Our Senior Policy Officer, Melanie Coath, is out at the UNFCCC negotiations in Poland. Here she sets out some of the big picture challenges negotiators are facing and RSPB’s efforts to secure a good outcome for ecosystems and the climate.

It’s just started snowing here in Katowice, Poland, and temperatures outside have plummeted. But there’s a certain diplomatic chill in the air too after a dramatic war of words broke out in the UN climate change negotiations here on Saturday.

Readers of this blog will be well aware that in October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced a major report on the urgency of and effort required for limiting global temperature rise to 1.5oC. Normally it’s taken as read that negotiators at the Conference of the Parties (COP) will “welcome” such reports but the US, Saudi Arabia and others unexpectedly blocked this, choosing just to “note” the report.

If the difference sounds subtle, imagine the negotiations not being set in the context of welcoming the latest science on what is needed to stop some countries being flooded out of existence by sea level rise - as some Pacific island states are already dangerously close to experiencing. Indeed even 1.5oC will have huge impacts on people and ecosystems, including wiping out 75-90% of the world’s coral reefs, higher temperature rises will be even worse. A dismissive “noting” doesn’t cut any ice for those countries on the front line of climate change, nor indeed the vast majority of the countries represented in the negotiations. However, the blockers have not given way and Ministers will have a tough battle ahead of them to resolve this issue.

Meanwhile the other big games in town are:

  1. Whether countries, particularly the rich ones, will deliver sufficient emissions cuts by 2020;
  2. Whether they are prepared to put money forward to help poor countries in the transition to low carbon economies;
  3. Whether countries will be raise the ambition of their pledges so that we get off our current pathway to the highly dangerous 3-4oC temperature rise, towards the safer 1.5oC; and
  4. Whether countries can put together a robust rulebook for how those targets are met.

Getting deals on any of these is no mean feat when you consider that a consensus of 195 countries will be required. And indeed there is no guarantee that they will achieve it, although if they fail, they will miss the timetable required to operationalise the Paris Agreement in 2020. And that would be a bad thing .

So what is RSPB’s role in all of this? There are two crises facing humanity: the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis. While the biodiversity crisis is being substantially exacerbated by global warming, equally when ecosystems lose their resilience and break down, we see huge releases of carbon into the atmosphere. Our work is therefore focused on the nexus between these two and we have developed expertise on the global role that land and forests can play in soaking up or releasing emissions, and how this is reflected in the international climate framework.

We are thus engaging on two fronts here in Katowice. One is coordinating the NGOs working to try and ensure that the rules governing the treatment of land and forest emissions accurately reflect the emissions or sequestration from land use change. Achieving this would indirectly lead to ecosystems such as forests and peatlands being protected. The other is starting to build connections in between the work under the UN climate change framework to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity the run up to major watershed moments in 2020 so that a genuinely joined up approach can be taken to the twin crises.

We are starting to make sense of the second task, but the first is a tough gig indeed – accounting for emissions from forests is an astonishingly political challenge. I’m returning to the negotiations this year after seven years away and the current rules still incentivise logging of forests by allowing countries to cut down all their trees scot free – by which I mean they are allowed to completely ignore emissions from this activity in their carbon accounts. But we haven’t given up and we are making the most of all the tools and levers at our disposal to highlight and improve this situation.

While we have our work cut out for us, so indeed to the Ministers arriving today (Tuesday). Will they be able negotiate their way to an ambitious, operational, well financed climate deal by the end of the week? I can’t say for certain but I do know it’s going to be a rocky ride. Watch this space for further updates from the front line at Katowice!