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COP24: Who are these UN climate meetings for?

Climate change
Climate change protesters demonstrate, prior to the United Nations climate change conference in Poland, in central London, Britain, 1 December 2018.
REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

The latest climate negotiations have just begun – COP (Conference of the Parties) 24, the most major conference since the Paris Agreement three years ago.

While the focus of this conference, opened Sunday, is somewhat technical – a lot of talk is planned about the ‘rulebook’, i.e. how the UN climate agreement is implemented – it is important to whether the Paris Agreement amounts to more than warm words.

2018 has seen saw record temperatures around the world, abnormal rain and floods in South Asia and East Africa, and rare tropical cyclones from Yemen to Somalia – not to speak of the recent unprecedented wildfires across California. And a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) painted a sobering picture of what would happen if the world exceeds a new target of limiting global warming to 1.5C; it also warned that staying within the limit requires ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’.

The need for action is clearer than ever. So what can we expect over the next two weeks?

An obstructionist host

Host country Poland has served as home to a number of climate conferences: this will be the third UN climate conference to go to the Eastern European country in over a decade. Keen for climate action then? Not so much. This conference is headed straight to Katowice, in Poland’s coal heartlands, a power move and a sign of Poland’s intentions to protect polluting industries. Instead this year’s host is set to push solutions such as ‘bioenergy with carbon capture and storage' – which are unproven and come with a range of harmful effects.

Expect obstruction of efforts to phase out fossil fuels – instead they are playing up the potential of forests to take carbon out of the atmosphere, despite facing fines earlier this year for failing to stop logging in ancient woodland. Oh, and could that conference logo possibly be a green piece of coal??

Environmental activists march during an anti-coal protest on the occasion of the Katowice Climate Change Conference in front of the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany 1 December 2018. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Protest crackdown

They've also written a law specifically to ban protest at the summit.

Crackdown on protest itself is nothing new at climate conferences: in Copenhagen, for the 2009 conference, police put protesters in cages outside the exhibition centre. But the breadth of what Poland is aiming to ban is astounding: prohibiting all 'spontaneous demonstration or gatherings’ within Katowice during the period of the conference – until the 16th December.

The bill banning protest received criticism from the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, and NGOs are also concerned that clauses legalizing data collection and surveillance at the conference may put vulnerable environmental defenders in even greater risk.

Perhaps more concerning is the suggestion that the protest restrictions may have been put in place to please funders of the conference. The Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), which is worried about the bill’s impact on its members, asked the Polish presidency why it had enacted the new law.

‘The answer provided by the presidency was quite surprising, that it was to mobilize funds for the COP24,’ said Misun Woo, APWLD’s regional coordinator. ‘Then we must ask the very fundamental question – who is COP24 for, and who benefits from controlling the democratic, civic participation in this important global climate conversation? It doesn't seem that there has been any further clarification on the conditions for restrictions, however, the existence of the bill itself will not discourage people's organizing.

‘It might give us a more reason to attend and collectively resist such government measures that restrict free and full participation and freedom of expression in global climate talks.'

We must ask the very fundamental question – who is COP24 for, and who benefits from controlling the democratic, civic participation in this important global climate conversation?

‘This clamp down on civil society space and freedom of expressions is a sign of increasing influence of the profit earning actors who do not want to change the system of exploitation that is leading to climate change,’ said APWLD member Banamallika Choudhury, from India. ‘By closing spaces for voices of the people to come into global platforms like the COP, the profit-making exploitative industries and the States continue business as usual at the cost of the planet.’

The APWLD also told New Internationalist they were concerned that Global South activists particularly could be targeted – as surveillance is automatically applied to those who apply for visas to attend, which will disproportionately affect those from the Global South.

No answer to global injustice

The key buzzwords here are ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’ – i.e. efforts to reduce the harmful effects of climate change by reducing emissions, as against putting in place measures in order to better cope with the consequences.

Unfortunately, we need both – significant amounts of global warming are already locked in, even with drastic preventative action which is not yet on the table. But while Majority World countries have been pushing for funding and technology transfers so they can make changes needed, Global North countries with large ‘climate debts’ – responsibility for historical carbon emissions which have been central to building their economies – have been anxious to avoid this.

As in many previous talks, campaigners are expecting the Global North to continue to block significant progress on funding ‘adaptation’ to climate change across the Global South. This intransigence in the face of a massive global justice issue – helping poorer countries deal with an issue largely created by the rich world – is a major barrier to progress in talks. But campaigners say that, perversely, Global South countries have often been painted as the problem when they push for this.

This is all the more important in the face of ongoing problems at the Green Climate Fund, set up to support adaptation and mitigation in developing countries. Trump has pulled $2 billion of a planned $3 billion of US funding for this – a hefty chunky of a total $10.3 billion pledged to the scheme, which itself falls far short of what is required.

Meanwhile, pledges of climate action so far (Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, in the jargon) fall far short of what is required – even if upheld, they will still leave us in line for 3.2C of warming.

Conflicts of interest

Fossil fuel companies continue to lobby at climate talks, and the US (in the process of leaving the UN climate process) and other Global North countries have continued to block efforts to introduce a 'conflict of interest policy' which would ban polluters – as has been common in other areas of international negotiation.

Calls to address this issue have come from campaigners and the global south – in January the African Group of Negotiators put forward a formal proposal for policy to address this. But there has been little progress.

More worrying is a proposal Ukraine made last year – apparently with support from the US – for ‘Integrated Climate Partnerships’, which could see polluters even more involved in drawing up and implementing climate action plans.

Experts and campaigners say involving private actors in implementation could set a dangerous precedent. The proposal amounts to ‘quite literally putting energy and fossil fuel corporations in the driver’s seat for global climate action,’ Jesse Bragg, of organization Corporate Accountability, told the Intercept in 2017.

Technical trouble

Even leaving aside the biggest political issues yet to be addressed in the UN climate process, negotiators have a challenging task ahead of them. They have over 236 pages of negotiation texts to deal with – and a recent note from diplomats who will be co-ordinating discussions said ‘there are still far too many options on the table’.

‘This is the most important COP since Paris in 2015,’ Richard Folland of advisory firm Sustineri told New Internationalist. ‘But it seems destined to disappoint: it is unlikely to usher in fresh climate ambition; and it may struggle to agree on the detailed Paris rule-book, as has long been billed.’

‘No wonder that the UNFCC have been trying to play down expectations over recent months. Basically, the world is crying out for climate leadership. Europe is best placed to provide this, and it’s time they stepped up on climate change, on 2030 targets and a more ambitious across-the-board decarbonization agenda.’


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