Delegates from nearly 200 countries have assembled this month in Katowice, Poland — the heart of coal country — to try to move the ball forward on battling climate change.
It’s now the 24th annual meeting, or “COP” — conference of the parties — under the landmark U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the United States signed under then-President George H.W. Bush in 1992. More significantly, it’s the third such meeting since nations adopted the Paris climate agreement in 2015, widely seen at the time as a landmark moment in which, at last, developed and developing countries would share a path toward cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
But the surge of optimism that came with Paris has faded lately. The United States, the second largest greenhouse gas emitter, said it would withdraw from the agreement, though it has not formally done so yet. Many other countries are off target when it comes to meeting their initial round of Paris promises — promises that are widely acknowledged to be too weak to begin with. And emissions have begun to rise after a brief hiatus that had lent some hope of progress.
The latest science, meanwhile, is pointing toward increasingly dire outcomes. The amount of global warming that the world already has seen — 1 degree Celsius, 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit — has upended the Arctic, is killing coral reefs and may have begun to destabilize a massive part of Antarctica. A new report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), requested by the countries that assembled in Paris to be timed for this year’s meeting, finds a variety of increasingly severe effects as soon as a rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius arrives — an outcome that can’t be avoided without emissions cuts so steep that they would require societal transformations without any known historical parallel, the panel found.
It’s in this context that countries are meeting in Poland, with expectations and stakes high.
So what’s on the agenda in Poland?
The answer starts with the Paris agreement, which was negotiated three years ago, has been signed by 197 countries and is a mere 27 pages long. It covers a lot, laying out a huge new regime not only for the world as a whole to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, but for each individual country to regularly make new emissions-cutting pledges, strengthen them over time, report emissions to the rest of the world and much more. It also addresses financial obligations that developed countries have to developing countries and how technologies will be transferred to help that.
But those 27 pages leave open to interpretation many fine points for how it will all work. So in Poland, countries are performing a detailed annotation of the Paris agreement, drafting a “rule book” that will span hundreds of pages.
That may sound bureaucratic, but it’s key to addressing many of the flash points. For instance, it will be hard for countries to trust that their fellow nations are cutting emissions without clear standards for reporting and vetting. Not everybody is ready to accept a process like the one followed in the United States, which not only publishes its emissions totals but also has an independent review of the findings.
“A number of the developing countries are resisting that kind of model for themselves. They see it as an intrusion on their sovereignty,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and one of the many participants in Poland this week. “That’s going to be a pretty tough issue at the end of the day.”
It’s hardly the only one. Also unclear is what countries will do after the time frames on their current emissions-cutting promises are up, which for many is 2025 or 2030. Will all countries then start reporting newer and more ambitious promises every five years? Every 10 years?
That really matters when five years of greenhouse gas emissions — currently about 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually — are capable of directly affecting the planet’s temperature.