The hot debate

There was bullying again at COP24. Developed countries joined hands for a weak and unbalanced rulebook that lacks equity, as developing nations gave in. Vijeta Rattani reports from Katowice, Poland

By Vijeta Rattani
Published: Tuesday 15 January 2019
Scooting crucial climate issues at CoP24 (Credit: official) Scooting crucial climate issues at CoP24 (Credit: official)

LET’S HOPE CoP24 does not turn out to be another event for the optics,” said Isaiah Toroitich as he entered Spodek, venue for the 24th Conference of Parties (CoP24) in Poland on December 2, the first day of the 15-day hectic negotiations. “Meaningful outcomes need to be achieved. Parties must fulfil their mandate of a fair and ambitious Paris rulebook.” Toroitich heads policy advocacy at Act Alliance, a global non-profit.

Ever since the Paris Agreement was adopted in December 2015, member nations of COP have struggled to even out the modalities, procedures and guidelines for its implementation. After the Bangkok intersession in September 2018, the parties had, at their disposal, a 307-page draft rulebook with different options. In the last three years, progress had been tardy, so the focus was on creating a rulebook in Katowice, a coal mining city of Poland. Spodek itself is on top of a disused mine.

The science ahead of CoP

In October 2018, scientific reports set the tone and agenda for CoP. The much-awaited special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on global warming of 1.5°C warned that the impact of global warming is greater than what was anticipated earlier. It stated that the earth, already 1°C warmer than the pre-industrial times, is facing the wrath of climate in some form or the other (see “Every bit of warming makes a difference”, Dowth To Earth, 16-31 October, 2018). A 0.5°C rise would unleash more havoc. The report warned that while 2°C would have catastrophic and irreversible impacts, 1.5°C degree was relatively stable and safe. Further, the United Nations Environment Programme’s Emission Gap Report 2018 substantiated that parties need to step up their ambition five times the current levels to stay within 1.5°C.

Governments arrived in Katowice with IPCC’s warning of 1.5°C ringing in their ears. COP24 presidency was with Poland, which has no green credentials and no great allies when it comes to climate agenda. Poland’s 92 per cent of electricity and 89 per cent of heat is generated from coal, producing huge amounts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In January 2018, it adopted a law that restricts protest rights and increases surveillance powers during the climate conference, a move opposed strongly by civil society.

Ahead of the UN climate talks, Poland declared its main climate strategies as “the sequestration of CO2 by ecosystems” and “clean coal research”. The former involves “forest carbon farms”, which would see forests offset some of its CO2 emissions. Additionally, Poland talked about just transition of workers and electric mobility as its strategies ahead of COP. “The role of incoming presidency is important. The Polish negotiating team for Katowice was established three months ago and the outreach in the form of bilaterals, consultations, informals should have started by the presidency in the Bangkok intersession itself. Unfortunately, that outreach was nowhere to be seen,” said Axel Michaelowa, senior founding partner, Perspectives Climate Group, Zurich.

The summit started on a rough note. Polish president Andrzej Duda declared that his country could not be expected to give up its 200 years’ worth coal reserves. In France, Emmanuel Macron suspended a planned fuel-tax rise that was intended to help curb GHG emissions from transport in the wake of yellow vest protests that sparked violence in Paris. Days earlier, Brazil had withdrawn its offer to host next year’s summit after climate-denier Jair Bolsonaro assumes office in January, and Donald Trump, having announced to pull out of the Paris deal, continued to show scepticism towards climate change and global warming. Turkey pushed to be included in the developing country group, but was denied the status.

Civil society members hold protest urging to step up ambition to cut greenhouse gas emissions (Credit: official)

Sticking issues for negotiations

The nationally determined contributions (NDCs) for reduction in GHG emissions submitted under the Paris Agreement are inadequate and would not limit global warming even to 2°C. It was crucial that Katowice clearly communicated new and updated NDCs by 2020 to all countries. Postponing action until 2020 was highly undesirable. Even though countries seemed to be divided on this, civil society laid out the agenda. They urged that Katowice should not only set the foundation for implementing the Paris Agreement, it must also enhance ambition of all parties. The Talanoa Dialogue, a process launched by Fijian presidency at COP23 to raise ambition, was hailed as a crucial step. It was to enter its last political stage at COP24 with a decisive outcome to raise ambition.

Failing to meet the pre-2020 ambition gap, developed countries drew criticism from the developing nations. In 2012, even as parties had agreed for a second commitment period of Kyoto Protocol in Doha, many countries have not yet ratified the Doha Amendment to Kyoto Protocol. In Katowice, it was hoped that developed countries would honour the pre-2020 commitments and scale up their financial and climate ambition.

All climate actions hinge on finance and technology support. Developed countries’ US $100-billion per year mandate for Green Climate Fund to help developing nations is far from met, with current pledges of over US $10 billion. Countries also needed to pledge and actualise new sets of replenishment to the Green Climate Fund. Demonstration of action plan for delivering the mandate was required. It was also necessary to launch a process to set the ground for new and collective finance goal by 2025 under the Paris Agreement.

NDCs have varying timeframes. India’s NDC is for 10 years starting 2021 while US’ is till 2025. Common NDC timeframes were essential for better assessment of collective progress.

This apart, parties had to agree on the form and measurement of tradable units (Internationally Transferable Mitigation Outcomes), the linkages between different sub-sections under market mechanisms, the nature of the supervisory body overseeing the mechanism and restrictions on the use of markets towards the fulfilment of countries’ NDC. Discussions also persisted on the Kyoto Regime’s Clean Development Mechanism projects and its integration in the new regime.

The draft rulebook proposed options related to reporting on a GHG inventory and the form and duration of the submission of a transparency report. Developing countries also proposed financial support and flexibility, mentioned in the Paris Agreement but are open to interpretations. How to agree on common guidelines to facilitate robust reporting and how to incorporate and interpret flexibility were among the most contentious issues.

Global Stocktake, a crucial element of the Paris Agreement, is meant to assess the collective efforts of climate actions in 2023, in light of equity and best available science, leading to increased ambition every five years. Consensus was needed on how to structure the process, what should be the expected outcomes, and how to incorporate equity in the process.

The Paris Agreement gave a separate section on loss and damage and made it the third pillar alongside mitigation and adaptation.

Incorporating loss and damage in the crucial elements of the rulebook, including finance, transparency and global stocktake, was a key point of the discussions.

Under the Paris Agreement, parties are required to submit adaptation communications. This would provide a better picture of what the countries are doing in terms of adaptation actions, their needs, gaps and learnings, and best practices without causing additional reporting burdens on them.

The Process

COP president Michal Kurtyka, who is also the state secretary of Polish ministry of energy, opened the climate session asserting the need for parties to show “creativity and flexibility, and to use the time available wisely to deliver the results we are all aiming for”. In line with its agenda for just transition, the Polish presidency also launched “The Silesia Declaration for Just Transition” stressing that the creation of quality work is crucial for transition to low-GHG and climate-resilient development. Poland also laid out the agenda for negotiations for two weeks.

In the first week, work was to be done under informals, presided over by co-chairs of the negotiating groups—Ad-hoc working group on Paris Agreement (APA), Subsidiary Body on Finance (SBF) and Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA). They were required to finish the technical negotiations in the first week. After this, the draft text was to be handed over to the presidency which would, then, divide the topics under different ministerial consultations. The presidency highlighted that most issues needed to be resolved in the first week and only “bare minimum unresolved issues” should be reserved for ministers to address in the second week. This, however, did not happen. APA, for instance, was to deal with adaptation communications, global stocktake, further guidance on NDCs, adaptation fund and enhanced transparency framework. But its co-chairs Jo Tyndall and Sara Bashan reiterated the many elements over the first week and produced streamlined proposals with fewer options for consideration. After the closing plenary, they handed over the draft proposals to the presidency with the rider, “More time is needed to finalise the work.”

This was because the parties disagreed on a wide range of issues. On endorsing the IPCC report, US allied with Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait to block the acceptance of the report. It opposed to “welcome” the report and pushed for “noting” it in the final outcome. Saudi Arabia’s chief negotiator Ayman Shasly told DTE, “The IPCC report presents one possible future scenario and is not without loopholes. We are thinking of our national interests, just like others. Saudi Arabia is ready to ‘welcome’ the report but with the qualifying clause that IPCC’s report is not without gaps.”

SBSTA chair Paul Watkinson presented the draft conclusions proposed for adoption, which contained a paragraph on the IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5°C. The proposed conclusion in para 11 reads, “SBSTA noted the IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5°C. It welcomed the efforts of the IPCC experts on the report and the presentations given by IPCC experts and the rich dialogue that parties and observers had with IPCC experts at the SBSTA-IPCC special event.” This was strongly opposed by developing and island countries, who pushed for more serious recognition of the IPCC report.

On matters of exante communication of finance, the US and EU opposed review of indicative communication of financial sources, and asked developing countries about their intended contribution. The developed countries opposed anchoring of loss and damage across different elements, including transparency, global stocktake and full scope of NDCs. Meanwhile, in line with its fossil fuel agenda, the US organised a side event on clean coal which drew sharp protests from civil society.

On transparency framework, the US and EU demanded flexibility only for island states and least developed countries group, saying that emerging economies must be exempted from flexibility. India opposed it and called it the “divide and rule policy of developed countries”. Gradually, the developed West was able to form coalition with China and South Africa to push its agenda towards uniform reporting.

In the second week, negotiations were conducted in ministerial consultations, a process largely reserved for parties. In line with the Polish agenda, observers’ role was soon marginalised.

The developing countries stressed for pre-2020 implementation and ambition for climate action by developed countries. This was reiterated during the high-level segment on pre-2020 stocktake. China stressed on ambition gap of pre-2020. India stressed “significant gaps in pre-2020 action even amounting to upto 40 to 50 per cent and called for emissions reductions by 25 to 40 per cent by developed countries”. India also suggested “any emissions gap and financial commitments gap which was part of the pre-2020 period must be carried over and fulfilled in the post-2020 period and countries which were responsible for them must take that responsibility”. India, however, did not show much interest in issues of loss and damage and adaptation.

India opposed the revision of its NDCs before or by 2020 when a High Ambition Coalition, re-established by the EU and some other countries, sought to scale up the targets. While Jamaica, Fiji and Canada pledged to revise their NDCs by 2020, Indian negotiator Ravi Shankar Prasad told DTE, “India would oppose any move to raise ambition by or before 2020. Developed countries should first focus on their pre-2020 commitments and raising it, and only thereafter seek cooperation from developing countries to scale up ambition by 2020.”

The high-level ministerial dialogue aimed to address issues like further mobilisation of climate finance, providing space for showcasing concrete efforts and enhancing developing countries’ access to finance. During the dialogue, the developing countries voiced concerns of pre-2020 gap in financial commitments and urged the developed countries to chart out a clear plan of finance mobilisation.

As the civil society keenly watched the Talanoa Dialogue enter the high-level segment, the two-page “Talanoa Call to Action” merely called upon parties to work closely with non-party stakeholders to enhance global ambition by 2020. The declaration is more of a moral appeal and lacks any legal character.

Pressure mounted because of Brazilian objections to break an impasse on carbon trading. Brazil opposed proposals intended to prevent double-counting in such trading, as it believed they penalised its large stockpile of carbon-trading instruments.

Towards the end, with many issues still unresolved, the presidency continued engaging in bilaterals with several parties. Xolisa Ngwadla, a prominent negotiator for the African Group, said, “Engaging in bilateral format usually happens at the very end when there are very few issues to be resolved. But this presidency has relied mainly on this format for engagement.”

With another day added to the schedule, desperate negotiations went on in closed-door bilateral meetings. Finally, decisions for the Paris Agreement implementation, known as the PA Work Programme, were forwarded as a package by COP24 to UNFCCC.

The Talanoa Dialogue for climate ambition elicited a two-page declaration that lacks any legal character (Credit: UNFCCC)

The Katowice outcome

In the final 133-page package, developed countries and their allies managed to bully the developing countries, who gave in to their demands. The EU and other developed nations welcomed the package, but developing countries called it “mitigationcentric”. They said crucial aspects like financing, adaptation and loss and damage were neglected. The developed countries welcomed the rulebook calling it strong and clear; developing countries said it lacked a sense of balance and the issue of equity was marginalised.

The rulebook contains detailed reporting requirements on national mitigation targets. It standardises the unit of mitigation as tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. It requires that all GHG sources and sinks be included, with an explanation for why any sector is missing. It mandates that IPCC guidelines on reporting should be followed, but allows country-specific methodologies if they better reflect the national circumstances. It does not require common timeframes for reporting until 2031. Countries can create NDCs for any time period until that year. It allows developing countries to provide less rigorous information, if they can explain the gap in capacity that prevents them from reporting fully.

As for finance, guidance on ex-ante reporting is minimal and not binding on any country. There is no new long-term finance goal. On setting a new collective quantified goal on finance, parties agreed to begin talks in November 2020. The section on ex-post reporting is detailed, with a clear list of information mandatorily required from developed countries. Under the rulebook, developed countries can meet their commitments through all kinds of financial instruments—concessional and non-concessional loans, grants and aids from various public and private sources. With ex-ante review of financial resources gone, it would be difficult to hold developed countries accountable.

Countries are required to provide information necessary for clarity, transparency and understanding with regard to the second set of NDCs, as the first cycle of NDCs are till 2025 or 2030. Countries are free to provide information that is additional to mitigation, including adaptation and means of implementation. This is a victory for developing countries because it expands the scope of NDC much beyond being mitigation-centric.

Loss and damage is not a separate section in the rulebook. It is absent in the section under finance. Countries are, rather, instructed to report on loss and damage in the sections on adaptation and global stocktake. No finance has been committed to Warsaw International Mechanism, the specialised framework to address loss and damage. It is clear that developing countries are left on their own to address climate-induced loss and damage.

A final decision on markets was not adopted. It was set aside for the next year. The draft text, however, sets the standard unit for Paris markets as one tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent. It allows for trading in sectors which are not covered in a country’s emissions targets. The text also has no safeguards or limits on trading.

Pilgirms for a Climate Pilgrimage carried beautiful prayer ribbons from Rome and presented them to UNFCCC executive secretary Patricia Espinosa (Credit: James Dowson)

“While there was overwhelming support for common-sense accounting rules among countries, businesses, and non-governmental groups, a handful of countries led by Brazil thwarted progress by insisting that they should be allowed to cheat the atmosphere and their trading partners by double-counting their carbon credits,” said Nathaniel Keohane, senior vice-president at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Noting the outcomes of the Talanoa Dialogue, countries have been “invited” to consider the outcome, inputs and outputs in preparing their NDCs. The decision welcomes the timely completion of the IPCC report on 1.5C. It does not require countries to upgrade their national ambition. It hails the UN Secretary General for organising a conference next year.

The rulebook emphasises that the adaptation reporting requirement is country-driven and flexible. It does not pose any additional burden on developing countries. It allows countries to submit adaptation communications and other documents like NDCs on their convenience. It also lists the information to be provided in time for the global stocktake, the first of which will be conducted in 2023. It instructs various financial institutions like Green Climate Fund and Global Environment Facility to support developing countries in reporting on adaptation.

Overall, the rulebook is weak and makes it difficult to meet the climate goals of the already weak Paris Agreement. The rulebook strengthens the bottom-up character of the Paris accord with the top-down elements like GST watered down. Equity and ambition are heavily marginalised. The Paris Agreement and its rulebook is now a totally self-determined process. Countries are left on their own with little accountability. In such a scenario, the role of UNFCCC as a driver of ambitious global action becomes questionable when it is more of a platform where data is collected and synthesised.

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