What do we make of COP24?

What do we make of COP24? (December 2018)

By John Sayer, Director, CCA

Some 22,000 people gathered on top of a disused coal mine in Poland this month to forge progress on what many believe to be the single most important issue that has arisen in human history.


A former coal mine shaft tower stands near the climate meeting halls.

This area of Poland has a proud and scarred history of coal mining. Miners have at many points in the past risen up against cruel exploitation by mine owners and government officials to fight for their rights, and through these struggles the mines provided them with a hard but adequate life. Yet the local museum of Silesian history also acknowledges that children living in the most contaminated areas of the region suffered some of Europe’s highest levels of respiratory diseases, vision disorders and allergies, while adults suffered from cardiovascular diseases and tumours.

Katowice, and Silesia as a whole are transitioning to a multi-faceted economy, including new technologies and service industries – including a role as a centre for international conferences!

Many young people of Katowice appeared on the streets as helpful volunteers for the COP meeting wearing green safety jackets. Others were out with boyfriends and girlfriends in bright shopping centres and food halls, or were drinking mulled wine in the sparkly Christmas market. It seemed to me they look forward to a future working in new technology, design, renewable energy, robotics and electric mobility. I do not believe these young adult Europeans see their future down coal mines.


A local artist recalls the legacy of coal mining in Silesia.

The issue is one of a just transition. Some grandstanding Polish politicians tried to re-interpret the concept of just transition to mean a slowing down of the move to a low carbon economy. The term, however, means progressing to greener energy in a way which protects the less well-off and workers who have depended on old industries; ensuring safeguarded pensions, re-training, decentralised development, new jobs, and broad-ranging social programmes which ensure that all people benefit from the opportunities ahead in the new economy, and no-one is left behind by an already-advantaged elite. A just transition suggests we can develop both a greener and a fairer society in one imaginative systemic transformation.

Writing a rulebook

Government representatives, UN staffers, business leaders, civil society members and local government chiefs came to Katowice to push forward the Paris Agreement. Top of the agenda was to agree on how to implement, measure and report on progress in the form of a “Paris Rulebook.”

At the end of two weeks we did have a rulebook. The long and dense text is full of compromises, disappointments and some unfinished business. It bears the birthmarks of trade-offs between the development concerns of the smallest, least-developed countries, the interests of high-consumption developed nations, the worries of oil exporting nations and the existential fears of low-lying island states.

Overcoming these differences, we now we have a rulebook setting out ways to measure and report national actions as well as ways to update country plans on mitigation, adaptation, and climate finance. We also have the ground rules for a global stocktake of progress in 2023. Some see that this alone shows that during a period of growth in populist nationalism, there still remains an appetite for a rules-based multilateral order.

The rules for developing and developed countries with regard to transparency and accountability were made more equal, while incorporating some flexibility to enable developing countries to raise their capacity to measure and report.

The clarity and predictability of financial commitments to help developing nations with climate action were also increased, although some commentators suggest that vague definitions and lack of accounting rules could allow too broad a spectrum of assistance to be categorised as climate finance.

The issue of loss and damage did not disappear from the rulebook as some feared. This concept of responsibility for unavoidable losses from climate change has always made developed, high-emitting countries nervous about liability. Decisions made in Katowice ensured loss and damage can be raised in the global stocktake.

The rulebook acknowledges that many areas of climate action reporting should take account of the specific impact on women and gender issues. While noting the knowledge of indigenous groups the text has less to say about the impact of action or inaction on indigenous groups or their lands. The agreement to protect, respect and consider human rights in climate action which appeared in the Paris Agreement is notably absent from the Paris Rulebook. Human rights go unmentioned.

In the year running up to COP24, the Talanoa Dialogue was meant to facilitate involvement of civil society, business, sub national governments and others in self-organised meetings to take stock of climate action and consider ways to increase ambition levels. The final COP24 text rather weakly ‘takes note’ of the Talanoa inputs from around the world and ‘invites’ parties to consider these submissions. Overall, the inclusion and recognition of ‘non-party stakeholders’ seemed to decline in COP24 in comparison to previous climate meetings.


No more roundtables: the Talanoa Dialogue enters the ‘political phase’.

The Paris Rulebook now requires more stringent and transparent rules on when and how countries must report on mitigation plans and actions, adaptation and the provision of finance. One principle behind the design of the Paris Agreement is that while each nation is free to set its own target, comparable measurement will add peer pressure to all nations to keep up. But when the non-party stakeholders are not fully engaged with this stocktake, and when largest economy in the world announces it will leave the agreement, one has to wonder how effective this concept of peer pressure is going to prove in practise.

Despite these weaknesses, the output from Katowice, just like the Paris Agreement itself, is something everyone can build upon.

China’s responsibility

China’s role in the climate talks is elevated, either by design or default, as the United States participation on global climate action has shrunk from one of leadership to an embarrassed skeleton crew.

China continues to receive praise from most quarters for its rapid development of renewable energy and its positive role in the climate talks. It was China that accepted a proposal from developed nations, led by Europe, that transparency rules should not be radically different for developed and developing countries in the rulebook. Once China agreed, developing countries accepted the move.

Sometimes the loud praise for China can drown out the voices of concern over some more worrying news from the country. Some carbon monitoring groups claim that China is still constructing coal-fired power plants that it has announced were cancelled, offering satellite pictures of construction underway as evidence. There is also widespread concern that China’s foreign aid and investment, including the Belt and Road Initiative, is still promoting fossil fuel development in developing nations. Concerned groups have been calling on China to apply the same vision of ‘building an ecological civilisation’ adopted domestically to international investment and aid.

A wake up call from the scientists

Almost every speech, presentation and intervention during the two weeks began with acknowledgement that the IPPC special report on 1.5°C represented a wake-up call, presenting us with incontrovertible evidence that urgent action on climate change to hold temperature rise to 1.5°C is essential because a two-degree rise in global temperatures would have such severe social and economic impact on our world.

The Conference of Parties wanted to ‘welcome’ this report, thereby making the findings a key reference point for action. Four countries blocked this: Kuwait, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

The compromise text “recognises” the role of the IPCC, “expresses appreciation and gratitude” to the scientists who produced the report “welcomes” the report’s “timely completion” and “invites” nations to “make use of the information” it contains. So the conference appreciates the scientists and the fact that they kept to their timetable, but does not explicitly embrace the warnings in the report. This muting of science-based alarm bells is a setback for survival.

Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old activist from Sweden who started the school strike movement asks: “What is the point of learning facts when the most important facts given by the finest scientists are ignored by our politicians?”

Some people suggested we witnessed two separate meetings: the conventional negotiations and an inspiring number of activities by young people. It is cause for optimism that there seemed to be more discussions, declarations, interventions and demonstrations by millennials, students, school students and other young people at the Katowice meeting. From all around the world, not least China, young people found their way to these talks and called on policy-makers to up their game while also declaring their personal commitment to action on climate change at the policy and practice level. These environmentally and politically aware young people are tomorrow’s leaders; they are also the ones staring into the face of climate change impacts.


The Voices of Millennials: schools and university students speak up for climate action at COP24.

Cities must more than play their part

In many side meetings, press conferences and exhibitions, there was frequent mention of the importance of action by cities in achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement and driving climate change.

Renowned climate economist Lord Nicholas Stern from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment noted that cities are responsible for three quarters of the world’s carbon emissions. Cities are projected to almost double in population by 2050, which will create a new economy equal in size to our present global economic system. It will be impossible for us to manage this, said Lord Stern, without cities planning now to move rapidly to zero carbon economies.

Many cities in America have announced that they are part of the ‘We Are Still In’ movement, in which cities, states and businesses in the US are maintaining targets compatible with the US contribution to the Paris Agreement in spite of statements by the President that the country will leave the agreement in 2020.

Representatives from the three major international city alliances on climate change: C40 cities, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability and the Global Covenant of Mayors, shared a platform during the Katowice meeting to assert that all cities need to plan for net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

This is the same target that CarbonCare InnoLab has used in its research for Paris Watch – Climate Action Report for Hong Kong – the report launched at a side event on Climate Action in Large Asian Cities at the COP24 conference. The presentation noted that Hong Kong badly needs a ‘zero by 2050’ target, along with an action plan for its achievement. Present targets fall seriously short of this goal.

Conclusion: Ambition, ambition, ambition

At the eleventh hour, the conference produced a draft text and ensured that the Paris Agreement continues to serve its purpose, even if progress is dangerously slow.

Measuring better, however, is not the same as doing better.

Along with a rulebook, many of us also hoped for announcements of increased action, greater levels of ambition; raising actual targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is particularly urgent in the light of recent reports showing that greenhouse gas emissions have continued to grow across the world this year and many nations are failing to achieve their Paris Agreement targets.

United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, returned abruptly to the talks during the week to help ensure an agreement was reached. At the closure of COP24, he was quoted as saying: “From now on, my five priorities will be: ambition, ambition, ambition, ambition and ambition.”

A common interpretation of the IPCC 1.5°C report is that ‘we only have 12 years’ to re-direct our global economic system to a clear low-carbon pathway. So the absence of raised ambition levels at COP24 appears to be brinkmanship of an irresponsible kind.

The Paris Rulebook, as well as the Paris Agreement itself, are only means to an end. The end is drastic cuts to greenhouse gases in order to hold down temperatures and ensure the human civilisation, and all other life on Earth, can continue to thrive.


John Sayer, Research Director of CarbonCare InnoLab and Director of CCA, attended COP24. At the meeting he co-presented Paris Watch – Hong Kong Climate Action Report, a project that measures the city of Hong Kong’s performance against the spirit and letter of the Paris Agreement.