December 19, 2018

The latest round of UN climate talks in Katowice, Poland, closed last Saturday, and it’s worth taking a moment to think about what was really needed from these talks to meet the goals set out in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

These talks were meant to mark two important milestones for the Paris Agreement: the conclusion of the “Talanoa Dialogue” and the adoption of the “Paris Rulebook.”

The Talanoa Dialogue was a year-long collective review of the world’s progress so far in fighting climate change. A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October made it clear that we’re running out of time to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals, so this was an important opportunity to increase the level and urgency of global climate action.

The Paris Rulebook is the set of rules that will guide the actual implementation of the Paris Agreement, which means it will serve as the international framework for climate action going forward.

If governments were to respond to the urgent need for just, equitable climate action, what should each of these decisions look like?

In the Talanoa Dialogue, it would mean countries not only acknowledging that the world is falling short of its commitments on climate change, but also agreeing on a process to increase their ambition in line with their fair share of effort over the next year. As part of this commitment, rich countries should also pledge to increase support to developing countries, including finance and the transfer of technologies such as drought-resistant crops and renewable energy equipment. All of these efforts enable climate action in developing countries that would otherwise not be possible.

With regards to the Paris Rulebook, any implementation framework that paves the way for the kind of ambitious action needed must be a fair and just one. That means countries would commit to not only cut greenhouse gas emissions but to also support communities to adapt to climate change. In the case of rich countries, fair and just action would also include providing finance and technology support to poorer countries mentioned above.

Guidance on climate action should also protect and promote human rights and the environment. And activities to respond to permanent loss and damage due to climate impacts – such as deaths, displacement, loss of farmland to sea level rise, and so on – must be supported.

It probably won’t surprise anyone that these are not the outcomes we got from the negotiations in Poland. Instead, countries agreed to a fairly weak rulebook, without sufficient assurances that real finance will flow and without indicating sufficient political will to increase action. At a moment when the world most needed a breakthrough, the UN negotiations fell devastatingly short of what was needed.

This raises two questions: why and what now?

The why is easy. UN processes are made up of individual governments, and bringing those governments into a UN space doesn’t change who they are. The rise of right-wing, climate denying governments, including in the United States, has played a role in derailing UN talks in recent years. Dismayingly, this lack of political will has also extended to other governments, including the European Union, as they have often sat passively by and let the climate deniers define the boundaries of what’s possible in the negotiations.

Which leads to the “what now.”

We need to make it clear to governments that this result is unacceptable. We must demand that governments increase their ambition and planned climate action before 2020. There is no more time to wait on climate action. We must hold governments accountable, and we must demand they act now.

We also need to make sure that the climate action is equitable. Unless climate change policies are designed with the needs of everyday people and frontline communities at the center, they will fail to bring about the kind of transformation needed to fix the crisis. Furthermore, they simply won’t be politically feasible – as the protests in France are demonstrating very clearly.

A collective global response is required to solve the global problem of climate change. Which is why the UN climate talks – as painfully and maddeningly inadequate as they often are – are needed. The only way to avoid the worst impacts of climate change is to start taking action now, with countries acting in solidarity with one another and with their most marginalized peoples at the center.