U.N. talks deliver ‘fragile balance’ on Paris rules

By Jean Chemnick | 12/17/2018 07:45 AM EST

KATOWICE, Poland — In the waning hours of Saturday night, nations agreed to the 156-page “rulebook” for the Paris Agreement. The results were met with more relief than jubilation.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki leaving the global U.N. climate conference in Katowice, Poland.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki leaving the global U.N. climate conference in Katowice, Poland. Kancelaria Premiera/Flickr

KATOWICE, Poland — The Paris Agreement has completed its uneasy transformation from the idealized expression of world solidarity it was three years ago in the French capital to a set of mechanisms that countries hope will deliver results.

In the waning hours of Saturday night, nations agreed to the 156-page "rulebook" for the Paris compact after negotiations here ran more than a day into overtime. The results were met with more relief than jubilation.

"This deal hangs in fragile balance. We will all have to give in order to gain," Polish Deputy Minister Michal Kurtyka, this year’s president of the Conference of the Parties, or COP, said as he opened the final meeting of these latest U.N. talks with what appeared to be apprehension that some other shoe might drop.


"We did our best to leave no one behind," he told the assembled representatives of nearly 200 countries.

Those delegates had spent two or more weeks here in a nondescript coal town in the Silesia region of Poland, haggling over how to make good on the world’s agreement to keep postindustrial warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, with best efforts at a 1.5 C limit — and how to help countries that will suffer or are suffering even if those goals are met.

It’s been rough sailing.

Countries that hoped the Paris Agreement’s sense of common purpose would translate into quick results were disappointed. Several nations that were proud of their leadership in helping secure Paris spent Katowice in a defensive crouch.

But as delegates streamed out of the conference center into the falling snow a half-hour before midnight Saturday en route to bars, hotels or the airport, there was at least a sense that the COP had done its basic homework in delivering rules for how countries would communicate and share their financial support and emissions cuts.

"Particularly given the broader geopolitical context, this is a pretty solid outcome," said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president for the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions in Washington, D.C. "It delivers what we need to get the Paris Agreement off the ground. Only time will tell how effective the agreement is in mobilizing stronger action, but the fundamentals are in place."

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who made three trips to the conference in between negotiations over Yemen, cast it as a test of the continued strength of multilateralism in a world where nationalism is taking hold.

"Katowice has shown once more the resilience of the Paris Agreement," he said in a statement to the body read by U.N. climate chief Patricia Espinosa. Guterres has asked heads of state to bring new commitments to his own summit on climate change in New York City in September.

But the geopolitical dynamics that made the Paris Agreement possible in 2015 don’t exist anymore, and their absence could be felt at every turn.

While President Obama spent two years helping lay the groundwork for that deal in bilateral agreements, including a marquee 2014 announcement with China that saw that country agree to cap its absolute emissions for the first time, the U.S. delegation here seemed preoccupied with not attracting attention from the White House.

White House energy adviser Wells Griffith hosted one controversial pro-fossil-fuel event but otherwise stayed out of sight. Career diplomat and longtime State Department oceans, environment and science chief Judith Garber, who has been nominated to be ambassador to Cypress, praised fossil fuels as a low-carbon energy source at the Talanoa Dialogue, an activity meant to build empathy and spur greater ambition.

And on the first Saturday night of the conference, the State Department delegation joined Russia, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia — on the eve of the Senate’s vote to stop backing the Saudi war in Yemen over slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi — in blocking language endorsing an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that poor and vulnerable countries felt vindicated their call for sharply increased action and support.

Sticking points

The move, which was opposed by most other parties, cast a pall over the second week of negotiations. It also showed that if U.S. career staff members continue to work constructively toward long-held U.S. objectives, as most observers say, they’re not entirely insulated from President Trump’s rejection of climate science and antipathy to the Paris deal.

The quartet’s concerns over the science did not come up again in the plenary — but mostly because it got what it wanted. The COP decision avoids the word "welcome," which the four countries worried would imply endorsement of the IPCC’s October findings that the world must keep warming below 1.5 C by slashing carbon emissions and fossil fuel use.

Instead, it thanks the scientific community for the "timely completion" of the report, which was commissioned by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris at the insistence of small island states and other vulnerable countries that hoped that it would become a benchmark for future Paris pledges. And it "invites parties to make use of the information" in their future commitments. It also includes a reference to the sixth IPCC assessment report, due out in three to four years.

Ayman Shasly, a lead negotiator for Saudi Arabia who strenuously objected to the "welcome" language when the Maldives proposed it, wore a "1.5" lapel pin throughout the second week’s negotiations — a button distributed by proponents of what became known as the ambition package. But the Saudis thought the IPCC special report was hurried and unreliable.

"I like the report but not its content," he told E&E News, adding that its lack of data about the cost of keeping man-made warming low is "very misleading to countries" like his own that are concerned about the economic survival of their citizens.

The last major sticking point was not the ambition package but rather Brazil’s insistence that the UNFCCC bless its desire to keep selling credits for past anti-deforestation actions as offsets for international commercial aviation emissions.

The Paris Agreement includes provisions designed to guide cooperative agreements and international emissions markets. It specifies that these compliance options should not result in "double counting," where both a seller and a buyer claim credit for the same reductions under their national pledges to Paris. Brazil argues that it shouldn’t have to subtract the credits it sells from what it has promised to do itself toward Paris, but few other countries agree.

A group of governments, led by the European Union, urged Kurtyka on Friday night to lean on Brazil to abandon its demands, which they said would severely compromise the environmental integrity of Paris. Brazil rejected a proposal for a grace period to sell its credits for some years under its preferred rules.

After daylong talks Saturday, during which Brazil briefly threatened to kill the rulebook’s completed transparency section — which was the top priority for both the European Union and the United States — the entire section on trading and cooperative agreements was punted to next year.

Carbon-trading advocates were frustrated. They say emissions trading between countries and jurisdictions will allow nations to do more toward achieving Paris goals at a lower cost.

But Nat Keohane, senior vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, said allowing double-counting — even for a few years to satisfy a country like Brazil and move negotiations along — could backfire.

The Clean Development Mechanism, the oft-criticized Kyoto Protocol trading system, shows that countries rarely give up loopholes once they get them.

"If Brazil is allowed to double-count their credits for another decade or more, you can bet that they will come back in future COPs looking to push that date out further and further," Keohane said.

Like the United States, Brazil was a member of the High Ambition Coalition in Paris that helped set 1.5 C as the deal’s aspirational target. But while Trump has said the United States will leave the deal in 2020, Brazil’s incoming president, Jair Bolsonaro, has walked away from earlier hints that he might do the same when he’s inaugurated next month.

But Brazil rescinded its offer to host next year’s talks, which would have given it the presidency when the trading text is finalized. It was announced last week that Chile will take its place.

Divided Europe tries to lead

Here in Katowice, the European Union cast itself as the leader of developed countries. Convening a press conference of the remaining members of the High Ambition Coalition on Wednesday night, European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Cañete declared that his 28-member bloc "will support the presidency in making the text more ambitious." Flanked by other developed countries like Norway, New Zealand and Canada, and by developing countries led by the Marshall Islands, Arias Cañete vowed that "positive" language on the IPCC report would be a bright line for Europe.

But developing countries said Saturday that the results speak for themselves. They blame the European Union for capitulating to the United States on the science and doing too little to support its poorer allies on finance, loss and damage.

"Many of us had expected the European Union to show leadership, especially when COP was happening in their backyard," said Harjeet Singh, who is based in India for ActionAid.

The union that delivered Paris could have helped iron out differences in technical issues long in advance of the conference, he said, paving the way for a more ambitious outcome. It could have delivered "bridging texts" that offered a middle path between the reactionary United States and Saudi Arabia and the more progressive islands and least-developed nations.

But Wendel Trio, executive director of Climate Action Network Europe, said that wasn’t fair. "I would not compare the E.U. to the U.S.," he said.

Kurtyka deputized several European ministers to help broker deals on important sections of the text that ultimately were agreed on, Trio noted. And besides fighting back the Brazilian bid to double-count credits, Trio said, the union offered a solution to the IPCC language that would have stated that countries should use the report to guide future revisions to their nationally determined contributions and at the global stocktake in 2023, when progress toward the temperature goals will be assessed. It would have made the connection between the report and Paris implementation that vulnerable countries were looking for.

The European Union also parted ways with the United States in adopting a more accepting position of loss and damage for poor countries, he said. Germany pledged to double its contribution to the Green Climate Fund and made the biggest-ever pledge to the Adaptation Fund.

"But it is also true that the E.U. remains divided between east and west, and thus has difficulties to always come up with a strong strategy," he said.

Europe is at a crossroads on climate politics. Germany is in the throes of a leadership transition and grappling with how and whether to move away from coal, while protests over fuel costs are rocking France. Britain is preparing to exit the union. And Eastern, Central and some Southern European countries have vastly different politics from the west and north, or from the current European Commission.

That was on display here in Katowice, where Polish President Andrzej Duda opened the conference by praising coal. The host country also sold hand soap from its ash as souvenirs.

"Anytime you have a climate conference hosted by a country that continues to deny that it needs to get off coal, it’s not a great sign," said Jake Schmidt, international climate director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Schmidt said the Poles ran a "messy" COP. Kurtyka’s presidency staffed up late and didn’t manage its time well. Its lack of preparation led to the trading issue, an important but long-standing nonpolitical part of the negotiations, becoming Saturday’s last standoff, he said.

"It’s not a fair comparison, but the groundwork for Paris was years in the making, lots of bilateral with countries, building relationships, and I think the Poles just basically created a conference and hoped that everybody would come here and be in a good mood," he said. "And that’s not how diplomacy works."

But European ministers in Katowice stole the U.N. secretary-general’s line that the rulebook was a victory for multilateralism.

"I am very relieved that we succeeded in this together," said Svenja Schulze, Germany’s environment minister, who told E&E News on Saturday night that a Paris rulebook was her Christmas wish. "All the nations together — over 190 nations — have said that is the right way; we show how we do it now. We don’t have just targets; we have now a way to reach the targets, and that I think is really, really important for the world."

French President Emmanuel Macron, who skipped the meeting because of the crisis at home, tweeted his congratulations yesterday to those who brokered the Katowice deal. "France and Europe must show the way," he wrote. "The fight continues."

‘The basic minimum’

Vulnerable countries and their advocates weren’t as enthusiastic.

"I saw the vulnerable countries — namely small island states, least-developed countries and Africa, with some allies from Latin America and elsewhere — making a very, very heartfelt plea for action to save themselves, which fell on deaf ears," said Saleemul Huq, director of the Bangladesh-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development.

On Friday, several island states, led by Mohamed Nasheed — the Maldives’ first democratically elected president until his ouster in 2012 on terrorism charges that have since been overturned — held an impromptu press conference to register their anger at the way the talks were progressing, especially on the science issue.

"We will not give up, we will not walk out, but we will veto," Nasheed told reporters.

But in the end, the islands didn’t block the final agreement because they said the rulebook was key to future action on climate change.

"We’re accepting, but we’re not overjoyed," said Simon Stiell, minister for climate resilience, environmental and disaster management for Grenada. "This is the basic minimum, really, that we hoped to get out of this.

"Coming into this COP with the publication of the IPCC special report and the call for greater ambition and greater urgency, we hoped that that would set the tone for this COP with an ambitious outcome. But it appears as if we’re settled for the lowest common denominator in order to get consensus at a time when there is increased call for greater action."

Poor countries did secure a foothold for loss and damage in the rulebook text and more advance notice from developed countries on financial support.

China, meanwhile, removed its long-held objection to a single framework for mitigation and monitoring and reporting of emissions. It had previously insisted on separate rules for historically rich and poor countries.

"China acted as the bridge between developed and developing countries in Katowice," said Li Shuo, who works for Greenpeace in China, adding that it "acted as the quiet dealmaker, the silent leadership which brokered the fragile balance in the endgame."