Stakes are high at UN climate talks

By Lou Leonard, Senior Vice President, Climate Change and Energy, WWF-US


It’s not an understatement to say that there’s a lot riding on future of international climate diplomacy at this round of UN climate talks in Katowice, Poland (known as “COP 24”). Three years ago, the Paris Agreement sent an unmistakable signal to private sector markets that the world economy will decarbonize in coming decades. It is vital to the global climate transition that the signals from COP 24 in Poland are even stronger.

The stakes are high. One week ago, researchers with the Global Carbon Project revealed that global carbon dioxide emissions of have reached the highest levels on record. One month ago, the world’s top climate science body released a report (called for under the Paris Agreement itself) to assess progress toward meeting the Agreement’s goals. Their finding was stark: we have just 12 years to halve global emissions or risk facing the most dramatic impacts of climate change.

With this backdrop, both companies and the public at large understandably are looking for a signal from governments in Poland. A few questions loom particularly large: Will governments take seriously the science report they commissioned? Will they take steps to increase the ambition of the climate targets set ahead of Paris before 2020? And which nations will step up in the days ahead to ensure a strong outcome at COP 24?

On Saturday, the lines were drawn for a political standoff this coming week. Saudi Arabia with support from Russia, Kuwait and then the United States, sought to limit the introduction of the IPCC’s scientific report, Global Warming of 1.5 ºC. Nearly every other nation stood up to oppose this effort. While this skirmish was only a precursor to the larger political struggle ahead this week, it showed that opposition to a strong outcome in Poland is limited to a small group of countries, who are lined up against the rest of the world.

Now the question is whether a strong coalition of governments will stand up to this small bloc and produce the kind of strong outcome we need. Recent attention to protests in France, a new government in Brazil and, of course, the US administration’s promise to pull out of the Paris Agreement, lead some to wonder whether it will be possible to build a strong force for climate action at COP 24 and beyond.

But this view overlooks a significant piece of how the Paris Agreement was designed to operate, not to mention the market signals that are already ushering in a transition from fossil fuels in many countries.

First, the Paris Agreement was innovative in providing opportunities for the private sector and subnational governments to engage directly in its implementation. This is important because when countries first set their climate pledges before Paris, they largely understated the contributions of the companies and local governments driving their economies. And since Paris, these corporate and local leaders have woken up to their own potential to reduce emissions in a way that improves the bottom line for their shareholders and communities.

The collective scale of these reductions is significant. Since 2015, nearly 500 companies have committed to set climate targets in line with the highest goals of the Paris Agreement. Around the world more than 70 cities, representing 425 million people, have committed to implementing ambitious climate action plans before 2020. In the United States alone, recent expert analyses have shown that these actors have the potential to drive half to two-thirds of the reductions needed to meet the US Paris target.

These actors are also increasingly raising their voice domestically to drive the energy and climate transition. In the last year and a half, new coalitions of business and local governments have emerged in Japan, Mexico, and Argentina under the banner of Alliances for Climate Action. The American We Are Still In coalition will join these other coalitions at COP 24 to reassure other governments that strong action on climate change is alive and well outside of the federal government. This signal from actors in the real US economy is providing an important counterweight to the official US delegation at the talks, further undermining its ability to block a positive outcome.

Momentum supplied by the private sector and local governments should give a political lift to governments looking to make significant advances this week. In that outcome, nations need to commit to go home from Poland and revise their national climate targets before 2020. They can do so with the confidence that companies and other leaders will be ready to work alongside them to find new opportunities for climate action.

With a strong signal from Poland, we can grow momentum for a climate transition that protects both people and corporate supply chains from the worst impacts of climate change.