FRI 29 - 5 - 2020
Date: Jan 9, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Why the climate summit succeeded
Najib Saab

Despite all the hype and doomsday scenarios, the climate summit (COP 24) in Poland reaffirmed the commitment of countries to confront together a global dilemma that threatens everyone. The summit unanimously concluded with an arrangement that set practical steps to implement the Paris Agreement, in order to keep the global temperature rise “well below 2 degrees C.” True that they did not specifically commit to below 1.5 degrees as called for in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which reflected scientific consensus; however, there was no fallback on the Paris commitments, and the process is moving toward 2020, the actual starting date for the implementation. This is also the time set for countries to make additional new commitments to reduce emissions.

Although the U.S. delegation tried at the beginning of the conference to slow the pace of accelerating emissions mitigation, Americans at the end played a key role in tightening controls to monitor compliance to reduction commitments, which is the key to ensuring good implementation. It is interesting to note that Trump’s skepticism was not reflected in the attitudes of the public and businesses in the United States, where carbon dioxide emissions in 2018 decreased more than was pledged under the Obama administration. Major American businesses called for fast, strict and clear rules to mitigate climate change as necessary measure to protect their long-term investments. Additionally, representatives of U.S. states and cities expressed their continued commitment to the Paris Agreement, despite Trump’s announcement of withdrawal.

In contrast to the official American lack of enthusiasm, which had limited effects, the summit saw progress on other fronts.

The European Union, together with a group of developed and developing countries, pledged to commit additional reduction in emissions to ensure that temperatures do not exceed 1.5 C. China and India, which constitute almost one-third of the world’s population, have reconfirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement. Germany and Norway pledged to increase financial aid to developing countries to offset shortages caused by the U.S. stance.

The World Bank revealed a commitment of $200 billion for five years, beginning in 2021, for programs and projects that contribute to reducing emissions, particularly in the areas of renewable energy and energy efficiency. On the other hand, the private sector listened seriously to the warnings of scientists, and representatives of the top companies at the summit called on governments to act immediately to combat climate change, warning of major losses threatening the global economy if the measures to reduce emissions were delayed.

With the exception of the weird populist views of U.S. President Donald Trump and the incoming Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, there is a consensus among world leaders on the scientific realities of climate change. Trump and Bolsonaro do not only refute global scientific consensus, but also findings of their own government departments and scientific research institutions in their respective countries. This is in contrast to Russia and some other oil-exporting countries, who joined the lukewarm position on the IPCC report, but have not denied scientific facts about climate change. They used this as a tactic to gain longer time to diversify their economies, by introducing alternative sources of income, other than the export of fossil fuels on which they heavily depend. This issue must be addressed fairly, because the countries that supplied the world with energy, which was driver for development over the past decades, deserve assistance to help them achieve economic diversification through smooth transition to other resources. In fact, these countries are not standing idle, as many have already launched huge programs in renewable energy and have begun a serious transition to a green economy based on resource efficiency.

It is legitimate to ask what prevented reaching an agreement on bigger and faster action in Poland, despite this global consensus. The issue is more complex, as demonstrated in the recent unrest in Paris. The protests were originally triggered by the increase in fuel prices, as part of the plan to reduce emissions from transport, which calls for the reduction of private cars use and the gradual transition to electric vehicles. People who took to the streets of Paris were not against the measures to reduce climate change emissions, but against what they considered an unfair increase in cost of living, not matched by compensatory measures. The increase actually did not come as part of an integrated package, including improved public transport, affordable housing close to the workplace and wage adjustment to match expenses. The poor preparation led to the postponement of the implementation of the measures, after having to take delayed corrective action. However, the events in France did not prevent EU countries from agreeing to cut car emissions by 37.5 percent by 2030, with a target of 15 percent for 2025. That demands that in 10 years about a third of the cars on European roads will be either electric or hybrid.

While the cost of this transformation is estimated at hundreds of billions of dollars, European countries consider it necessary not only to reduce climate change but also to improve urban air quality. A group of European cities had announced in the last two years plans to ban vehicles running on petrol within 20 years. The events in France will sure provide a lesson that climate measures need good preparation and have to be part of an integrated program.

Ultimately, the most important message from the Polish summit and its aftermath is that the march to confront climate change continues. The international action mechanism launched with the establishment of the IPCC in 1992 proved successful, and continues to function when many were waiting for it to fail. It is the only framework where everyone meets to negotiate and finally reach an agreement. We all wanted stronger decisions. But the work has not stopped, and we will have another chance, mainly the 26th climate summit in 2020. By that time, the cost of producing zero-emission electricity from solar and wind sources, is expected to be cheaper than any other conventional means. Furthermore, the U.S. elections might bring a new administration more respectful to the scientific consensus and joint global action.

Najib Saab is secretary-general of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development and editor-in-chief of Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia magazine (

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 08, 2019, on page 6.

The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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