The international climate talks process is often criticised as all talk and no action. On Wednesday morning (12 December) in Katowice, Poland, that talk was inside the halls as well as outside them.
The civil society advocates and the technical experts were the ones making noise, addressing particularly the Polish presidency of the COP. It’s normal for this point in the talks – when everything gets down to brass tacks – to be tense, but there’s a very high level of concern about the likely outcome.
Harjeet Singh of ActionAid, speaking at the much-respected Climate Action Network (CAN) morning briefing, said that “political attention is going to issues that should not have become the issue at all”. The number of pages of draft text for the Katowice Declaration had been cut way down, but almost no progress made on the key issues, he said.
Many were pointing to distraction caused by the weekend storm about “noting” versus “welcoming” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which demands warming be restricted to 1.5 degrees. Regardless of what word is used to acknowledge the report, all countries signed off on it.
There was acknowledgement of the usefulness of the Silesia Declaration on “just transition”, and planned statements on forests and the electrification of transport, but none of these are central to the purpose of the talks. That has to be to produce not just promises – which are not showing signs of being forthcoming – but action to slash greenhouse gas emissions, fast.
“We cannot burn this time,” said a representative from CAN. “We cannot lose this year. When people or countries say ‘there is not the political will’, you have to ask will it be here next year or the year after.”
The countdown is on – indeed you can watch it by the second. The IPCC report, which always tends towards the conservative, gave us 12 years. A respected recent calculation said nine years. Yesterday a new report from US scientists at Nasa warned about the precarious state of the Antarctic, a hugely vulnerable environment where change could have massive impacts.
One of the chief formal tasks of Katowice is the development of the rulebook for delivering on the Paris Accord, which will actually start operating in 2020. That rulebook needs to be both complete – “a Swiss cheese rulebook doesn’t make sense” – and ambitious. Methodology matters.
There’s also the crucial issue of climate finance – help for the Global South to bring the lives of their citizens to a decent standard in a low carbon way. That largely comes under what’s known as the ‘pre-2020 agenda’ – things promised through the Kyoto Protocol, which is still operational until the Paris Agreement kicks in.
The most ambitious plans being touted here at COP talk about carbon emissions peaking by 2025, which, if you do the maths, is what we need to see if we are to limit warming to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels.
That means a massive turnaround for the world, but here in Katowice – which saw a huge change in political system from 1989 – there are plenty of reminders on the streets that humans are used to such changes. Look back to 2006: think about just how much technology and social practice has changed since then. Facebook was but a less-than-one-year-old babe, as was Twitter.
Their founders were wildly ambitious, and that’s also what’s being demanded on the climate talks. However, until just hours ago, there was no formal process for delivering ambition – improved promises and goals from the national participants – in Katowice.
Very late in the week, Sweden and Costa Rica have been tasked with leading talks on ambition, but experts are saying what's needed is a clear commitment to progress towards the special meeting at the UN General Assembly next September, if there is to be promised Nationally Determined Contributions (offers by countries to reduce emissions) emerging next year in the Latin American COP and sealed in 2020.
There’s also a desperate need for clarity of what’s being counted in carbon emissions and how, particularly from forests, wetlands, peatlands and other complex sources of emissions and potential carbon trapping.
The Nationally Determined Contributions currently add up to a warming of about 3.2 degrees. These contributions need to be greatly increased.
And then there's actual, on the ground action to cut carbon emissions now. The Talanoa Dialogue for Climate Ambition, instituted by Fiji last year, is producing good conversations, but not progressing to action.
As I heard a European Green leader say this morning: "The 70,000 people marching for the climate in Brussels this month weren't asking for a good rulebook, as important as that is. They were marching for action." That’s true of marchers and campaigners around the world.
Natalie Bennett was the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales from 2012-2016. She is in Katowice with the Green Economics Institute.