Without any additional policy to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, it is probable that the world will face a temperature rise of 3°C or more in the coming decades – with catastrophic effects for the environment and for mankind.

However, the ‘Paris Agreements‘, an international accord to tackle climate change, were signed by 195 countries in December 2015 following the 22nd United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP). The proposals shall come into effect in the year 2020.

These agreement set the basis for collaboration between countries with the objective of “keeping a global temperature rise this century well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

Last week, the latest edition of the summit, the COP 23, took place in Bonn, Germany. The small island nation of Fiji oversaw this year’s proceedings, which were less political – and therefore less well publicised – than the previous edition.

COP 23 Bonn
The COP 23 climate summit was held in Bonn, Germany, from 6-17 November 2017. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

An overall success?

The COP 23’s main aim was to begin the process of outlining the Paris rulebook, a technical document that will be finalised in 2018. With the worst possible outcome thought to be “ending up with empty pages”, the summit was considered a success: some of the content for the document was outlined and agreed upon.

Another notable step forwards was the inauguration of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, which now has the support of 27 countries, is committed to quickly diminishing the use of coal – the fossil fuel that creates the highest level of CO₂ emissions per unit of energy generated.

Also for the first time, the UNFCCC recognised the role of indigenous peoples and local communities in climate change mitigation, establishing concrete mechanisms and funding to support them.

Some difficulties

A troubling prelude to the Bonn summit was the decision of the Donald Trump’s administration to pull out of the Paris Agreements earlier this year. This made the US – the world’s second largest polluter – the only country that is not part of the accords.

However, this did not play a fundamental role in last week’s negotiations: some European countries – and even some individuals – committed to increase their monetary contribution to make up for the loss of the US’ funds. Some, such as UN’s chief climate negotiator Christiana Figueres, went so far as to thank President Trump for having “shored up the world’s resolve on climate action”.

The only event at the COP to involve the US featured an executive of Peabody, a US coal company known most widely for having funded campaigns denying climate change. Having been sent by the Trump administration to promote fossil fuels, the majority of audience sung protest songs and walked out of the auditorium chanting.

One of the more fundamental issues raised during the summit was the apparent lack of commitment from developed countries to cut emissions to levels that can help poorer nations cope with changes in their climate. Additionally, the lack of specifications on the financial resources to be contributed by rich nations was also widely criticised.

Finally, there is concern over the lack of a clear pledge to reduce the usage of coal by some fundamental actors, such as Australia, India and even the hosts, Germany.

What comes next?

The developments of the COP 23 offer some hope for the future of the Paris Agreements. However, as stated in an open letter published last week and signed by 15,000 scientists from around the world, the future remains far from certain; and the world still appears to be on the brink of climactic and environmental catastrophe.

Indeed, levels of CO₂ rose again in 2017, having remained stable for three years, casting doubts on the reality of the objective of staying within a “safe” level of temperature rise of 2°C.

All eyes are now on next year’s COP to be held in Katowice, Poland – a country with large, strategically important coal reserves. Before then, negotiators, scientists and decision-makers will have to work together to outline and agree on the remaining content for the Paris rulebook.

In the words of Laurence Tubiana, France’s climate ambassador: “There is no time to rest on our laurels, we are not on track. If we are serious about tackling climate change, everyone will need to step up and put forward ambitious climate commitments”.

This, as ever, will not be easy – and a lack of firm pledges in next year’s meeting could sound a death knell for the accord. According to Corinne le Quéré of the Global Carbon Project: “it could already be too late”.

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