From Sunday, climate negotiators from around the world have gathered in Poland to renew their efforts towards finalising a global action plan to prevent adverse impacts of climate change. The two-week year-end annual meeting, informally called COP24 (short for the 24th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), is being organised this time in Katowice, an important city in southern Poland’s coal belt. It is being held amidst a series of fresh warnings that current measures announced by countries, some already under way and others to be implemented in the coming years, were hugely inadequate for achieving the agreed objective of keeping the rise in global temperatures within 2°C from pre-industrial times.
Countries go into the meeting with the realisation that they are under tremendous pressure, more than at any other time, to enhance the scope and ambition of their climate actions.
The main task on the hands of negotiators gathered in Katowice would be to finalise the “rulebook” for the implementation of the Paris Agreement that was clinched at a similar meeting in 2015, and came into effect the following year after the required number of countries had ratified it. For the last two years, negotiators have been working on formulating the rules, procedures, guidelines, and institutional mechanisms through which the provisions of the Paris Agreement would be implemented. These include such things as agreeing on accounting standards to measure emissions, processes for monitoring, reporting and verification (commonly referred to as MRV in climate negotiation circles) of actions being taken by individual countries, mechanisms to raise financial resources and ensure the flow of funds for climate projects, and institutions to facilitate the diffusion of appropriate technologies to countries and regions that need them.
Two years ago, at the COP22 meeting in Marrakech, countries had set themselves a 2018 deadline for the completion of the “rulebook”. Though extra rounds of meetings have been held this year in the run-up to the Katowice summit, the countries are still far away from finalising the “rulebook”. That is because most of the issues to be dealt with and agreed upon, notably those relating to finance, technology, and MRV, are highly contentious, and the negotiators face an uphill task in their attempt to wrap it up in the next two weeks.
But as the negotiators dive into the tortuous details of the “rulebook”, most of the attention is expected to be on the responses of countries to increasing demands to step up the ambition of their action plans in view of the gathering scientific evidence that current actions were just not adequate to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. At the same time, there is a growing noise about the need to aim for a 1.5°C target instead of 2°C. Countries would need to do much more to achieve that.
A recent special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the pathways to the 1.5° target is an important item on the agenda for discussions in Katowice.
The 1.5°C debate
The Paris Agreement, while seeking to “hold” the increase in global average temperature to “well below” 2°C from pre-industrial times, also promises to keep “pursuing efforts” to attain the 1.5° target. This was done to accommodate the concerns of smaller countries, mainly island nations, that face the greatest threat from climate change. At the Paris meeting in 2015, the countries had also called upon the IPCC, a global body of scientists that does periodic reviews of scientific literature to make projections about the Earth’s future climate, to prepare a special report on the feasibility of the 1.5°C target.
That report was presented last month. It said that to attain the 1.5°C target, the world needs to bring down its greenhouse gas emissions to about half of its 2010 levels by 2030, and to net zero by about 2050. Net-zero is achieved when total emissions is balanced by the amount of absorption of carbon dioxide through natural sinks like forests, or removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through technological interventions.
Right now, the countries are aiming to reduce global emissions only by 20%, from 2010 levels, by the year 2030, and achieve a net-zero emission level by the year 2075. And even these efforts are inadequate, as several recent studies have pointed out.
The response of the countries to the IPCC report is expected to be one of the key outcomes of the Katowice conference.
This year, countries have been carrying out another stock-taking exercise, named “Talanoa Dialogue” by Fiji, the host and president of last year’s conference, to reflect a traditional form of community conversation in that country. This stock-take was meant to assess where exactly the world stood in its fight against climate change, and what more needed to be done. The inputs from this exercise, 473 in total, will also be up for discussion at the Katowice meeting.
More bad news
This week’s Emissions Gap report, released by the UN Environment Program, has said if the countries do not substantially enhance their actions before 2030, the 1.5° target would get out of reach. Calling for “unprecedented and urgent action”, it has reported that total annual global greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, at 53.5 billion tonnes carbon dioxide-equivalent, was 0.7 billion tonnes higher than the previous year. This is the first time in four years that the total emission has shown an increase.
The total emissions in 2030 need to be at least 25% below the 2017 level to continue on the 2% pathway, and at least 55% lower if 1.5° target has to be achieved, it said.
Last week, the World Meteorological Organization reported that global average surface temperatures in 2018 was all set to be the fourth highest ever recorded. The 20 warmest years have all been in the last 22 years, with the top four being the last four years. The report also said that data for the first 10 months of the year showed that global average temperatures were already nearly 1°C above pre-industrial levels (average of 1850-1990).