The COP24 climate talks wrapped up in Katowice, Poland late on Saturday, following two weeks of dicey negotiations. The end result is diplomatically impressive, balancing the clashing needs of wealthier and developing nations.
But, crucially, the plan still fails to align with increasingly dire warnings from scientists, such as a recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that warned the 2-degree Celsius warming target laid out in the Paris agreement would still have disastrous effects. It called on nations to instead work toward the aspirational target of only 1.5 degrees of warming, which would lead to substantially better outcomes.
The talks managed to build a detailed plan for implementing the 2015 Paris agreement, which will go into effect in 2020. The challenge was formulating a set of rules that was acceptable for richer nations calling for a transparent and universal plan for reporting progress, developing nations working to safeguard a path for their own economic growth, and vulnerable nations aiming for assistance in coping with the effects of climate change.
Where the Paris talks generated broad climate targets, this week’s talks established a rulebook for implementation, and addressed the details and technical issues of how to move forward. How to measure and report emissions, financial assistance for poor nations, and procedures to deal with countries that fail to report progress, all took center stage in Katowice.
And thanks to impressive gestures on the part of countries like China, which set itself apart from other developing economies in accepting universal standards, the talks were generally considered successful. Compromises allowed some leeway for developing nations to report progress, and will offer a special status for very vulnerable states such as Pacific island nations.
By political and diplomatic measures, the talks were an impressive success. But viewed through a scientific lens of what actually needs to happen to sufficiently mitigate climate change, the outcome didn’t go nearly far enough.
Four oil and gas exporting countries, including the US, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, refused to formally welcome the recent report from the IPCC. European nations, Canada, and some Latin American nations, however, formally agreed that the report calls for stepped-up climate action.
The final text is a watered-down compromise that encourages countries to “demonstrate…their enhanced ambition” in response to the report, but does not call for overall efforts to align with the report’s recommendations.
Current targets by individual nations put the world on track for over 3 degrees of warming, even though scientists have widely agreed that over 1.5 degrees would lead to catastrophic effects that would stunt agriculture and render many current population centers uninhabitable.
“My biggest concern is that the UN talks failed to align ambitions with science. We continue to follow a path that will take us to a very dangerous 3-4C warmer world within this century. Extreme weather events hit people across the planet already, at only 1C of warming,” said Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research director designate Johan Rockstrom.
It would be a mistake to congratulate negotiators for avoiding a diplomatic failure when the necessities of averting a climate disaster are not part of the deal. A state of affairs in which politicians are seen as the key voices on climate change, rather than scientists, is not one that will lead to a solution. It isn’t up to leaders what constitutes sufficient climate action, a benchmark that only scientists can properly assess.
As 15-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg said in a fiery, scathing speech at the conference, “We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.”
“Our civilization is being sacrificed for the opportunity of a very small number of people to continue making enormous amounts of money,” said Thunberg, who gained global attention after skipping school in September to protest inaction on climate change at Sweden’s Parliament.
The IPCC report emphasizes that a plan to keep warming below 1.5 degrees would be perfectly affordable and feasible – the roadblocks are largely political, and the talks in Poland changed little in that regard.
Given the catastrophic nature of the warnings from scientists, only either a failure to take the science seriously, or to think in the long-term, can explain the political obstacles to limiting emissions effectively. The IPCC report, crafted by the world’s top climate scientists, warns of extreme weather, poverty for hundreds of millions, food scarcity, and stress on water supplies. It’s hard to imagine a bigger political crisis than that.