The Paris Agreement, though historic in many ways, left the detail of lots of key issues to be thrashed out at a later date. That time has now arrived, and political leaders, officials, businesses and campaigners are gathering over the next fortnight to decide on many of the rules needed to implement the critical emissions cuts needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.
A slew of recent reports has piled pressure on the talks. In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that countries had until 2030 to avoid the worst effects of climate change, and called for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”, and global investment of US$2.4 trillion dollars a year.
Last week, a UN report found that the gap between where countries were in terms of cutting greenhouse gas emissions and where they need to be is larger than previously estimated. It warned that emissions will not peak by 2030 even if countries fully implement commitments made under the Paris Agreement.
Agreeing the rules
The two main tasks ahead of negotiators in the Polish city of Katowice – historically the heartland of the country’s coal industry – will be to agree rules around implementing emissions cuts, and deliver a clear political signal and work plan for ratcheting up collective climate ambition in 2020.
“The Paris Agreement decided on a bottom-up and voluntary approach and was quite ingenious in concealing a number of real disagreements,” said Fu Sha, researcher at China’s National Centre for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation.
The so-called “Paris rulebook” will spell out how countries plan, implement and review their individual progress in cutting emissions, and how to track and mobilise finance and technical support for developing countries to curb emissions and adapt to climate impacts. Transparency is vital to provide both the means and political trust to commit to greater action in 2020.
The rulebook will need to find the right balance
One of the most controversial aspects of the rulebook will be how allowances are made for differences in countries’ economic development. The predecessor to the Paris pact, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, had different rules for developing and developed countries, but this has had to change as countries such as China, India and Brazil have themselves become large CO2 emitters.
“The rulebook will need to find the right balance between a common approach for all countries – such as on transparency – with national discretion and the need for flexibility for developing countries with limited capacity,” said David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative at the US-based World Resources Institute.
Indeed, at the Bangkok climate talks in September, which were scheduled after talks in Bonn in May failed to make sufficient progress on the rulebook, the United States blocked a bid by China and its allies for different rules for developed and developing countries, according to Climate Home.
However, other observers believe that leadership of individual countries is more important than the rulebook. “Rulebooks are important, but it is easy to over-state their relevance because the Paris process is, by design, decentralised – it relies on countries and regions to take the lead with pledges of action and commitments to take the climate problem seriously,” said David Victor, co-chair of the Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate at thinktank the Brookings Institution.
The chances of nearly 200 countries agreeing on all elements of the rulebook were slim, Victor said, so it was more important for them to demonstrate climate change action to create norms for others to follow.
Leadership is unlikely from several large emitters. US president Donald Trump has maintained his stance to pull out of the Paris Agreement despite a report from his own administration stating that climate change would cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars in lost lives, jobs and damage to property. Brazil’s newly-elected president Jair Bolsonaro has also vowed to pull out of the pact, and in Australia, new prime minister Scott Morrison has said he will neither implement CO2 reductions, nor provide climate finance.
However, commentators are hopeful that recent geopolitical tensions on climate change will not derail the talks, but will instead result in a strengthened role for China as a leader.
Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a network of Brazilian campaign groups, believed that China could potentially exert its influence over Brazil, given its investment in the country. “China is a very important commercial partner to Brazil. It's possible to stimulate Brazil to engage, though it doesn't seem like something one could hope for with this new government,” he said.
Guo Hongyu, climate analyst with NGO the Greenovation Hub, said that she hoped the IPCC’s report would push China to continue to make constructive proposals, particularly through the Talanoa Dialogue process, which was set up within the talks to encourage discussion of concrete solutions.
Climate is an area where China can reach out and do more
“China can use this mechanism to exchange lessons and experience acquired during its low-carbon transition – particularly in the fields of green finance, renewables, energy efficiency and grid construction. This will provide the foundation and confidence for more ambitious climate targets based on a global stocktake,” she said.
China has been very active in the Talanoa Dialogue, according to Guo Xiaofeng, first secretary at the Department of Treaty and Law in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “During this process we have encouraged Chinese thinktanks, NGOs and government bodies to participate by submitting proposals to the secretariat and attending dialogues,” he said.
Ultimately, the fact that many countries’ economies – including that of China – were now aligned with the low-carbon agenda, meant that there was an overriding commitment to make Paris work, according to Camilla Born, senior policy advisor at environmental thinktank E3G.
“Climate is an area where China can reach out and do more. It depends on multilateralism to prosper and it wants to see the Paris Agreement working, and it wants to see it working in its image so it can counter some of the containment that’s going on in other areas such as trade,” she said.
Indeed, just 48 hours before the talks began, China teamed up with France and UN secretary general António Guterres on the fringes of the G20 summit to release a statement reaffirming their “strong support” for the Paris Agreement as “an irreversible process and a compass for strong climate action”.
Li Shuo, senior climate and energy policy officer at Greenpeace China, said that the statement highlighted the continued political interest by China to use the climate and environmental agenda for geopolitical gain.
“It is positive that the current trade tension did not distract China from its international environmental agenda, instead it spurs Beijing to re-align itself with other like-minded partners to advance the global climate and biodiversity agenda,” he said.