The Paris Agreement was and remains a milestone agreement in climate change policy.
Never before have countries spoken in so united voice about what their aspirations are for climate change outcomes, what kinds of commitments they aspired to, and how we can address climate change at a global scale.
Yet, strangely these last two weeks have seen both unity and division: unity in most countries understanding what the IPCC report is about and how urgent action is needed.
The science was not the only issue of division on the table however, many issues relating to technology and finance and also adaptation seemed to stall when the countries tried to formulate decisions and text that would support their national priorities.
This COP has been heralded both as a failure of ambition and an amazing effort to get the rules on the table.
Based on post-COP24 commentary, the main “fails” and “positives” seem to fall into four main areas: IPCC 1.5 report, discussions around climate finance (including loss and damage), Article 6 vs other rules, and civil society aspects of the convention.
Is climate diplomacy the best way to get things done?
The process has raised discussions as to whether this form of climate diplomacy, given the needed urgency to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions, is the best mechanism to deal with climate crises.
Many observers and civil society participants are clearly fed up with the process, with younger activists like the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg consistently calling for more responsibility and true accountability from our political leaders.
In fact, many of the commentators post COP24 have noted that the failure of the COP to deliver true ambition and emission reduction commitments means that everyone else now can safely forget political leaders and start looking for another kind of leadership outside of politics.
The Convention of Parties and all its associated bodies are a complex beast that has been unpacked for example here to an extent.
The Convention of Parties has exploded into so many different segments that it is increasingly impossible even for the negotiators to really keep up with all the information.
The Paris Agreement in particular is difficult given that many of the agenda items come up in different places: for example, finance is negotiated in multiple streams, and adaptation is also coming up in a number of places.
Countries that have only a few negotiators are at disadvantage given that they cannot cover all the agenda items. For example, some island nations can only send a few negotiators due to capacity constraints.
But this is also a challenge for the scientific community who is following the negotiations as it is not at all clear where the most important items come up.
What is even less clear is how we as scientists can readily identify policy relevant gaps in knowledge and the policy process.
It is even more difficult to get an overall understanding as to where particular areas of interest are debated, and if you are not negotiating, it is nearly impossible to even understand why particular things are said in the open meetings.
Meetings are open if the countries agree to have the observers in the room.
Yet, most of the country positions have been agreed on beforehand and so open meetings as such are often about restating a country position.
For observers, this means that most deals and discussions are actually held behind closed doors and therefore it is very difficult to get a proper understanding of the actual decision-making process.
As a scientist following the convention especially on climate change adaptation, I have to say that attending a COP is somewhat of a confusing experience.
You have to try to meet with the negotiators, read blogs that others are writing during the COP, and try to meet with people who know what is actually going on.
Here the long-term experience really is extremely valuable and people like Saleem Huq who have attended all the COPs can only have an adequate understanding of the broader picture that is emerging.
Big ticket items: Indigenous Platform and IPCC 1.5 report
This COPs two big ticket items have been the “Local Communities and Indigenous People’s Platform” and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 1.5 Special Report.
The countries supported and made a decision to establish the Local Communities and Indigenous People’s platform.
This was followed by the very first speaking slot by an Indigenous Elder addressing the countries present, followed by a group of Indigenous youth singing.
It truly was a historical moment as this is the first time in the UNFCCC history when Indigenous groups can have an official voice in the negotiations.
Yet, while this new form of participation has been welcomed by all the countries in the end, the report that the countries themselves asked for (IPCC 1.5 report) did not receive same welcome.
In fact, it did not receive a welcome in the end as countries like Saudi Arabia, USA, Kuwait and Russia refused to “welcome” the report and said they would like to mainly note the outcome.
This caused a backlash from other countries but also from many authors involved in producing the report that had an extremely short turnaround and was asked to deliver so much with limited time.
The report was commissioned by the UNFCCC countries as they wanted to have a better understanding what a warmer world could look like, and how fast they should be reducing their emissions.
The actual final text from COP24 now welcomes “the timely completion of the report”.
Yet, some commentators have said that this refusal to accept the IPCC report has actually resulted in massive publicity for the report itself and in the end is serving to spread the main messages.
Response of the global research community
The global research community has been watching in somewhat dismay how their science is now suddenly taken hostage by the negotiations.; the same science that these governments asked for.
But, we are not staying quiet about our concerns.
The high-level statement that I had the opportunity to deliver in the COP plenary addressed just this issue as the last lines of our statement says:
“In conclusion, we would like to express our deep concern over the recent discussions on the latest IPCC report, the summary of which was approved by the members of the IPCC. We urge the same governments in this UNFCCC process, where research and systematic observation are vital to enable robust evidence-based policy, to take the IPCC report and the research underpinning it as seriously as we do.”
From our perspective, robust policy decisions must be made on the best available evidence.
As someone who works in adaptation science and is passionate about contributing to the global and national policy processes, I do sincerely hope that the alignment between science and policy decisions could become stronger.
Yet, many of the UNFCCC decisions and texts are viewed through national priorities and interests, which is why it takes to early morning hours to negotiate.
The UNFCCC operates by consensus and hence if even one country opposes a particular text, it cannot be included.
I asked my colleague who used to negotiate whether he ever got discouraged or upset by the slowness of the process.
He smiled and said that it is pretty amazing when you have nearly 200 countries agreeing on global climate action.
So, perhaps we do not need to despair but rather look for opportunities to contribute in this process to best of our ability, and also pursue climate leadership wherever we can both in our professional and personal lives.