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At COP24, Paris proved its worth

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WWF’s Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, President of COP20, in conversation with COP24 president Michał Kurtyka and COP21 President Laurent Fabius, in Katowice, Poland.

It was a bruising two weeks at the UN climate talks (COP24) in Katowice, Poland. There were times when it seemed unlikely that we would get approval of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1.5°C report, a credible Paris Agreement rulebook, and a strong push for new, more ambitious national emissions targets, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), by 2020.

But in the end we got all these things and more from COP24 – a strong signal that the world is determined to move ahead on climate change under the Paris Agreement. Enough of the rulebook is in place to operationalise the agreement. We should now work towards the next milestone, the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit in September 2019, when we expect countries, supported by non-state actors, to set out how they plan to close the gap between their existing targets and what climate scientists say is necessary to prevent dangerous climate change.

As we look forward, however, it is important to also look back at the lessons we can learn from COP24.

7 lessons learned from COP24

  • The first is the importance of the just transition. While the Gilets Jaune protests in France embrace a wide range of grievances, they were triggered by a fuel tax that would have increased energy costs for working people. If low-carbon policies and measures disproportionately burden the poor in society, or leave out those who make their living from fossil fuels, they will fail.
  • The second is the importance of the next generation. Katowice saw some inspiring interventions from young leaders, such as Greta Thunberg, a 15-year old student from Sweden. She called out the hypocrisy of our political leaders claiming that they love their children above all else, while “stealing their future in front of their very eyes”.
  • The next lesson is that we are moving from a time of urgency to a time of emergency. Around the world, in developed and developing countries alike, we are seeing, on almost a daily basis, the effects of a warming climate. From the Arctic to Australia, the Antarctic to China, and from Japan to California, we are seeing the terrifying consequences of our increasing emissions of greenhouse gasses.
  • This leads to the next lesson on the importance of climate science. Despite all the efforts of the climate deniers and the fossil fuel industry lobbyists, there is growing recognition that climate science is robust, rigorous and central to how we respond to the challenge. The 1.5°C special report has been fundamental. Its review of the science has transformed the debate, and sent a clear message: that every fraction of a degree of warming matters to human life and to natural ecosystems.
  • Another lesson from COP24 is that the trends in climate finance are, once more, moving in the right direction. But developed countries are still far from reaching the goal of mobilizing $100 billion to developing countries by 2020. At COP24, new pledges – from Germany, Norway and the World Bank, among others – sent the right signals. But we have a long way to go: in parallel with delivering the billions promised from developed to developing countries, we need to shift the trillions of investments that ultimately damage our climate, and ensure that all investments and financial flows worldwide are aligned with climate and development objectives. We must ensure that those who are most responsible for climate change support those who are least responsible and facing a total loss of their way of life.
  • The sixth lesson relates to the emergence of new leadership. Illustrating the truly global nature of the fight against climate change, the High Ambition Coalition has taken up the mantle of climate leadership abdicated by the United States. Its members – including the EU, Norway, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, New Zealand and Costa Rica – have pledged, in a strong statement, to increase their climate ambition to 2020 and beyond; WWF supports this statement. China also continues to solidly support the Paris effort; whether they step up their ambition by 2020 will be key.
  • The seventh lesson is the growing role of the business sector. Although non-state actors were not given an important formal role in this COP outside of participation in the Talanoa Dialogue, business groups have been vocal in their support for climate action – stepping up their climate ambition at the Global Climate Action Summit and the 30X30 Forests, Food and Land Challenge in September 2018 – and in their recognition of the importance of the issue to their long-term success. They are likely to play a more prominent role both in the UN’s September climate summit, and in  Chile at COP25, which takes place next November.

Paris Agreement proves its resilience at COP24

But, to return to my starting point, what COP24 demonstrated above all is the resilience of the Paris Agreement. As we have seen time and time again in the international climate talks, political winds change, progressive leaders are replaced with reactionaries, and near-term crises divert our collective attention from longer-term concerns.

The Paris Agreement was designed to weather such storms. COP24 showed that the institutional framework needed for an ambitious international response to global warming remains firmly in place. Leadership and ambition are renewable resources, and we need to actively cultivate and nurture them in the coming months and years.

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal is leader of WWF’s global climate and energy practice. He is based in Lima, Peru.

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