Multi-lateralism is alive, but in need of adrenaline

Damian Ryan, Director, Strategy and Impact
Reading time: 3 minutes
17 December 2018
Christiana Figueres COP 24

Better than many expected but well short of what the world needs. That seems to be the general consensus from many observers and participants at COP24, the annual UN climate conference that concluded in Katowice, Poland over the weekend.

Going into the two-week summit, governments had two principle goals. First, agree the so-called ‘Paris Rulebook’ that would allow countries to fully implement the 2015 Paris Agreement and second, send a clear political signal of ambition. On the first point, negotiators largely delivered. On the second less so.

Regarding the Rulebook, governments will feel sufficiently pleased with their work, with UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa calling it an "excellent achievement". In part, this is because at the start of COP it was not clear Parties would even leave with an agreed text. But – and this is a crucial point – negotiators also managed to produce a single Rulebook, rather than one with different rules for developed and developing countries.

This is no small thing. For one, it meant considerable compromise plus leadership from key parties like China and the EU. But equally importantly this outcome also leaves the door open for a future US administration to re-join Paris. Had a two-track Rulebook been agreed, with say different rules for China and India, then the likelihood of any future US President – Republican or Democrat – supporting it would have swiftly plummeted to zero.

The success in securing the Rulebook is also an important win for multilateralism. Prior to COP there were worries that President’s Trump rhetoric and the election in Brazil of populist Jair Bolsanaro were rattling the foundations of international climate action. Brazil did block agreement on the carbon market’s section of the Rulebook (which has been kicked down the road to COP25 and has more to do with national interest than populism) but otherwise countries clearly saw it in their individual and collective interest to produce a reasonably robust rulebook. This is a good thing.

On ambition, however, the story is less inspiring. Many had wanted to see an unequivocal statement that welcomed the IPCC’s recent Special Report on 1.5oC of warming and a clear path to ratcheting ambition in 2020. This did not materialise and instead countries have effectively punted this discussion to the next major climate gathering, the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit in September, which happens during Climate Week NYC 2019.

Political calculation based on the needs and priorities of COP partly explains the outcome. Ultimately, getting a practical Rulebook across the line was more important than a political declaration on ambition – and so this is where negotiating time was mainly invested. At the same time, however, the failure to properly acknowledge the urgency of action underlines the political challenges that remain to securing a step change in collective and individual country ambition in 2020.

So where to from here? UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres probably articulated the path ahead most clearly with the statement "ambition, ambition, ambition". With the Rulebook effectively nailed down, this is certainly now the priority of governments and the broader climate community.

For businesses, states, regions, cities and investors, this makes 2019 another critical year for action. Over the coming 12 months, non-state actors will need to double down on their public and private efforts to demonstrate the benefits of strong climate action. COP24 has given us the firm basis for building a robust international climate regime, keeping multilateralism alive. We now need the political adrenaline to kick start the next, essential shift in ambition.

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