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Irreverent musings from COP24

Guest content
08 February 2019

At the latest climate talks in Poland, there was no soothing balm when it came to addressing issues of international equity and climate change, writes Kevin Anderson for The Ecologist.


The dust has now fully settled since the December’s Conference of the Parties 24 in Poland, allowing for some reflections. A quick glance at COP24 suggests three steps forward and two steps back. But whilst to the naïve optimist this may sound like progress, in reality it’s yet another retrograde bound towards a climate abyss.

Government negotiators play poker with the beauty of three billion years of evolution. And climate change emissions march on - with a stride 2.7 percent longer in 2018 than in the previous year – which itself was 1.6 percent longer than the year before. Whilst the reality is that every COP marks another step backwards, the hype of these extravaganzas gives the impression that we’re forging a pathway towards a decarbonised future.

Rising emissions

For me the fantasy-land of COP24 was epitomised at the UK’s ever-busy Green is Great stand. Here, the nation that kick-started the fossil-fuel era, regaled passers-by with a heart-warming tale of rapidly falling emissions and a growing green economy.

This cheerful narrative chimed with those desperate to believe these annual junkets are forging a decarbonised promise-land. Despite my cynicism, I was nevertheless surprised just how pervasive the UK’s mirage had become.

Adjacent to Brexit Blighty’s pavilion was the WWF’s Panda Hub. Here I attended a session at which two British speakers offered advice to the New Zealand government on their forthcoming energy law. The mantra of the UK being at the vanguard of climate action was reiterated by the ‘great & good’ of the NGO world and by the Director of Policy at a prestigious climate change institute. A similar fable from a couple of Government stooges would not have been a surprise. But surely the NGO and academic communities should demonstrate greater integrity and a more discerning appraisal of government assertions?

If you ignore rising emissions from aviation and shipping along with those related to the UK’s imports and exports, a chirpy yarn can be told. But then why not omit cars, cement production and other so- called “hard to decarbonise” sectors?

In reality, post-1990 carbon dioxide emissions associated with operating UK plc. have, in any meaningful sense, remained stubbornly static. But let’s not just pick on the UK. The same can be said of many self-avowed climate-progressive nations, Denmark, France and Sweden amongst them. And then there’s evergreen Norway with emissions up 50 percent since 1990.

Fundamental failures

Sadly the subterfuge of these supposed progressives was conveniently hidden behind the new axis of climate-evil emerging in Katowice: Trump’s USA; MBS’s Saudi; Putin’s Russia; and the Emir’s Kuwait – with Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, quietly sniggering from the side-lines.

But surely no one really expected more from this quintet of regressives. It’s the self-proclaimed paragons of virtue where the real intransigence (or absence of imagination) truly resides. When it comes to commitments made in Paris, the list of climate villains extends far and wide – with few if any world leaders escaping the net.

How is it that behind the glad-handing of policy makers and the mutterings of progress by many academics, NGOs and journalists, we continue to so fundamentally fail?

On mitigation, endless presentations infused with ‘negative emissions’, hints of geo-engineering and offsetting salved the conscience of Katowice’s high-carbon delegates. But when it came to addressing issues of international equity and climate change, no such soothing balm was available.

I left my brief foray into the murky realm of equity with the uneasy conclusion that, just as we have wilfully deluded ourselves over mitigation, so we are doing when it comes to issues of fairness and funding.

Weak targets

COP after COP has seen the principal framing of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ (CBDR) weakened. Put simply, CBDR requires wealthier nations (i.e. greater financial capacity) with high- emissions per capita (i.e. greater relative historical responsibility for emissions) to “take the lead in combating climate change”.

This was a central tenet of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and specifically committed such wealthy nations to peak their emissions before 2000. Virtually all failed to do so.

In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol established binding but weak emission targets for these nations, with the intention of tightening them in a subsequent ‘commitment period’. The all-important second ‘commitment period’ was never ratified – partly because a new ‘regime’ for international mitigation was anticipated.

In 2015, and to wide acclaim, the new regime emerged in the guise of the Paris Agreement. This saw the dismantling of any legally binding framework for wealthier high CO2/capita countries to demonstrate leadership. Instead nations submitted voluntary bottom-up mitigation plans based on what they determined was their appropriate national responsibility for holding to a global rise of between 1.5 and 2°C.

True to form, world leaders dispensed with any pretence of integrity, choosing instead to continue playing poker with physics & nature. Even under the most optimistic interpretation of the collective nonsense offered, the aggregate of world leaders’ proposals aligned more with 3.5°C of warming than the 1.5 to 2°C that they had committed to.

Backtracking on funding 

So, has the shame of repeated failure on mitigation initiated greater international funding for those poorer nations vulnerable to climate impacts and in the early phases of establishing their energy systems?

In Copenhagen, ‘developing’ nations agreed to produce mitigation plans, with the understanding that their “means of implementation” would attract financial support from the wealthier hi-emitters. Move on to Paris, and the wealthy nations flex their financial muscles and begin to backtrack.

Rather than deliver a new and anticipated post-2020 finance package, they chose to extend what was supposed to be their 100 billion dollar per year ‘floor’ (i.e. starting value) out to 2025. To put that in perspective, 100 billion dollars equates to one twenty-eighth of the UK’s annual GDP – and even this paltry sum is proving difficult to collect from rich nations.

Surely COP24 couldn’t belittle poor nations further? Yet the Katowice text stoops to new lows.

Funding initially intended to mobilise action on mitigation and adaptation is transposed into various financial instruments, with the very real prospect of economically burdening poorer countries with still more debt.

New generation

Finally, I want to touch on something far outside my experience and probably one of the most damning aspects of the COPs that I’ve become aware of.

As a professor in the gentle world of academia, I can speak wherever I’m able to get a forum. I can explain my analysis in direct language that accurately reflects my judgements - free from any fear of being actively shut down.

Certainly, there are academics (usually senior) who favour backstabbing over face to face engagement, but typically their comments are later relayed via their own (and more honest) Post-Doc & PhD colleagues. If I find myself on a stage with climate glitterati and accidentally step on a few hi-emitting toes – the worse I face is an insincere smile and being crossed off their Christmas card list. Such bruising of egos and prestige is relatively harmless. Elsewhere however this is not the case – for both early career academics and civil society.

At COP24 I spoke at some length with both these groups. Not uncommonly early career researchers feared speaking out “as it would affect their chances of funding”. This specific example arose during a national side event on the miraculous low-carbon merits of coal and extractive industries.

However, similar language is frequently used to describe how hierarchical structures in universities stifle open debate amongst researchers working on short-term contracts. Given senior academics have collectively and demonstrably failed to catalyse a meaningful mitigation agenda, fresh perspectives are sorely needed.

Consequently, the new generation of academics and researchers should be encouraged to speak out, rather than be silenced and co-opted.

Orwellian dictator

Turning to wider civil society, I hadn’t realised just how tightly constrained their activities were, or that they are required to operate within clear rules. At first this appears not too unreasonable – but probe a bit further and the friendly face of the UNFCCC morphs into an Orwellian dictator.

Whilst country and industry representatives can extol the unrivalled virtues of their policies and commercial ventures, civil society is forced to resort to platitudes and oblique references. Directly questioning a rich oil-based regime’s deceptions or even openly referring to Poland’s addiction to “dirty “coal is outlawed.

By contrast, eulogising on the wonders of clean coal is welcomed, as is praising a government’s mitigation proposals – even if they are more in line with 4°C than the Paris commitments.

All this is itself disturbing. Whilst the negotiators haggle over the colour of the Titanic’s deckchairs and how to minimise assistance for poorer nations, the UNFCCC’s overlord ensures a manicured flow of platitudes.

The clever trick here is to facilitate the occasional and highly choreographed protest. To those outside the COP bubble, such events support the impression of a healthy balanced debate. National negotiators with their parochial interests and hydrocarbon firms with their slick PR, all being held to account by civil society organisations maintaining a bigger-picture & long-term perspective. But that is far from the truth.

Tight policing

For civil-society groups getting an “observer” status badge is an essential passport to the COPs. These are issued by the UNFCCC and can easily be revoked. Without ‘badges’, or worse still, by forcibly being “de-badged” (as it’s referred to), civil society delegates have very limited opportunity to hold nations and companies to account or to put counter positions to the press.

Such tight policing has a real impact in both diluting protests and, perhaps more disturbingly, enabling nations and companies to go relatively unchallenged. The latter would be less of a concern, if the eminent heads of NGOs were standing up to be counted. But over the years the relationship between the heads of many NGOs and senior company and government representatives has become all too cosy. 

So what level of ‘control’ is typically exerted at COPs? To avoid compromising badges for those wishing to attend future UNFCCC events, I can’t provide detail here, but the range is wide: highlighting the negative aspects of a country or company’s proposals or activities; displaying temporary (unauthorised) signs; asking too challenging questions in side events; circulating ‘negative’ photographs or images; and countering official accounts.

In brief, criticising a specific country, company or individual is not allowed in material circulated within the conference venue. Previously, some civil-society delegates have had to delete tweets and issue a UNFCCC dictated apology – or lose their badges.

This year, following a climate-related protest in Belgium, those involved were subsequently stopped from entering Poland and the Katowice COP; so much for the EU’s freedom of speech and movement.

Unsubstantiated optimism 

If the COP demonstrated significant headway towards delivering on the Paris agreement, perhaps there would be some argument for giving the process leeway to proceed unhindered by anything that may delay progress.

But no amount of massaging by the policy-makers and the UNFCCC’s elite can counter the brutal and damning judgement of the numbers. Twenty-four COPs on, annual carbon dioxide emissions are over 60 percent higher now than in 1990, and set to rise further by almost 3 percent in 2018.

It’s over a month now since I returned from the surreal world of COP24. I’ve had time to flush out any residual and unsubstantiated optimism and remind myself that climate change is still a peripheral issue within the policy realm.

The UK is an interesting litmus of just how fragmented government thinking is. A huge effort went into the UK’s COP presence – yet back at home our Minister for Clean Growth celebrates the new Clair Ridge oil platform and its additional 50 thousand tonnes of CO2 per day (a quarter of a billion tonnes over its lifetime). Simultaneously, the government remains committed to a new shale gas revolution whilst plans are afoot for expanding Heathrow airport and the road network.

COP can be likened to an ocean gyre with the ‘axis of evil’, Machiavellian subterfuge and naïve optimism circulating with other climate flotsam and with nothing tangible escaping from it. Twenty- four COPs on, questions must surely be asked as to whether continuing with these high-carbon jamborees serves a worthwhile purpose or not?

Political tipping points

Thus far the incremental gains delivered by the yearly COPs are completely dwarfed by the annual build-up of atmospheric carbon emissions. In some respects the Paris Agreement hinted at a potential step change – but this moment of hope has quickly given way to Byzantine technocracy – the rulebook, stocktaking, financial scams, etc.; not yet a hint of mitigation or ethical conscience.

But is this jettisoning of COPs too simple? Perhaps international negotiations could run alongside strong bilateral agreements (e.g. China and the EU)? Stringent emission standards imposed on all imports and exports to these regions could potentially lead to a much more ambitious international agenda.

The US provides an interesting and long-running model for this approach. For just over half a century, California has established increasingly tighter vehicle emission standards, each time quickly adopted at the federal level by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Clearly internationalising such a model would have implications for WTO. But in 2018, and with global emissions still on the rise, perhaps now is the time for a profound political tipping point where meaningful mitigation takes precedent over political expediency?

Of course, the COPs are much more than simply a space for negotiations. They are where a significant swathe of the climate community comes together, with all the direct and tacit benefits physical engagement offers. But did Katowice, Fiji-Bonn, Marrakech or even Paris represent the pinnacle of high-quality and low carbon discussion and debate? Could we have done much better?

Virtual engagement 

Perhaps we need established regional COP hubs throughout the different continents of the world, all with seamless virtual links to each other and the central venue. Could journalists have listened, interviewed and written from their offices? Could civil society have engaged vociferously in their home nations whilst facilitating climate vulnerable communities in having their voices heard?

Almost fifty years on from the first moon landing, are the challenges of delivering high-quality virtual engagement really beyond our ability to resolve?

If the COPs are to become part of the solution rather than continuing to contribute to the problem, then they need to undergo a fundamental transformation. Moreover the UNFCCC’s elite needs to escape their Big Sister approach and embrace rather than endeavour to close down a wider constituency of voices.

Neither of these will occur without considerable and ongoing pressure from those external to, as well as within, the UNFCCC. The time for action is not at COP25, but now and during the intervening months.


Kevin Anderson is professor of energy and climate change, holding a joint position between the School of Mechanical, Aeronautical and Civil Engineering at the University of Manchester and the Centre for Environment and Development (CEMUS) at Uppsala University, Sweden. He was previously director of the Tyndall Centre, the UK’s leading academic climate change research organisation, and recently completed a two-year post as the Zennström Professor of Climate Change Leadership at Uppsala.

Original source: Ecologist

Image credit: Some rights reserved by International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), flickr creative commons