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Will the United Nations' Dire Climate Report Light a Fire Under Negotiators at COP24?

The latest report from the IPCC finds that climate action is both urgent and possible. Political will might be in shorter supply.
Delegates and experts attend the opening ceremony of the 48th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Incheon, South Korea, on October 1st, 2018.

Delegates and experts attend the opening ceremony of the 48th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in Incheon, South Korea, on October 1st, 2018.

In October, the United Nations' top climate panel issued a dire report on the state of climate change. Only drastic and immediate action could prevent more than 1.5 degrees of warming, according to the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the consequences of exceeding that threshold were staggering: the demise of coral reefs, the end of summer Arctic sea ice, and hundreds of millions of people exposed to deadly heat waves, food and water shortages, and extreme weather.

Those findings will serve as a backdrop to a global summit this month in Poland, where world leaders and diplomats will gather in Katowice, a coal-mining town nestled in the Polish rust belt, for COP24, the 24th annual U.N. climate conference. "We now know a lot more than we knew a year ago about how urgent things are," Andrew Steer, the president and chief executive officer of the World Resources Institute, told reporters last week.

It’s been three years since the historic Paris Agreement was hammered out in France at COP21, where nations came together to agree that we must curb global emissions and limit global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. "This COP is the most critical moment in terms of international policy making since Paris itself," says David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute's International Climate Initiative.

In Paris, nations agreed on a goal; this year in Poland, they’ll agree on a plan. (You wouldn’t sign up for a marathon without picking out a training regimen.) That’s where the Paris "Rulebook"—or, more formally, the Paris Agreement Work Program—comes into play. In Poland, negotiators hope to settle on guidelines for how to track, achieve, and ramp up climate commitments expressed in countries' Nationally Determined Contributions.

Global temperatures have already risen roughly 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, and developed and developing nations around the globe are already feeling the effects of this rapid climatic shift. In the latest IPCC report, U.N. climate scientists found that 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming would both have significant and devastating impacts for hundreds of millions of people. Right now, factoring in the globe's current climate commitments, we’re on track for 3 degrees of warming—and the higher temperatures climb, the more difficult and expensive it will be to address the consequences.

The IPCC report casts a spotlight on the importance of the cyclical process of taking action, reviewing progress, and strengthening action, Waskow says. "The report really underscores the critical need to take action as soon as possible. We need to cut emissions roughly in half globally by 2030," he says, "and the report says we're not there yet."

But we can still get there. The IPCC report lays out several strategies for successfully limiting warming, all of which require the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels like coal and oil, and the deployment of carbon-capture technologies to pull excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. "Limiting warming to 1.5 [degrees] is not impossible," Hoesung Lee, the chair of the IPCC, said in a press conference in October, "but will require unprecedented transitions in all aspects of society."

And there is a lot to be optimistic about on that front, Steer told reporters, citing efforts by corporations, governors, and city leaders from around the world to lead the way on renewable energy targets. "But it is nowhere near enough," he went on. "Sometimes as we approach these COPs, one thinks of Nero fiddling as Rome burns. It is simply unacceptable, the lack of pace, the lack of ambition, and that’s why this meeting, uninteresting though many people think it sounds, is actually quite important."

"We still have to see how political leaders and negotiators take this up, but this report has reverberated around the world in ways that hadn't been anticipated. It hasn’t gone unrecognized that you had Sunday talk shows questioning United States leaders and the president himself about it," Waskow says. "Whether it has lit enough of a fire under leaders chairs that they take strong action, that’s the question now before us leading up to the COP."

In a joint statement last week, foreign ministers for the European Union and Central Asia expressed their "deep concern" about the IPCC report’s findings, and called for progress on climate action in Katowice, but with just days to go before the COP, a worrying sign emerged from the G20, the coalition of the world's largest economies. A draft statement from the G20 member countries—which includes, among others, the U.S., the United Kingdom, the E.U., Argentina—obtained by Climate Home News contained a watered-down commitment to the Paris Agreement and made no mention at all of the latest IPCC report.

An anonymous European negotiator told Climate Home News that the G20 presidency was "clearly caving" to pressure from the U.S., and that the G6—which includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the U.K.—will push back on the final version of the statement, creating a potential rift as global leaders gear up for the COP.