Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2018
Robert Lyman is an Ottawa energy policy consultant and former public servant of 27 years, diplomat for 10 years prior.
The 24th Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which concluded in Katowice, Poland on December 16, 2018, resulted in an agreement on a lengthy text that was duly reported by the world media as a sign of immense progress in the efforts by governments to deal with the issue of climate change. In a recent post published by the Friends of Science, I summarized the major contents of the agreement.
The Polish Chairman of the Conference gleefully danced on a table at its conclusion. Amid such celebration, it would have been impudent to remark how little, in real world terms, was actually accomplished at it.
In fact, the conference was a bureaucratic success. That is to say, it involved an enormous amount of activity by tens of thousands of officials and politicians, played out before the world’s media and followed avidly by tenacious non-governmental organizations and demonstrators, and held in an attractive foreign locale. Thousands of hours of meetings, workshops and plenaries succeeded in producing an agreed text. A sure sign of this was that the concluding press release announced that there will be sixteen follow-up sub-conferences in attractive locales over the next year in preparation for the 25th Conference of the Parties.
No “expert” has yet published an assessment of what the conference actually accomplished beyond the bureaucratic success. The avowed objectives of the conference were “to operationalize the implementation of the COP21 Paris agreement, to promote increased international cooperation in achieving climate-related goals, and to encourage greater ambition, meaning the adoption of more stringent goals for greenhouse gas emissions.”
It is useful to start by recalling what COP21 in 2015 accomplished and, more specifically, what it did not accomplish. COP21 was successfully portrayed to the world’s media as a great success because, in essence, it avoided the problem that had sunk most of its twenty predecessors – it abandoned the task of trying to set internationally agreed and legally-binding greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. In place of this, it created a “political consensus” around three rather vague commitments. First, the Parties agreed on the notional goal that they should take collective action to avoid having average global temperatures rise by more than two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. Second. each country would henceforth submit five-year plans indicating how it would address greenhouse gas emissions, with the general expectation that the developed countries would impose on themselves more stringent goals than the developing countries. Third, the Parties re-endorsed the decision taken previously at Cancun that a Global Climate Fund would be established to fund mitigation and adaptation in developing countries and to which the “Annex II” countries (mostly OECD members) would collectively contribute at least $100 billion a year by 2020.
In retrospect, the failure to set legally binding emission reduction commitments was wise. With the possible exception of a few European countries, no other Party has succeeded in reducing emissions in accordance with its political commitments. This was no surprise, as the history of emission reduction targets since 1992 (when the OCED countries first established the practice of setting them) is that, with few exceptions, they are never met. Global greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 were the highest in history, having risen in all but three of the last 27 years, and they are on track to be considerably higher in 2018. Of the three largest country emitters, China, the United States and India, none of them has accepted a political commitment to actually reduce emissions in the period to 2030, although the United States is doing so thanks to the significant growth in natural gas supplies to displace coal in power generation. All major sources of analysis of future energy supply, demand and emissions (i.e. including the International Energy Agency, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, EXXON and British Petroleum) project that emissions will continue to grow in the period to 2040 and probably beyond.
Although the commitments to contribute up to $100 billion per year to the Green Climate Fund have not formally begun, the actions taken to date are not promising. It is not clear how much has been contributed since the beginning of the fund. Some reports indicate that it may be less than $10 billion, of which only $1.4 billion has been committed to projects. Meanwhile, the discussions on the future sources and distribution of the funds by country have not gone well at all. The announcement by the U.S. Administration that it will withdraw from the Paris Agreement will eliminate what was expected to be the single largest source of the funds. There is no agreed formula for determining what each Annex 2 country should contribute. Even more contentious is the absence of any agreement as to the entitlements of the receiving countries. Many of them insist that the funds need not be directed to mitigation and adaptation and, in fact, constitute “compensation” by the developed countries for their past GHG emissions. Similarly, many developing countries have insisted that they should not be obligated to account to the United Nations for how they use the funds they receive. Some have insisted that $100 billion a year is merely the beginning of much higher obligations on the developed countries in future. India, for example, has indicated that it alone will require a least $1 trillion from the fund. It even remains unclear whether China, with the second largest economy in the world, will be a recipient from the fund.
COP 24 did not even attempt to address the issues that were not resolved in Paris. Instead, it focused on the subjects that bureaucrats are experts at addressing – process and procedures.
What Did the Conference Decide?
The core of what COP24 accomplished concerns the new obligations that countries have accepted in terms of their reporting. First, they agreed that they will all be governed by the same reporting guidelines, so that countries like China and India will report using the same templates and definitions as countries like Germany and Canada. They will report early and often. The “transparency” provisions cover seven types of information countries should provide to the UN, including notably emissions reporting, progress towards meeting climate “pledges”, adaptation, climate impacts (i.e. based on the thesis that global warming is already causing extreme weather events), and climate finance paid or received.
The United Nations will receive these reports and analyze them and then, no doubt, draw public attention to countries that have not adhered to their plans or succeeded in meeting targets. It remains unclear whether, like the International Energy Agency, teams of “experts” drawn largely from the UN bureaucracy, will conduct audits and visit countries to investigate the diligence with which countries are proceeding. The conference agreed to set up an “expert committee” that is “facilitative”, “non-adversarial” and “non-punitive”.
The objective of this should be clear to all. A country like Canada, for example, does not need an international bureaucracy to look over its shoulder, nor does it fail to report regularly to the Canadian public on government expenditures. The so-called “transparency” is a mechanism intended to give more ammunition to those who wish to criticize governments for not meeting political targets – even when the targets themselves are driven by international pressures and have little relevance to the costs that they impose. It is an aid to shaming and the imposition of domestic political pressure.
There was an effort by the UN and several countries to broaden the range of required reporting to include “loss and damage” caused by climate change. This is driven by the desire of some countries to establish yet another fund to be financed by the developed countries like Canada, and which would pay for repairing damages caused by extreme weather events. The effort to make this a reporting requirement was defeated (this time), although it was left open to each country to report on it if it wished.
The setting of process, procedures, reporting rules, and schedules for meetings is what officials do. It itself, it marks merely the waste of millions of dollars on endless bureaucratic activity and travel to pleasant meeting places. If that were all it meant, it would be irritating but fairly harmless in the greater scheme of other economic burdens being imposed by the global climate industry. Ironically, the international process, ever enhanced and expanded, constantly engages politicians and raises the public profile of the climate issue, even as the global emissions endlessly and irresistibly grow.