Climate policy in the slow lane

Pedestrian Passarelle in Polish Katowice
Article as analysis
The COP 24 climate summit in Katowice, Poland is expected to approve the regulatory framework for implementing the Paris Climate Change Agreement. A herculean task with an uncertain outcome. Meanwhile, major policy issues remain unresolved.

Again in 2018, Christmas time is also time for another climate change summit. Yet in the coal town of Katowice, however, there will be no place either for reflection, feelings of responsibility or even solidarity with the poorest. And despite the alarming 1.5° special report by the International Panel on Climate Change released on 8 October, the public at large is unlikely to take much notice of COP 24 (Conference of the Parties). Yet its outcome will be a litmus test for the realization of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. After all, when it was being signed three years ago, States set themselves the goal of deciding on the rule book, in other words the regulatory framework for implementing the historic 2015 agreement, by the end of 2018. What this entails is laying out the criteria and methods for target setting, monitoring and reporting by partner countries in the various fields covered by the climate change agreement.

Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, shows calculated optimism: COP 24 will be very much "a technical COP", the rule book has to be ironed out… in order to give way to “a more political year that will be next year". The Swiss delegation views the preliminary talks with guarded confidence: there are "useful negotiating texts" on the table, though the differences – if at all (ed.) – would not be settled before the second week of the conference, if the ministers make a push for it. But the word in Berne is that no result is still better than a bad result. What this means is that there are sometimes diametrically opposing text proposals on the table. Michal Kurtyka, the Polish President of COP 24, is appropriately sober in his assessment of the situation: it will be “an enormous challenge”, we now have to "work on hundreds of pages of a difficult, technical negotiating text".

North-South: Marking time

What these views have in common is that they fail to mention the differences between industrialized and developing countries, a controversial topic from the development standpoint and still unresolved after years. The industrialized countries for their part are insisting that the same requirements should apply to all countries, with strict criteria for climate targets, monitoring and reporting. They are predicating further measures regarding climate funding and adaptation to accelerating climate change – although on a par with the other aforementioned areas in the agreement – on the "willingness of developing countries to cooperate".

The share of responsibility for climate change so far attributable to the global North continues to be suppressed; the urgency of funding immediate measures in the poorest societies in the global South being buffeted by climate change is being reduced to a mere bargaining chip in the negotiations. This is all the more scandalous considering that Paris Climate Change Agreement clearly states that based on the polluter-pays principle, industrialized countries should unconditionally provide enough support for ever more urgent adaptation measures in the poorest and most vulnerable countries. Let us recall that Switzerland’s fair share of this amount is about CHF 1 billion per year.

Although the EU in early November adopted a resolution affirming the importance of and increasing its climate funding contributions with a focus on adaptation measures in the poorest countries, Katowice is not expected to produce a settlement of the differences between North and South. There are also unresolved questions around the Green Climate Fund (GCF), the Paris agreement's showpiece fund. The USA has vetoed a project proposed by China, which points to unresolved questions of governance and the future funding of the GCF. This topic is bound to come up in Katowice, despite not being on the agenda as such.

The latest political developments also offer little cause for optimism that international climate policy will be changing from the slow to the fast lane any time soon. Mainly driven Germany, Europe's ambitious climate policy is limping along, while in Brazil – an emerging country whose climate responsibility has long moved beyond that of a poor developing country – an environmentally unfriendly populist is now President and, like his US role model, is threatening to withdraw from the climate agreement. Against this backdrop, it does indeed seem cynical for COP 25 to go ahead as scheduled in Brazil in November 2019.

Switzerland still dragging its feet

And what is the situation in Switzerland, where the revised CO2 law is meant to be the centrepiece of a Paris-consistent climate policy? The Federal Council proposes that domestic emissions should be reduced by just 1% annually as of 2020, thereby breaking the promise it made in Paris. The scorching hot summer of 2018 undoubtedly raised hopes for a political change of mood (see global 71/2018), yet disappointment soon followed in the National Council's Environment Committee: the most promising proposal in terms of climate and development policy, that of introducing a flight ticket tax earmarked for climate protection measures, was narrowly defeated by a 12-to-13 vote. Switzerland's neighbours are already far ahead in this respect, in France, the flight ticket tax already in place is even being expressly allocated for development cooperation. It is yet to be seen whether Switzerland's centre-right dominated Parliament will still ultimately succeed in formulating a new CO2 law that does not simply overlook Switzerland's international climate funding commitments. It is to be hoped that after the elections in the coming autumn, the make-up of the Parliament will be more forward-looking in terms of climate policy.