Heads of delegations react at the end of the final session of the COP24 summit on climate change in Katowice, Poland, Saturday, 15 December 2018. Photo: Czarek Sokolowski / AP Photo

By Robert Stavins
18 December 2018

(The Conversation) – The global climate change conference in Katowice, Poland, that wrapped up on Dec. 15 had a challenging mission. Three years ago in Paris, 196 countries and regions agreed to curb global greenhouse gas emissions Now they had to agree on rules and guidelines for how to do it.

Two urgent realities hung over the negotiations. First, U.S. President Donald Trump announced in June 2017 that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement in November 2020 – the soonest that any nation can actually do so. Second, although countries that are responsible for 97 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions have pledged to make cuts, the initial reductions will surely not be enough to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius. So, a key question is how the Paris Agreement can facilitate increased ambition over time.

Delegates in Poland wanted to make progress by filling in details of the skeletal Paris Agreement. Was the meeting a success? A simple yes or no would be misleading. But from my perspective leading a delegation from the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements at the conference, there were were significant gains in two key areas.

Nations agreed on uniform rules for measuring and reporting their own performance in cutting emissions. There also were intensive discussions of how to connect reduction efforts across regions, nations and sub-national areas, which offers many economic and other benefits. Even though the latter issue was not resolved in Katowice, I see the final agreement as a glass that is more than half full.

As I wrote in 2015 when it was signed, the Paris Agreement was a major milestone. In it, 195 countries plus the European Union – accounting for 97 percent of global emissions – pledged to develop national targets and action plans for reducing their emissions. They also agreed to revise these contributions every five years, with an eye to ratcheting up their goals over time. In contrast, the predecessor international agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, covered only 14 percent of global emissions.

Cumulative CO2 emissions by world region, 1751-2015. Wealthy nations account for most of the world’s cumulative carbon dioxide emissions since 1751, but large developing nations are becoming increasingly important sources. Graphic: OurWorldinData.org

But the Paris Agreement gave 154 developing countries significant wiggle room by granting them flexibility in determining how they would measure their emissions and track progress toward their national targets. For developing countries, this was important. Some lacked the capacity to accurately monitor their emissions, and others resisted being treated with the same rigor as industrialized countries. In their view this was unfair, since developed nations’ emissions were responsible for most of the warming that had occurred to date.

But now this has changed, thanks partly to close collaboration in Poland between the U.S. and Chinese delegations. These delegates worked closely to foster a remarkable consensus that all countries must follow uniform standards for measuring emissions and tracking the achievement of their national targets.

This was a significant accomplishment, and a major step toward a level playing field among nations. Such uniform treatment is essential for addressing the threat of climate change, because increases in emissions are mainly coming from the large emerging economies: China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia.

Conceivably, this equal treatment could make it easier for the United States to remain in the Paris Agreement if President Trump should become convinced that such action would be politically advantageous in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. It also will create a path for a future Democratic or Republican administration to rejoin the Paris Agreement if Trump follows through on his promise to withdraw. [more]

An economist’s take on the Poland climate conference: The glass is more than half full



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