It’s that time of the year again. The days are getting shorter, the trees have shed off their last leaves, and the city is preparing itself for the Christmas festivities. It can only mean one thing: the yearly climate conference is around the corner! This summit, known as Conference of the Parties or COP, in short, is ready for its 24th edition. This year’s host is the (former) coal king of coal-addicted Poland: Katowice.
I know, I know. You might start getting tired of the relentless flow of reports and conferences that tell us we really really should keep global warming under two degrees Celsius. But you better pay attention: COP24 is the most important summit since COP21 in Paris. Where the historical Paris Agreement was reached, remember? In many ways, the discussions in Katowice will make or break the momentum that was created in the French capital three years ago.
Negotiators have two main dishes on the menu. On the one hand, they’ll have to finalise the discussions on the Rulebook — I write it with a capital letter to make clear it is a truly important document — that were started at last year’s COP in Bonn. The Rulebook describes the procedures on how the national pledges (a.k.a. Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs) of UN members states need to be formulated, tracked, and potentially penalised if not executed. With other words, the Rulebook is determining how the Paris Agreement is effectively going to be implemented.
Currently, it is a collection of tens if not hundreds of pages. During the last 12 months, negotiators have met several times to chunk the Rulebook down to a workable document. But insiders reckon that there is still a long way to go to land a concise and clear set of rules, given the little official negotiation time remaining during the two-week conference in Poland.
One year of discussing is a long time, you may think. But given its importance, it is no wonder all member states want to shape the Rulebook according to their own wishes. Visions mainly differ on how open or closed the rules should be. Is everything put down word by word, or will there be room for interpretation and manoeuvring later on?
The second focus area in Katowice is the revision of countries’ proposed climate policies. The Paris Agreement foresees that every five years, stock is taken of national progress and the option is given to step up the NDCs. This process is called the facilitative dialogue and it allows to take into account new scientific insights and technological progress. This dialogue will be started up in Poland with the aim that countries will come forward with more ambitious targets. Which we need very much. Current projections estimate that the NDCs presented in Paris are far from enough to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celcius, let alone 1.5.
Ideally, in two weeks from now, negotiators will be returning home with an effective Rulebook, full of ambition to discuss new mitigation targets with their domestic governments. But things seldom are ideal at COPs. The last Polish COP, COP19 in Warsaw, is often seen as a disaster (although, in fact, the idea for voluntary NDCs was born there so it was at least not entirely useless). It is more realistic to expect that the old divisions between emerging and developed economies will be slowing down the talks and that a “Rulebook v 1.0” will be agreed on. A version that will be just enough to make things work, but which pushes the difficult topics down the line. Let’s hope I’m too pessimistic.
As every host, Katowice will spice COP24 to its own taste. The city is located in the heart of Silesia, a region dotted with coal mines. And although the city has partially moved on to a service-based economy, the coal and steel industry (and their workers’ unions) are still very present. Large communities could be hit hard if the Polish government does not work out a fair and dignified transition trajectory for coal miners.
The topic of a fair transition of regions and industrial sectors is therefore high on the agenda for the President of COP24. Although Poland has shown itself as a neutral host during previous COPs taking place on its territory, one can be sure they will not forego the chance to promote ‘clean coal’ (whatever that is supposed to be), Carbon Capture and Storage technology (which is immature and uneconomical at the moment), and forests (of which Poland has many) as their favourite carbon cutting tools.
Let’s face it, COP24 is going to be a pretty technical summit and therefore potentially a tad boring for outsiders. But make no mistake, the outcomes will make or break the success of the Paris Agreement. Let’s hope that the recent UNEP and IPCC reports, combined with this year’s sneak peek into a world with extreme weather, will urge negotiators to get things done quickly and effectively. Fingers crossed that the Polish presidency of the talks is not just going to be neutral, but ambitious. We talk again in two weeks!