Concrete Steps (Still) Needed

The article below was carried in the December 2018 edition of Power Fuels Tracker, an Interfax publication of which I was editor. Most of the content is still (sadly) relevant.

By Peter Stewart, Interfax Chief Energy Analyst
“Don’t divide the skin while it’s still on the bear.” The 20,000-plus delegates and negotiators attending the COP24 climate summit in the Polish city of Katowice on 3-14 December, 2018 – the third such conference to be held since the 2015 Paris agreement – would do well to bear this Polish proverb in mind.

The Paris agreement, which aims to limit global warning to 1.5C, has been signed by 197 countries and ratified by 184. Significant progress has been made on defining what the agreement means for individual nations. But tangible results, in terms of concrete new steps to slow climate change, have been lacking.

At Katowice, the dialogue will enter a political phase that will provide guidance and a framework for nations to implement the Paris agreement. That will mean reviewing progress to date, fleshing out the actions needed to implement the agreement’s work programme and formulating these in a rulebook.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has outlined some of the key issues that will need to be resolved in Katowice. These include how emissions will be mitigated as part of nationally determined contributions (NDCs); drawing up the transparency framework for action and support; how developed countries will provide finance; making a ‘global stocktake’ on the efforts countries have made to mitigate climate change; the development of cooperative approaches, such as a new market mechanism; and the creation of shared timeframes for countries to submit and/or update their NDCs.

The trouble with this strategy is that it provides a recipe for further talks about talks rather than creating immediate action to limit climate change.

There are two risks in this approach. The first is that momentum could be lost – support from governments and the public for action on climate change could wane unless there is clear evidence that the international consensus is resulting in firm action. The second is that, rather like the prospects for emerging technologies such as algal fuels and carbon capture and storage (CCS), the promise of future benefits could become an ever-receding mirage. While it may be reassuring to hear that action will perhaps be taken in the future, this provides no guarantee that any actual steps are being taken to limit climate change.

The political consensus behind the Paris agreement was always fragile, and the impetus for a deal happened largely because of a consensus between the United States and China – albeit as a result of different drivers.
The US is one of the world’s major polluters, but while former President Barack Obama backed the deal in 2015, his successor Donald Trump has withdrawn his support. Brazil has also stepped back. There is now a risk that those who only want to pay lip service to the deal can stall indefinitely. Protest groups such as Extinction Rebellion in the UK have started to take direct action to drive climate change higher up the political agenda because they feel governments are being too slow.

The stakes are high. They were raised even higher in October, when the latest International Panel on Climate Change report described the catastrophic results of a temperature rise of above 1.5C. The Paris agreement committed nations to limiting global warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels, but also committed them to pursue efforts to limit the rise to 1.5C.

Immediate action is required to limit fossil fuel consumption if the more ambitious target is to be met. However, this does not yet appear to be high on the agenda at Katowice. The aim at COP24 is to secure agreement on three declarations, to be adopted either by heads of state or at a ministerial level. These cover forests, electric vehicles and the ‘just transition’ – a policy to ensure that the shift to green energy does not hurt the workers and communities that rely on outmoded industries such as coal. A high-level dialogue on climate finance will also take place.

Meanwhile, the Talanoa dialogue – which was launched at COP23 under the presidency of the Republic of Fiji – will end. Based on the Pacific concept of ‘talanoa’ – storytelling that leads to consensus-building and decision-making – the dialogue aims to ensure that countries enhance their NDCs by 2020 by allowing non-state actors to submit ideas. But there is a risk that the consensus resulting from the dialogue will be a fiction, rather than firm commitments for action.

Katowice itself is a kind of microcosm of the environmental challenges that will dominate the discussions. The town became wealthy in the 19th century from mining coal from the nearby mountains. In the Soviet era, heavy industry such as steel manufacturing was developed, resulting in severe urban pollution. Although it is now developing renewable energy, Poland has resisted steps to curtail its coal industry because it is supported by a powerful political lobby. Many NDCs identify ‘clean coal’ as a preferred way to meet their climate targets.
Poland could blaze a trail by tightening controls on stack emissions, and by embracing CCS and related technologies as priority investments. Or it could act now by setting a schedule for shutting down older coal plants.