Politics of Poverty

COP24 in Poland: Why our best hope for progress isn’t moving fast enough

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drought ethiopia COP24 Poland Mako is a pastoralist farmer living in the Somali region of Ethiopia. "The drought is real. We are affected by it now." Photo: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam

Well into the evening in frigid Katowice, the world’s national governments concluded the latest global climate summit with a decision that made measurable headway—while leaving many others frustrated with its lack of visionary boldness.

With a recent climate science report demonstrating that the world has just over a decade to limit the scale of catastrophic impacts like the recent California wildfires, now more than ever we need strong climate action from the global community.

Oxfam shares our top takeaways from COP24.

What’s a “COP”?

This meeting—the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP24—convenes the parties that produced the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, all of whom meet regularly to hammer out the details to make that global pact endure. It’s a messy, incremental process by nature: decisions can’t be made unless consensus is achieved among more than 190 states, and negotiator holdouts tend not to relent until the last possible moment (hence COP24’s conclusion more than 24 hours after its scheduled Friday closing).

What Worked

COP24 largely succeeded in the one technical task that was seen as do-or-die by most governments: adopting a “rulebook” to provide key tools to hold countries accountable on how they deliver their already promised climate commitments. This new system, which includes both developed and developing countries for the first time, will ensure the integrity of Paris’ “bottom-up” system of generating stronger climate commitments over time. The approval of the rulebook was seen as a real victory toward better transparency and accountability.

What Didn’t Work

The rest was a mixed bag. Oxfam has long urged governments to embrace “grant equivalent” accounting when it comes to the financial aid provided by rich countries to poor ones—namely, avoiding treating both loans and grants as roughly the same when providing money for climate projects. While many embraced this concept in Poland, the final decision made it voluntary for donor countries that provide climate aid. Furthermore, there’s still a significant lack of country-contributed dollars for all the vital investments that would help cushion the effect of real-world climate impacts.

COP24 also made weak progress on building a new round of government pledges to cut carbon emissions and step-up lifesaving measures to adapt to existing climate impacts. The Paris Agreement sets out 2020 as the next moment by which countries are encouraged to announce new pledges, but the decision in Poland doesn’t provide a strong path forward for how robust that process can and should be.

The U.S. Sideshow

The President Trump-led US remains a two-faced presence at these meetings, engaging in good-faith efforts to hammer out technical matters while simultaneously sending high-level signals in support of coal and oil and pledging to leave the Paris Agreement (in 2020). The US held a well-publicized sideshow event on the margins of COP24, thumbing its nose at the proceedings and touting the supposed economic benefits of long-term global fossil fuel use. It was rightly met with protest, derision, and mockery. The US also drew jeers for its efforts, alongside countries like Saudi Arabia, to clumsily water down references to the headline-grabbing IPCC report on the latest worldwide climate impacts. Still, amidst it all, the US meaningfully contributed to several important outcomes in Poland (the “rulebook” decision chief among them).

The Road Ahead

The central challenge for everyone committed to the Paris Agreement— governments, nonprofits like Oxfam, cities, businesses, and so forth—is that the science tells us that this problem is only getting worse, and that it’s accelerating. The IPCC report delivered the sobering news that the world must shift away from fossil fuels and right the ship. Many had hoped that the report would light a fire under the governments convening in Poland last week. Unfortunately, the COP process is sluggish and halting even in the best of times, and its structure isn’t designed to respond quickly and aggressively to new data and inputs. This mismatch, between growing climate-driven disasters being felt by those on the front lines and the high-level UN-style talks that define COP meetings, feels wider than ever for observers like myself.

Poor people on the front lines of climate change can’t wait for slow-moving diplomatic summits to deliver the relief and aid they need right now. And yet, these COP meetings—and the Paris Agreement that they serve—remain our best hope for real progress, however flawed they may be.

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