Fatih Birol, the Turkish economist who now runs the International Energy Agency as its Executive Director, is generally a man of cheerful disposition. However, when he mouthed the words shown in the headline above, his demeanour was sombre.
The gravitas was understandable. Birol was just going to reveal to his audience at a diplomatic function in the Polish embassy in Paris, in October, that carbon dioxide emissions will increase once again in 2018. Emissions of CO2, the principal culprit responsible for global warming, rose 1.4 per cent in 2017 after remaining flat for three years. There had been some hope that the reversal of trend may have spurred some action in reversing it back again in the right direction, but nay.
However, Birol was revealing no secret. Many organisations, including IEA itself in its earlier reports, have consistently been saying that the world is putting too much of greenhouse gases up there and been warning of the consequences. The most recent one was Emissions Gap Report, 2018, of the United Nations Environment Programme, released last week, which basically said that judging by the way things are happening, warming-limiting targets are going for a six.
It is against this grim background that the next global climate conference — the COP24, or the 24th session of Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — has just got under way, in Katowice, Poland.
What is on the menu?
If all goes well — which looks increasingly unlikely with each passing day — the COP24 should end with a rulebook that sets out how to implement the Paris Agreement, the global accord that was hammered out at the COP21, in 2015. In the agreement, the 195 countries formally agreed on the “2 degree” target, a reference to limit the rise in global average temperature, by the year 2100, to 2 degrees Celsius over the average temperatures that obtained during the pre-industrialisation era. (‘Pre-industrialisation era’ has never been defined but the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is a scientific body set up by the UN, has used 1850-1900 as the historical baseline.
There are some who argue that the baseline should be an earlier period, perhaps around 1784 when James Watt invented the steam engine and mankind began burning coal more.)
Besides the “2 degrees C” target, and an “ambition” to strive towards an even better “1.5 degrees”, the Paris Agreement contained little other than statements of good intentions. Still, the very fact that 195 countries could agree on the common language of the text was cause for euphoria.
Then came the question, how to work the Paris Agreement. This was discussed in the following COP22 that was held in Morocco and continued in the next held in Bonn, under the Presidency of Fiji, last year. In between COP meetings, negotiators also meet for ‘inter-sessions’ and in 2018, there were two of them — in Bonn again, and in Bangkok in September.
The main purpose of these meetings was to produce the guidelines for implementation of the Paris Agreement. Some of the ‘rules’ being evolved relate to (a) common time frames (because the promises various countries made at Paris differed widely in deadlines), (b) reporting and accounting methodologies, so that there is commonality in measuring the actions of countries, (c) transparency in communication, so that there is credibility in success claims of countries and (d) peer review process.
Developing a “robust, fair and cohesive set of implementation guidelines” (as the NGO ‘Climate Action Network’ put it) is on the top of the COP24 agenda; the conference will also discuss flow of funds to climate, checking of progress made by all countries once in five years beginning 2023 (called ‘global stocktake’) and improving upon the promises (called ‘nationally determined contributions’, or NDCs) made.
Thus, there is a lot of ‘meet’ cooking in the COP pot, but will there be a serving? Looks unlikely.
First of all, some key countries are running in the opposite direction. The US has made it clear that there is no change in intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Brazil, whose rain forests in the Amazon region play a big role in sucking up carbon from the atmosphere, has a new President-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, who wants to pull out of the Agreement, and has accordingly appointed a climate-denier as his foreign minister. The next COP was to be held in Rio de Janiero, but Bolsonaro has said ‘no, thanks’.
The stand of Australia, a major coal producer, on climate change has never been encouraging. Funnily enough, the energy minister of the COP24 host country, Poland, recently defended use of coal, though the country’s environment ministry tersely said the energy minister’s views did not represent the Polish government’s position. An agreement in this scenario would be a miracle.
Some of the positions of countries appear to be intractably opposite. For instance, in negotiations for enhancing contributions, ‘common but differentiated responsibility’, or the point that developed countries must do more than the developing, will be a sticky issue. And ‘finance’ has always been a sore point.
“Much of the actions hinge on provision of adequate and accessible financial resources, which remains a sticky point,” says Arivudai Nambi Appadurai, Director, Climate Resilience Practice at the World Resources Institute. Appadurai, who has been part of India’s negotiations team in the past, expects “a weak commitment from major countries to ramp up their NDC ambitions” and a “loosely-defined agreement on the rulebook”.
On the whole, things do not look encouraging. However, Nature is standing right behind wielding a stout stick, and the threat of disastrous consequences of not moving forward will nudge negotiations in the right direction.
Speaking at the same function in which Birol gravely announced emissions rise in the current year, former French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, tellingly said: “This is not a negotiation like any other. If you fail, you cannot start over again.” The world certainly cannot afford Birol saying once again next year that he has some very bad news.
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