COP24: an unexpected triumph of multilateralism

All the odds were against Katowice. But participants snatched partial victory from the jaws of total defeat

The recent United Nations climate summit in Poland closed with political success. The 196 countries party to the convention unanimously passed the Katowice Package – a 130-page document setting out how they will implement the 2015 Paris Agreement. This is an essential and crucial step in ensuring the agreement comes into force in 2020.

From the outset it was known that the conference would be rough going. Proceedings initially stalled after Turkey demanded it be recognised as a developing nation rather than a developed one – a question that goes beyond mere terminology; only one of these categories will be able to apply for external assistance in the fight against climate change. Turkey’s intervention shone a spotlight on the issue of firmly committing developed countries to supporting countries with less developed economies, and ensured that this would be one of the key subjects of negotiations.

At Katowice the logic of multilateral negotiation won out, in line with the model developed in 2015 in Paris

Resistance from the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait made it impossible to agree the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which had been prepared especially for the COP24 summit. The report put forward the status of scientific knowledge about climate change and its potential consequences. It also recommended rapid and radical measures on a global scale: to cut greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030, and to reach complete neutrality of emissions by 2050. This is in order to achieve the Paris Agreement’s strategic goal, i.e. to stabilise the atmospheric temperature rise at 1.5°C above the pre-industrial level.

No surprises, then, that both scientists and community organisations have criticised COP24 and its participants for lack of ambition: the declared scale of greenhouse emissions reduction will only restrict the rise in temperature to 3°C. Pretending not to see scientific knowledge when it is politically inconvenient will not change this fact. There should be no illusions that the Katowice Package solves the problem of climate change and guarantees a safe future.

The international climate process within the UN was initiated at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Despite a very clear and technical objective – to halt global warming – from the very start it has been a political process, the dynamics of which are dictated by policy formed in individual countries. Anyone who doubted this was rudely disabused in 1992 itself when the then US president, George HW Bush declared in Rio that “the American way of life is not up for negotiation.” This was essentially reconfirmed in 2001 by his son, George W Bush, who began his work as president by withdrawing the United States from the Kyoto Protocol; naturally, he was motivated by national interests. Donald Trump joined this established tradition when he withdrew his country from the Paris Agreement in 2017. Just ahead of the summit in Katowice he repeated that he does not believe in climate change or what scientists say. So COP24 almost looks like a sort of miracle given this history.

In fact, at Katowice the logic of multilateral negotiation won out, in line with the model developed in 2015 in Paris. This means that the world is not divided into political segments. Instead, the full agency of all participants is recognised, as is their responsibility according to the principle of interdependence. In an increasingly unstable word, the UN Climate Convention has become a platform for “multilogue” and negotiations leading to real results, even if they are not entirely satisfactory.

Climate process observers remember well how costly it is to place too large a bet with nearly 200 players in the game. The COP15 summit in Copenhagen in 2009 showed this, in the midst of a financial crisis. The current situation appears trickier still. The European Union and the United Kingdom are preoccupied with Brexit. France is dealing with social upheavals. Germany is undergoing a change in power. And there is also the wave of right-wing populism and anti-liberal governments washing onto successive European and world capitals. Despite all this, it was possible to find a common stance in Katowice.

So what if it has not ensured we escape the apocalypse? It is, of course, worth remembering that the political process is crucial to achieving success, but this in turn is governed by the mood in society. And this has changed fundamentally over the last decade – practically across the whole world. On the one hand, there is greater awareness of the ecological threat and the consequences of global warming. On the other hand, there are protests such as the “yellow vests” movement in France which show that concern over the climate cannot lead to a further neoliberal revision based on burdening the poorest with the costs of a pro-environmental transformation.

The climate process was unexpectedly technocratic by definition. But it has transformed into an opportunity to renew political discourse along both international lines and at the level of the individual country. It has also breathed new sense into such concepts as: modernisation, development, and social justice. All that remains is to hope that the new flows of political and social energy will lead to a positive breakthrough in the political arena – before the ecological “overshoot” comes to pass.

Edwin Bendyk is a Council Member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, and a writer and journalist who heads the Center for Future Studies at the Collegium Civitias.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.