Hope remains after Katowice climate summit

Chris Simoens
01 February 2019
At the UN climate summit in Katowice (December 2018), the world seemed to show less ambition in tackling climate change. But does that impression correspond to reality? Climate negotiator Ulrik Lenaerts gave Glo.be a glimpse behind the scenes.

The place where the 24th climate summit – the so-called COP24 – was organised, did not exactly bode well: coal and lignite retain a dominant position in Poland’s power sector, with host city Katowice being the heart of the Polish coal mining industry. Aren’t we supposed to abandon fossil fuels and especially polluting fuels such as coal as quickly as possible?

Ulrik Lenaerts, the number two of the Belgian climate delegation, believes that Poland did not do so badly after all. ‘First, the host country chose to place strong emphasis on a fair transition to a low-carbon society, in other words a transition that takes account of employment and work quality. That certainly earned Poland some sympathy.’ People who work in coal mines must be able to find other jobs and those who have difficulties in making ends meet may not be left behind. This is also one of the demands of the 'yellow jackets'.

Wasn't the chairman of the COP24, Polish State Secretary for the Environment Michal Kurtyka, too inexperienced? 'On the contrary’, Lenaerts argues, ‘Kurtyka turned out to be a very communicative person who did well in international negotiations and he surrounded himself with a rejuvenated, dynamic team.’


Group photo at the end of the climate summit with in the middle COP24 chairman Michal Kurtyka
© cop24.gov.pl


The COP24 achieved an important result: the famous rulebook was finalised, except for the market mechanisms. ‘This rulebook is a very technical matter that is difficult to explain’, Lenaerts says. ‘In essence, it ensures transparency throughout the entire cycle of climate policy in all countries, as it outlines in great detail how the countries can implement the principles of the Paris climate agreement (see box). It can be seen as a kind of roadmap that everyone agrees on. As such, it is at the core of the Paris agreement. Without the rulebook, countries would have to decide how to implement the Paris agreement on their own, without knowing clearly who is making which effort.’

Even though a number of countries like the United States have shown the tendency to become more inward-looking and shy away from international cooperation, this was not immediately noticeable at the COP24. ‘Otherwise, the COP would never have been able to conclude an agreement on the highly detailed rulebook,' Lenaerts adds.


Climate sceptics

Nevertheless, some countries have been firmly putting the brakes on, especially the United States, the Gulf States with Saudi Arabia as a leader and Russia. They wanted a purely factual recognition of the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This report made it abundantly clear that radical measures are needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Even for 2°C, radical policy change is urgently needed, but 'climate sceptics' do not want more ambitious climate targets.

‘On the other hand, many countries remain very committed and want to take up the challenge,' Lenaerts says. ‘Mainly the vulnerable Small Island States and the least developed countries, but also the European Union and a broad group of Latin American countries. China and India too were very constructive during the negotiations.’


Even the most climate-ambitious countries were quite satisfied with the outcome of this climate summit.

According to Lenaerts, even the most climate-ambitious countries were quite satisfied with the outcome of this climate summit. ‘Climate negotiators strongly adhere to the idea of 'sequence': you cannot address all issues at the same time. The idea is: first we tackle the rulebook - a very important hurdle - and then we make a fair balance of where we stand and we enhance our efforts. Few countries wanted to go further than that. But raising climate ambitions will be more central than ever in 2019 and 2020.’


Climate-neutral by 2050

The Small Island States expected a stronger recognition of the IPCC report. Because let's face it: the situation is more than serious. If we want to keep global warming below 1.5°C, the world may not emit more greenhouse gases than it stores by 2050. In other words, no additional greenhouse gases may be released into the atmosphere from 2050 onwards. Moreover, the remaining 'budget' - gases we may still emit - could already be used by 2030 if we continue on our current emissions path. To avoid this scenario, we must reduce our emissions by 45 percent by 2030.

If we are satisfied with limiting global warming to 2°C, we will have until 2060-2070 to become 'climate-neutral'. But even then we will have to drastically reduce our emissions by 2030. We should be aware that even a temperature rise of 1.5°C will have serious consequences. Today, global warming reaches 1°C above preindustrial level and we already have to deal with drought, floods, melting polar ice, dying coral reefs etc.


The situation is more than serious. If we want to keep global warming below 1.5°C, the world may not emit more greenhouse gases than it stores by 2050.

Interim summit in New York

In other words, it remains all hands on deck and UN Secretary-General António Guterres has clearly understood that. ‘Climate change is our biggest challenge’, he said. For that reason, he is organising an interim summit in New York in September 2019, in the margins of the UN General Assembly. The objective is to find out how countries can enhance their climate ambitions. The summit in September 2019 will be a stepping stone to the COP25, that will take place in the Chilean capital Santiago early 2020. At COP25, all countries are expected to have revised their national climate targets and possibly submit increased targets.

In the meantime, more than 70 countries have already examined how they can raise their climate targets. With current efforts, the world is heading for a temperature

At COP25, all countries are expected to have revised their national climate targets and possibly submit increased targets.


The EU climate strategy

The EU has also done its preparatory homework. At the end of November 2018, it announced its long-term climate strategy. The aim is to be the first major economy to be climate-neutral by 2050. This will require radical changes in seven areas including energy efficiency, renewable energy and transport. ‘The EU plan has been worked out very meticulously and uses feasible technologies’, says Lenaerts. In Belgium, too, awareness has grown in recent months. He is therefore confident that Belgium will also pursue an ambitious climate policy in the coming years.

Important: not only individual countries have the ball in their court. Other players as well have a considerable role to play: cities, American states, NGOs, companies, individual citizens, multilateral development banks... ‘A lot is moving’, says Lenaerts. ‘For example, bond and pension funds are increasingly trying to move away from investing in fossil fuels.’

The world is indeed facing the greatest challenge ever. But despite the handful of 'climate sceptics', there are still plenty of reasons to be hopeful.


For more information:

Climate policy must become faster and more ambitious

The Paris Agreement on climate is irreversible

Five frequently asked questions about the Paris Agreement on climate


What does the rulebook represent?


In the Paris Climate Agreement, a number of principles were agreed, such as transparency, accountability, cooperation on climate damage and capacity building. However, these principles were not elaborated in detail.

This is done in the rulebook, a set of guidelines that indicate how countries can develop their policy plans, how they can report, how they can cooperate on financing, how they can collectively evaluate at regular intervals and so on.

In other words, the rulebook is a guide on how countries can develop their climate policy and how this can be followed up internationally. Very technical, but indispensable for the international community to implement the Paris climate agreement.

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