COP 24

My name is Sofia Menemenlis and I am a junior in Timothy Dwight College double majoring in Geology & Geophysics and Global Affairs.  This year I am attending COP24, the annual Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, in Katowice, Poland.  I am pursuing the Atmosphere, Ocean, and Climate track within the G&G major, and this blog is centered around how the scientific study of the atmosphere-ocean-climate system informs the global effort to address climate change.

Saturday 8 December

I arrived in Katowice on Saturday afternoon with three other undergraduates also participating in the COP as delegates from the Yale Student Environmental Coalition.  We attended a reception with other Yalies, where we heard from Todd Stern, Sue Biniaz, and Tom Steyer about the urgency of this year’s COP.  COP24 is important for two overarching reasons: increasing ambition and agreeing on the “Paris Rulebook”, a collection of procedures, modalities, and guidelines necessary to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

Monday 10 December

A panel at the US Climate Action Center centered around ocean climate action.  The international climate regime has a history of largely overlooking the relationship between oceans and climate.  In many ways, climate agreements don’t fully consider this relationship; for example, monitoring and evaluation frameworks for greenhouse gas emissions do not account for the effect of carbon dioxide in particular on ocean acidification.  However, there is discussion of designating next year’s COP25 as an “Ocean COP”.  The forthcoming IPCC report on the ocean and cryosphere, as well as efforts by countries such as Chile, Fiji, Sweden, and many others, will likely draw greater attention to the ocean over the coming year.  

Entering this week of events and negotiations, one question on my mind is who has access to multilateral conferences, whose voices are legitimized, and whose knowledge is accounted for in the global climate regime.  An indigenous representative from Kenya called attention to the ways in which indigenous elders–often women, in particular–adapt to climate change by drawing on traditional knowledge.  Moving forward, one imperative will be to synergize information carried by historically underrepresented voices with that offered by institutions such as the IPCC. 

Tuesday 11 December

At the high-level opening event of the Talanoa Dialogue, a broad message was clear and echoed by many: we need to do more and do it faster.  Hoesung Lee, the Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, noted that limiting warming to 1.5°C is not impossible, but the window for action is short.  The IPCC published the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C this October.  The report concluded that there are clear benefits to keeping warming to 1.5°C rather than 2°C or higher, that limiting warming would require unprecedented transitions in all aspects of society, and that doing so would also help achieve other global goals. 

This afternoon, a panel of IPCC leaders commented on the future of the IPCC.  Despite relatively modest annual expenditure, the IPCC has faced a steady decline in funding since 2010.  Still, the panel described a path forward that included young scientists, regional & indigenous knowledge, gender balance, and stronger communications & outreach.  The panel also emphasized that the creation of an IPCC assessment report is an open process to which anybody can contribute.  The IPCC is funded through voluntary financial contributions and operates through voluntary scientific contributions.  Its impact depends on the choice to engage in constructive dialogue between policymakers and scientists.

Wednesday 12 December

In the closing session of the Talanoa dialogue, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gave what was–in his own words–a dramatic appeal to carry the dialogue forward and come out of COP24 with a strong Paris Rulebook.

Later scientists, IPCC report authors, and former negotiators spoke on a panel about cryosphere change and the IPCC special report on 1.5°.  They focused on the differences in cryosphere impacts under warming scenarios of 1.5° and 2°.  With each five year delay in peak emissions committing us to 20cm of additional sea level rise by 2300, coastal and small island communities are particularly at risk.  The panel also highlighted that current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) set the world on a path to 3° of global warming.  On a more hopeful note, due to the declining price of renewable energy and energy storage, many of the economic assumptions that informed the NDCs when they were drafted in 2015 are now outdated.  It is now technically possible to achieve greater emissions reductions at a lower cost. 

Thursday 13 December

On the penultimate day of COP24, negotiators must quickly reach collective decisions.

6pm: Earlier this afternoon, the president of COP24 delivered an update on the progress of negotiations.  While ministers worked late last night and early this morning to reach compromise, a number of important issues remain unresolved.  Two particularly contentious issues are how to recognize the IPCC SR on 1.5°C and how to carry the Talanoa dialogue forward into a decision.  At a briefing to NGOs following the update, the presidency of the COP acknowledged that meetings had been emotional and demanding, and had failed to reach a compromise on these two issues (among others).  Currently, the ministers representing Costa Rica and Sweden are leading the effort to reach a compromise on language acceptable to all involved.  The presidency will release the revised draft text for review by the parties sometime this evening.  (To give the COP a “Polish flavor”, the Polish presidency decided to introduce the text in a “Sejmik” style to commemorate the Polish parliament’s 550th anniversary.)

9pm: Drafts of individual negotiationg texts were shared. 

Friday 14 December

3am: A combined draft compiling the individual texts was released.  Its references to the Talanoa dialogue and the IPCC report on 1.5°C are vague and unsubstantive.  The group of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) expressed their “extreme disappointment and deep frustration at the inability of parties to welcome the IPCC’s special report on 1.5°C.” 

“Science is not up for negotiation,” wrote Gebru Jember Endalew, Chair of the LDCs group in the UNFCCC, in an open letter to the UNFCCC Executive Secretary and the UN Secretary-General.  “The IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5 is one of the most robust pieces of scientific literature on the issue of climate change.  Informed by more than 42,000 expert and government comments (the most ever recieved by the IPCC on a report), and with over 200 expert contributing authors, the report leaves no doubt that the world must limit temperature increase to no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.  The report notes that LDCs specifically are at disproportionately higher risk and, for LDCs, the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C is beyond fundamental–it’s existential.”

Negotiations continue as I travel back to campus today. 

As of 10pm, the presidency plans to release draft decisions at 1am tomorrow and to begin plenary meetings at 4am.  

Saturday 15 December

Despite having to extend the conference until late Saturday night, parties compromised on rules to set the Paris Agreement into action.  

Reflections

While COP24 mostly fulfilled its mandate, its outcome should have been stronger.  It’s difficult to overstate the significance of the findings of the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5°C of warming, and national commitments fall far short of what would be necessary to limit warming to 1.5°C or 2°C.   

Science isn’t apolitical, and the importance of research lies largely in its human impact.  A coalition of several countries, led by the United States, refused to accept the findings of the IPCC’s report, ultimately resulting in decision text language that welcomed the report’s “timely completion” rather than its findings themselves.  Although the IPCC reports on the best available science, whether and how that science is applied depends largely on political processes.  The IPCC’s relevance rests on the willingness of scientists and policymakers to engage in constructive dialogue.  And while the scientific community was present at COP24, it still might have played a larger role.  

After returning from Katowice, I’m thinking more about what science is for.  What responsibility–and what power–do we hold to see through the applications of the knowledge we produce?