What we can take away from Katowice

COP24 was neither a roaring success nor an abject failure, but the next 12 months will have to deliver in a big way.

The venue for the Katowice summit, built on the site of a former coal waste dump. PHOTO imago/EastNews

The venue for the Katowice summit, built on the site of a former coal waste dump. PHOTO imago/EastNews

It’s tempting to focus on the many negatives in this year’s climate summit in Poland, but we’ve learned from climate diplomacy to be thankful for small mercies.

So here are some of the mercies. Multilateral cooperation, which is essential if we are to be saved from climate catastrophe, remains alive and resilient in the face of sustained attack.

This crucial summit aimed to write the rules for determining countries’ progress against promised 2030 emissions targets. It was feared that proponents of fossil fuels, led by Donald Trump’s US and including Russia and Saudi Arabia, would derail negotiations. That didn’t happen.

Poland’s government is fiercely opposed to any restriction on its mining and use of coal. It was feared that its hosting of the meeting (the venue in Katowice was built on an old coal waste dump) would fatally compromise outcomes. But it didn’t.

What did happen was less than perfect – and given what science has said about the urgency of cutting emissions it wasn’t even good – but it was as good as could reasonably have been expected.

As Saturday drew to a close, weary conference delegates agreed on rules for how the world’s 200-odd nations will cut carbon pollution and monitor each other’s performance in doing so.

Dominating the fortnight of negotiations was the tension between current economic demands and transparent emissions reduction. Arguing for lenient carbon accounting rules in a proposed global emissions trading system, Brazil led a successful push to set the issue aside for another year.

Having pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement last year (a move that cannot be finalised until 2020), the US joined with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to prevent the meeting accepting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s scientific report on 1.5C of warming.

The US rated poorly in the annual Germanwatch analysis of emissions, renewables, energy use and policy. Released at the meeting, the study examined the 56 countries (plus the European Union) responsible for most of the world’s carbon pollution.

In the first of these reports seven years ago Australia was rated above just 14 other countries. This year only five countries – Taiwan, South Korea, Iran, the US and Saudi Arabia – came in below us.

I’m sure the Australian government would have a different take on those figures, but it has not given us the benefit of knowing what that is. For many years it has avoided discussing such matters.

It came as a jolt to see Australia, alone among western democracies with the exception of the US, in the same ballpark as Russia and Saudi Arabia in talking down the dangers of continuing to burn fossil fuels.

Australia was represented at the summit by environment minister Melissa Price and the government’s “ambassador for the environment” Patrick Suckling. While neither mentioned their poor performance appraisal, they did reveal a lot about their approach to climate change.

Price told the meeting that countries needed to “act together” (code for staying within the pack) and of her government’s support for “low-emissions technology investment”, code for technology to capture coal emissions that has been spruiked for decades with little material outcome.

Meanwhile Suckling sat on a panel organised by the Trump administration to put the case that rapidly phasing out fossil fuels was unrealistic and the focus needed to be on using them more efficiently. Like Price, Suckling argued for more carbon capture and storage research.0

In themselves, these statements and actions are entirely defensible. Countries do need to work together. We will continue burning coal for energy for quite a while yet and we should try to minimise resulting emissions. But not at the cost of clean, fully renewable energy.

Outside the bubble of the UN climate framework and the Katowice meeting, the UK and France were each engaged in their own separate battles to defend national sovereignty and governance.

Agitators aplenty are stirring the pot, including former White House adviser Steve Bannon, who in public and private meetings has been encouraging Europe’s malcontents to undermine the authority of their governments. We need that like a hole in the head.

There is yet cause for hope. According to a report by the environmental group 350.org, over 1000 institutions in 37 countries, covering banking, insurance, pensions and religion and managing nearly $8 trillion worth of investments, have now committed to divest from fossil fuels.

That sort of development, plus the relentless lobbying by non-government groups during and in between climate summits, are reminders that while government and diplomacy remain central to fighting climate change, they are not the only game in town.

From now until the end of the 2019 climate summit in Chile, the world must make substantial advances in strengthening national targets and achieving vastly greater transparency in reporting emissions. If that doesn’t happen, our goose may be, almost literally, cooked.

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