Katowice (Poland): What was agreed at COP24?
Countries settled on most of the tricky elements of the “rule book” for putting the 2015 Paris agreement into practice. This includes how governments will measure, report on and verify their emissions-cutting efforts, a key element because it ensures all countries are held to proper standards and find it harder to wriggle out of their commitments.
Why did it take so long?
There was a row over carbon credits, which are awarded to countries for their emissions-cutting efforts and their carbon sinks, such as forests, which absorb carbon. These credits count towards countries’ emissions-cutting targets. Brazil, which hopes to benefit from its large rainforest cover, insisted on a new form of wording that critics said would allow double counting of credits, undermining the integrity of the system. This issue has been put off until next year.
What wasn’t agreed?
Largely absent from these talks, which had a technical focus, was the key question of how countries will step up their targets on cutting emissions. On current targets, the world is set for 3C of warming from pre-industrial levels, which scientists say would be disastrous, resulting in droughts, floods, sea level rises and the decline of agricultural productivity.
When will that be agreed?
The key deadline is 2020, when countries must show they have met targets set a decade ago for cutting their emissions, and when they must affirm new, much tougher targets.
What does the science say?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global body of the world’s leading climate scientists, warned two months ago that allowing warming to reach 1.5C above pre-industrial levels would have grave consequences, including the die-off of coral reefs and devastation of many species.
How long have we got?
If we extrapolate from the IPCC’s findings, the world has little more than a decade to bring emissions under control and halve them, which would help to stabilise the climate.
Are we getting there?
After years in which the world’s carbon emissions appeared to be stabilising, they are on the rise again. Coal use continues and oil is still the engine of much of the world’s economy. Clean energy is coming on-stream at a faster rate than many predicted, and the costs of it have come down rapidly, but its adoption needs to be speeded up.
Infrastructure, such as energy generation plants, transport networks and buildings, is a central issue: infrastructure built now to rely on high-carbon energy effectively locks in high emissions for decades to come. Some people are also saying we need to invest in projects to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and a new focus of the talks is helping countries to adapt to the effects of climate change.
Were countries united at the talks?
The US, Russia and a couple of other nations joined forces to prevent the conference fully embracing the IPCC’s findings, watering down a statement to a weak commendation of the timing of the scientists’ report. Australia joined with the US in a celebration of coal, and Brazil signalled its climate scepticism under Jair Bolsonaro by withdrawing its offer to host next year’s talks.
But the EU, a handful of other developed countries and scores of developing nations including the poorest and most vulnerable affirmed that they would strive to meet the IPCC’s advice on limiting warming to no more than 1.5C.
What happens next?
The UN will meet again next year in Chile to thrash out the final elements of the Paris rule book and begin work on future emissions targets. But the crunch conference will come in 2020, when countries must meet the deadline for their current emissions commitments and produce new targets for 2030 and beyond that go further towards meeting scientific advice.
That conference may be held in the UK or Italy, both of which have bid to be hosts. The UK’s intention in offering to host is to signal it will retain its role on the world stage after Brexit. The event may also provide a welcome change from wranglings over Brexit and intractable trade deals. But whoever hosts will have a diplomatic mountain to climb, if the fractious nature of this year’s talks is anything to go by.