After a tough fortnight of negotiations in Poland, my colleague Melanie Coath reflects on what progress has been made in tackling climate change. 

Finally, two weeks of UN climate change negotiations came to an end late on Saturday evening in Katowice.

For many of the preceding hours it had felt like a meaningful conclusion was out of reach. While the conference end edged ever closer, progress felt snail-like as consensus ebbed and flowed. One night four hours into a negotiating session on one element, Parties came close to agreeing a shared position. However, as the time rolled on towards 2am, they drifted apart ending up in a slightly worse place than when they started!

It should not be forgotten that it is extraordinarily challenging to reach consensus among 195 economically and culturally diverse countries, all very differently impacted by climate change and all with varying capabilities and political desire to tackle it. So did they manage it? Were the Katowice talks a success? Well, it depends on your benchmark for success. If we ask did they achieve what is necessary to put the world on a path to limiting temperature rise to 1.5oC then the answer is regrettably, no. Did they take us further along the path to get there? Yes they did, a little. A widely held conclusion was that the world made just enough progress to set the Paris Agreement in motion, but not much more.

A rulebook for the Paris Agreement

Let’s start with what went well. Parties successfully negotiated a common rulebook on how countries will formulate and report on their national emissions reduction pledges and move forward on adaptation, technology, finance and other important provisions of the Paris Agreement. In requiring countries to transparently report their greenhouse gas emissions, rules known as the ‘transparency framework,’ will be vital to the success of the Paris Agreement. To avoid dangerous warming, countries need to ratchet up their ambition to tackle climate change dramatically. This will only happen if countries have clarity about what others are committing to, and confidence that they are meeting those commitments. A robust framework for this was achieved in Katowice.

Double-counting and other skulduggery

Transparency is important, but it is not the be all and end all. I mentioned in my previous post that emissions from forests can be hidden via a loophole in the international rules thereby incentivising forest practices that are awful for nature and the climate. When pressed, a group of negotiators admitted to the RSPB and other environmental NGOs: “OK, so we know that the rules allow substantial emissions from logging forests not to be counted – but at least with good reporting of data and a transparent framework we can see how bad the accounting is.” How about accounting for the emissions from forests in the first place?

Meanwhile, another strand on carbon markets fell apart when, unbelievably, Brazil insisted it should be allowed to double-count credits towards its own target while at the same time selling them to another country to help it meet that country’s target. Such a loophole would further undermine the integrity of the mechanism and could potentially threaten the objectives of the Paris Agreement. This will be picked up next year when I hope that such fraudulent schemes will be tossed out once and for all. Elsewhere, all reference to human rights and important text acknowledging and compensating for the impacts on the most vulnerable people disappeared from the talks.

To the future

Now that the Katowice negotiations have secured the post-Paris rules, we must focus on: fixing the accounting flaws that exist, preventing new ones like double counting being adopted and establishing new commitments which recognise the critical role that nature can play in tackling climate change.

We have a window of opportunity in the run up to 2020 to connect our international climate work to our work on the agenda of the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) and connect with the many organisations which also, like the RSPB, see huge value in highlighting that the only way to tackle the twin biodiversity and climate crises is to tackle them together. I attended a great side event in Katowice on the climate and wildlife benefits of the great forest restoration work being done by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, a partner of the BirdLife International family to which the RSPB belongs. It highlighted the extent to which BirdLife International with organisations in 121 countries, is well placed to play a key role in this biodiversity-climate agenda.

So to conclude, did Katowice secure the commitment necessary to tackle the scale of the massive climate change problem? Sadly no – Trump’s US delegation and those of the Kuwait, Saudi Arabian and Russian governments fought hard to undermine progress on this. But we will have one more chance to get this right next September when world leaders will be invited to a climate summit in New York being organized by the UN Secretary-General. They must attend with a clear indication of how they intend to substantially raise their climate ambition by 2020. This will be the acid test of how serious they are in their commitment to averting dangerous climate change.

  • It must be dispiriting knowing that even those countries committed to combating climate change use every trick there is to reduce that commitment. As for those who really don't want to do anything, it is amazing that they signed up for anything, no matter how small.