The United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change, simply the Katowice Climate Change Conference, ended with the adoption of a 133-page rulebook for the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement – culmination of three years of negotiations. Overall, while the rulebook is a step forward in ensuring global climate change action, it makes little effort to ensure protection of those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The adoption of renewable energies and other forms of climate protections, especially in the developing world, is not a simple affair. Such action is anticipated to cost billions if not trillions of dollars. Obligations under the new rulebook are minimal – and COP24 portends developing countries taking on substantial obligations for climate change. Provision of climate finance is however a necessity both for protecting the world’s most vulnerable populations and for achieving more ambitious temperature goals.

Negotiating blocs sought to address significant issues that pertain to global climate change governance, including the implementation of nationally determined contributions, climate finance, transparency and accountability. While the Paris Agreement provides general rules rather than specific guidelines on these issues, the rulebook provides the operational details. Parties generally agreed on issues such as climate pledge guidance, Article 4 of the agreement; climate finance reporting, Article 9; global stocktake, or inventory, Article 14; and compliance. Still, other issues proved more contentious.

The rulebook does oblige developed countries to report on climate finance provided to developing countries and provides guidelines for this report. However, the rules on climate finance remain largely permissive. Developed countries retain the right to determine what is climate financing, and this may include funds not traditionally classified as climate finance such as concessional and non-concessional loans, guarantees, equity and investments, whether from public or private sources. This creates leeway for developed countries to include loans and other types of funding as climate finance, and thereby render the Paris Agreement’s target of raising $100 billion annually by 2020 redundant as a wide range of funds are now considered climate finance. This seems to be a step backwards from the framework convention, which requires that developed countries commit to “new and additional” financial resources in favor of developing countries.

Advanced economies agreed to mobilise $100 billion per year by 2020 to assist developing nations though so far per capita funding has not kept pace with per capita emissions. Source: Green Climate Fund
Advanced economies agreed to mobilise $100 billion per year by 2020 to assist developing nations though so far per capita funding has not kept pace with per capita emissions. Source: Green Climate Fund

No clarity

The rulebook fails to provide clarity or specifics on how the existing climate fund target of $100 billion or the transfer of technology to developing states might be achieved. Provision of finance and technology to developing countries is not a new requirement under international climate change law, and the missing link has always been its implementation. Real success of the rulebook with regard to climate finance would have been specific rules that ensure developed countries carried out this transfer. The rulebook, for all practical purposes, has not enhanced provision of financial support for developing countries and merely provides for collection of data on finance when such funding is provided – it includes no guidelines ensuring that the funds are given in the first place. The rulebook requires a report, necessary only when there has been a transfer of finance or technology.

Another shortfall of the rulebook is an inability to provide obligatory rules on loss and damage suffered by vulnerable and often the least developed states due to climate change despite having contributed the least to its cause. The climate change regime has yet to provide a system for supporting those suffering loss and damage from the effects of climate change. The Paris Agreement recognised the importance of addressing loss and damage, and the expectation was for the rulebook to flesh out this recognition into specifics requiring action on the part of wealthier nations to ensure the protection of smaller states. Island states such as Kiribati, Fiji, Solomon Islands and the Marshall islands may have to relocate all or part of their populace to new locations due to climate change. Unfortunately, the rulebook merely states that parties “may take into account, as appropriate…efforts to avert, minimise and address loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change”.

Instead of creating an obligation, the rulebook again uses permissive wording in discussing the need to protect the world’s most vulnerable from climate change. The rulebook’s failure to create an obligation leaves small island and other vulnerable countries without protection.

The new rulebook offers operational details with minimal obligations. Source: World Resources Institute
The new rulebook offers operational details with minimal obligations. Source: World Resources Institute

No ambitious target

Differentiation was another issue in the rulebook, touching on the dichotomy between developing and developed nations in climate change negotiations. While parties at the conference agreed on the need for transparency rules, there were contentious debates on whether the principle of differentiation should apply to the application of rules.

In the end, the conference decided that a single set of rules be applicable to all countries, permitting flexibility as necessary in the light of each country’s capacity. This is a significant development. Prior to this time, only developed nations had an obligation to report on their emissions, and the new standard reveals both the heightened concern and the willingness of developing countries to take up legal obligations under international climate-change law.

Parties failed to reach agreement on implementation of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which provides that parties establish a market mechanism for trading carbon emissions as had initially been set up under the Kyoto Protocol.

This issue drove the conference into an extra day of meetings and was deferred for discussion until December and COP25 to be held in Chile. Brazil insisted, with quiet support from China and India, that carbon credits accrued under the Kyoto mechanism should be eligible for accounting by the new market mechanism adopted under the rulebook. Several parties resisted the plan, describing verification mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol as weak and ineffective, thus suggesting that credits under that system could not be trusted.

The rulebook also fails to set an ambitious target required to deal with the urgency of climate change as announced in the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Certain countries such as the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait, opposed adoption of the IPCC report that noted the necessity for a 1.5 degrees Celsius emission reduction target before the year 2030.

To achieve this objective, fossil fuels must be completely discontinued by 2050, and rejection of the IPCC report by these major oil producers must be understood in this context. The report’s rejection reveals that lack of political will more than lack of scientific knowledge impedes climate change action. Despite increasing consensus among scientists, urgent action remains subject to the willingness of political figures who lead these negotiations. Political leaders fear the costs and sacrifices required of constituents if new technologies are not found quickly. In developing nations, this entails convincing people that they cannot aspire to more lavish lifestyles while wealthy nations must curtail consumerism.

On the positive side, the rulebook’s adoption helps reinforce confidence in multilateralism given the increasing growth of nationalism in various countries of the world, especially the June 2017 withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement. The willingness of states to continue to come together to take joint actions for tacking climate change is commendable – yet the world is sorely in need of leaders who will invest in research, alternative fuels and protection of the vulnerable.

This article first appeared on Yale Global Online.