After much of the organizational work for COP24 was completed on day one, day two commenced with the official opening ceremony and high-level segment. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to get a ticket to see this event directly, as the limited number of available passes were distributed by lottery within the RINGOs constituency. But worry not, dear reader, for I was able to sit comfortably in the overflow room and view every second of the proceedings on a TV larger than the floor of my bedroom. The ceremony began with a performance by a band of alumni from a local music academy. I have been unable to find the name of this group, but let me assure you, the accordionist/vocalist fronting the group was absolutely shredding. Killer Silesian tunes aside, we were also invited to watch a video showing off the local attractions of the region, including coal mines converted into concert venues, coal mines converted into museums, and coal mines converted into conference centers for international climate summits. The theme of the mining city of Katowice undergoing a “black to green” transition would be returned to again and again to provide inspiration for the infrastructural change necessary to combat climate change. When Polish President Andrzej Duda took the stage, he would reiterate similar messages about Katowice’s remarkable movement away from fossil fuels as a primary source of economic activity, perhaps unfortunately underscored by the notably poor air quality this week in the area. The visible smokestacks in the distance and the distinct tint of coal dust in the air also served as a reminder that we have a long way to go, which is concerning considering the very limited time we have in which to prevent climate change’s worst effects.
Throughout the high-level segment, heads of state and government would return to the notion presented in the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 °C that we are almost out of time, but not yet out of time to take unprecedented and focused action to reduce emissions and prevent further warming. One of the biggest voices which lent itself to this urgency was the next speaker, António Guterres, Secretary General of the UN—*swoon*. He warned that climate action ought not be seen as a burden, but as a necessary long-term investment into fighting the most important issue facing humanity, considering that if countries meet their current commitments, the planet will still reach 3 °C of warming by 2100. Net zero carbon emissions are necessary by 2050 if warming is to be kept below 1.5 °C, and the Secretary General thus called for increased ambition and political will from the leaders who would be negotiating in the coming days. Similar statements from the President of the UN General Assembly and the UN Environment Programme emphasized how behind we are if our goal is to save human lives in danger from climate change and its associated effects.
The high-level segment wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. The CEO of the World Bank took the stage to announce that climate funding would increase to $200 billion over a five-year period, with funds provided by the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, which together comprise thousands of people in what must be very nice suits. President Duda also returned to propose the Silesian Declaration on Solidarity and Just Transition, a document encouraging simultaneous pursuit of climate action, economic development, and workers’ rights.
The star-studded appearances wouldn’t end here. The People’s Seat initiative, which allowed people from across the world to send in digital messages about their climate change concerns to the COP, has its most popular advocate David Attenborough speak on behalf of its participants. He delivered a succinct but impassioned message of “leaders need to lead” to produce the political will necessary for decisive action, given that, according to his introduction video, two thirds of people believe that climate change is one of the most important issues facing humanity. We received another cameo during the national statements portion of the high-level segment, when the heads of state and government present for the day were to make their statements of “no more than three minutes,” according to somebody who thought this rule would receive anything more than a “yeah, whatever” from every single UN member state. In a move that may be the best reason I can think of for Austria going first, President Alexander Van der Bellen introduced the one, the only Arnold Schwarzenegger, who emphasized that despite the U.S.’ “mashugana” leadership, cities and states were still upholding their emissions reductions goals and will continue to do so regardless of their parent country’s official status per the Paris Agreement. He further drew attention to the role of local governments in reducing emissions and the need for greater platforms for local leaders on the global stage, before finishing off his speech with his characteristic promise of return (but will you be back, Arnold? Will you?).
National statements from leading officials from a number of other countries followed. Countries like Nepal, Albania, Eswatini (the artist formerly known as Swaziland), Namibia and Morocco called for equitable differentiation of responsibility to be incorporated in the implementation rulebook planned for completion by the end of the conference. The national statements also primarily consisted of countries like Spain, the Netherlands, Estonia, Fiji, and Serbia defending their emissions reductions so far (to varying degrees of success) and proclaiming their planned goals for the future. A notable intervention from the Secretary of State of the Holy See addressed the issue as a moral one, rather than a technical one and urged action on the “ethical imperative” to stop climate change as a part of efforts to combat poverty and protect human dignity. Well said, Pietro!
This day of the conference would be somewhat unusual, as instead of going to a handful of shorter events, I only watched the high-level segment and one other meeting: the 6th workshop of the facilitative sharing of views (FSV), where non-Annex I countries, which are largely low-income, developing countries, present their Biennial Update Reports (BURs). These reports detail national circumstances relating to emissions, including geographic, climatic, population, and economic profiles as well as sector-specific assessments of emissions past and present. Of special note in these reports are the national greenhouse gas inventory, which includes both emissions and removals of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the atmosphere; mitigation actions; and finance, technology, and capacity needs for better reporting and improved fulfillment of NDCs. Here, I was able to hear delegates lay out the presentation form of these reports and answer questions from other parties. These sessions are less formal than the stocktake sessions where Annex I countries are required to defend their mandatory annual reports, and questions were largely clarifying and wrapped in compliments on the quality of each work.
The first country to present was Argentina, which framed its domestic climate change policy in terms of its institutional basis: the National Cabinet for Climate Change, an inter-ministerial committee which defines climate changes policy and generates awareness for mitigation and adaptation efforts within the country. Argentina’s first NDC sets a target of 483 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent net emissions by 2030. The delegation cited barriers of capacity, finance, and technology that, if overcome, would allow for even more bold action. They also noted their progress in systematizing their GHG inventory with support from the Latin American Greenhouse Gas Inventory Network.
Second was Bosnia and Herzegovina, which noted the absence of an institutional setup akin to Argentina’s partially due to the high degree of decentralization within the Bosnian government. Their plans largely consisted of improving recycling efforts in waste management and further data collection, hampered so far by a lack of legislative data requirements. The other parties in the room applauded the quality of their sector-specific emissions accounting and I applaud the composure of the delegates, who were asked by an assuredly embarrassed delegate from India about how they achieved such high emissions reductions between 1992 and 1995 (“Unfortunately, we had a war.”)
China’s BUR focused on controlling energy consumption from construction and public buildings, areas directly under the government’s control. Dealing with private sector emissions, which make up a much larger proportion of global greenhouse gas production, was largely left to China’s new national carbon trading scheme, which will allow the government to cap overall emissions by issuing a limited number of emission permits to point source polluters, which they can trade with one another or sell back to the government if they reduce emissions below their allotted limit. This system, which is similar to the emissions trading scheme used in Europe and the one very briefly considered by the U.S. Congress (maybe in a few years, sport), is still in its infancy and only implemented in a few small-scale pilot carbon markets, but is expected to fully roll out in the next decade. Finally, Jordan took the floor to discuss its own climate actions and needs. Jordan’s climate policy is implemented by its Ministry of Environment in cooperation with NGOs. They have been introducing renewables into the energy mix (of which 96% is currently imported from the surrounding region) and have set a goal of 10% of energy coming from renewable sources by 2020. Their difficulties in getting this far were attributed to lack of capacity in the form of little experience with the software and modeling systems used to generate potential greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, which make up a vital part of many of the BURs.
The models used to predict climate scenario are often an object of intense scrutiny and have been crafted using the best available scientific data. They are the basis for the predictions found in the IPCC Special Report and so came up frequently during the conference as delegates were tasked with interpreting the findings of scientific organizations and converting them to sound policy. Unfortunately for all of us, these predictions have not been kind to any perceptions of victory in the climate battle. Even if every country met their NDCs as currently submitted to the UNFCCC, we would still be a fraction of the way to preventing 1.5 °C of warming, and all of the death and displacement that could result. The second day of this conference and the first real day of its proceedings saw some important first steps forward, but if we’re going to avoid catastrophe, those first steps will soon need to turn into a hurried sprint.