 24. The arrest and detention at the border, and subsequent deportation by Polish authorities of more than a dozen registered COP 24 participants during the first week did not inspire hopes of inclusivity and transparency. Poland was unequivocally responsible for the arrests and detentions, but the United Nations bears the responsibility to create strict guidelines to prevent such actions, and to guarantee their enforcement by future host countries, to ensure that this never happens again.

A March for Climate was held in the center of Katowice on 8 December which attracted about 3,000 activists from Poland and COP 24 attendees, accompanied by a huge police security presence. Many participants were stopped and searched en route to Katowice, and at least three demonstrators were detained at the march. Some were disappointed at the lack of participation from citizens of Katowice and surrounding Silesia, but the event did indicate positive signs of cooperation in the fight for climate justice among an increasingly wide range of Polish society.

The Polish climate movement is growing, youth is engaging more strongly, and the Catholic Church and academia have become more active in the debates. It is the responsibility of civil society to create and promote common progressive initiatives in a holistic way to ensure the understanding that the effects of climate change are already having an impact on broader society.

What's next?

If one had never attended a COP, paid no attention to the negotiating sessions, and only wandered the lavish country and industry pavilions in Section E, a half-kilometer from the main negotiating area, you might imagine yourself in a trade show. COPs are increasingly becoming global climate trade fairs where industry executives and lobbyists meet with country representatives to exchange ideas, develop new projects, and strategize on the financial opportunities of the climate revolution, with or without the leadership of the UNFCCC.

NGO activists, academics, youth leaders, and funders meet to exchange their latest campaign strategies or study findings, and pave the way for more and better collaboration in the future. For these COP 24 attendees, this increasingly is the main event to which they travel from around the planet, with the negotiations hazily continuing on the sidelines.

And a COP can bring even more buzz to an already intense and multi-faceted global climate conversation. Just across from the COP 24 conference center at the Rondo, the hub of the Katowice tram system, was the Climate Hub, a two-week transformation of Katowice’s Klub Królestwo, sponsored by Greenpeace Poland. In a cozy bar, restaurant, and theater space, dozens of NGOs, social movements, and local organizers from around the world showcased their latest activities on climate action and ambition.

What comes next? After the June meetings of the subsidiary bodies in Bonn, where Article 6 negotiations on carbon markets will resume, the next major global climate event will be a September summit to be convened by the UN Secretary General in New York. In the next nine months, all countries, but especially developed countries, must do quite a bit of soul-searching to determine how they will live up to their inadequate commitments under the Paris Agreement, and how they intend to raise their climate ambition in 2020 as mandated by the Paris Agreement. The UNSG summit will provide the platform for heads of state to announce to the world how serious they really are.

The 25th Conference of the Parties will be held in Chile. The UK and Italy have expressed interesting in hosting COP 26 in 2020, the crucial year that the Paris Agreement calls on countries to submit new or updated national determined contributions. The UK’s bid also indicates their intention to retain – or regain – their position as a world leader after Brexit.

While the COP 24 outcome fails to ensure full implementation of the Paris Agreement, and contains significant shortcomings with little to no incentive for countries to scale up their inadequate Paris pledges to meet the 1.5° or 2.0° goals of the Paris Agreement, it is just "good enough" to allow for the possibility of future collective multilateral movement. A complete breakdown in the negotiations was avoided in the final hours and some forward action maintained. The spirit of Paris and the multilateral climate negotiations born in 1992 will live to see another year. But overall Katowice delivered way too little and way too late. And that failure did not go unnoticed.


Greta Thunberg full speech at UN Climate Change COP24 Conference - Connect4Climate

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“You say you love your children above all else, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes,” said Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swedish climate activist, at the close of the Talanoa Dialogue high-level meeting. And she speaks what’s on the mind of a growing movement of young and old climate activists around the world.

They know: real action to prevent cataclysmic climate change, clearly already underway, will not emerge from the UNFCCC hallways – multilateral efforts have proven to be flawed. Our climate is now dependent on real action at national and subnational levels, with citizens demanding climate justice through courtroom pressure.

“We’ll always have Paris” will not be enough to quiet them in 2019.

The authors would like to thank Kate Dooley, Lili Fuhr, Erika Lennon, Agata Keller, Linda Schneider, Katarzyna Ugryn, and Hans Verolme for their contribution to this analysis.