Al Gore, Climate Reality Project chairman and former U.S. vice president, speaks at the COP24 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, on Dec. 12. (Agencja Gazeta/Grzegorz Celejewski/Reuters)

The latest round of global climate negotiations just concluded in the coal city of Katowice, Poland. This was the 24th meeting of the “conference of the parties” (COP) to the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change — and the most important meeting since COP 21, the 2015 Paris agreement. 

What was at stake?

This year’s negotiations were about finalizing the “Paris rule book” — and they somewhat miraculously did, with an accord on the rules finally reached Saturday.

The Paris agreement ushered in a different approach to reducing greenhouse gases, after previous false starts. Unlike the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, where diplomats collectively negotiated emissions-reduction targets, the Paris agreement asked countries to come forward with their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) — their best offers of emissions reductions they thought they could achieve.

Alongside these voluntary commitments were mandatory requirements on reporting and transparency. In Katowice, negotiators sought to finalize the rules governing those requirements.

The theory was that the international system has weak compliance mechanisms — so the best hope is for countries to figure out what they can do, get started and raise their ambition over time. The key to success would be transparency, with countries sharing information about their emissions, what actions they have taken — and, for rich countries, what funding they were providing to poor countries.

Domestic politics has soured the mood for collective action 

A number of countries face challenges at home that have made it harder to keep their Paris commitments. The election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency (and his declared intention to withdraw from the Paris agreement) has emboldened others. Australia backslid from its Paris commitments. Brazil’s newly elected president, Jair Bolsonaro, is hostile to climate action — he has already rescinded Brazil’s offer to host next year’s climate negotiations.

In France, the recent protests and climbdown on a gas-tax increase indicate the government’s struggle to implement pro-climate policies. Emissions in China, whose carbon dioxide output is now 27 percent of the global total, increased for two years running, after they had flatlined in the previous three years. Although China is scaling up renewables significantly, Beijing is financing as many as 700 new coal plants at home and abroad.

The Paris commitments were only a down payment on what was needed to prevent dangerous climate change — but many countries are not even meeting those. That means that collectively, the world is not on track to meet the goal reaffirmed in Paris of keeping global temperatures from increasing 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels by 2100.

A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified the narrowing paths to keep emissions from increasing 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), a more ambitious goal. At current emissions, the global temperature increase may exceed this threshold by 2034.

What happened in Poland?

The IPCC 1.5 report became a focal point at the negotiations after the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait quashed language to “welcome” it, instead preferring the more anodyne “take note.” At Katowice, the 1.5 report impelled activists to press for heightened ambition.

The NDCs that states put forward after COP21 in Paris identified actions they would take to address emissions over the 2020-2025 period and sometimes as far out as 2030. With the first formal assessment of progress — “the global stocktake” — not until 2023, climate activists wanted countries to revisit their NDCs and increase their ambition now.

Other sticking points included language on reporting in the Paris rule book. The Paris agreement recognized the need for flexibility for the poorest countries, but aimed for rigorous reporting standards on emissions and actions for all countries. The key departure here was moving away from the old Kyoto-era division between developed and developing countries, which let countries such as China and India claim special status as developing countries. The compromise in Poland was flexibility for the poorest countries — but the expectation is that countries such as China and India will fully report their activities.

There were other important developments

Parallel agreements among smaller groups offer great promise for collective action. The United Kingdom and Canada announced that several new partners — including Senegal, Scotland and Israel — joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance, an effort to phase out coal. A number of companies, including BT and E.ON, joined EV100, an effort to rally businesses worldwide to embrace electric vehicles. The major multilateral finance banks, including the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, pledged to make their portfolios climate-compatible.

The next important date is the September 2019 U.N. Climate Change Summit, where Secretary General António Guterres intends to make this a signature issue, much like his predecessor did.

China’s carbon footprint and choices at home and abroad remain a critical question. Given the size of its emissions, it has what Leonard Downie calls the “power to destroy.” What will persuade the Chinese to increase their ambition at home and promote green Belt and Road investments?

Climate activists in Poland suggested that China is simply building what countries such as Vietnam ask for — rather than environmentally sustainable projects. By analyzing the financial viability of those projects, advocates hope to persuade the recipients of Chinese aid to change their preferences.

One reason countries agreed to the Paris rule book is that technocrats from the U.S. government remain engaged in the negotiations. Moreover, a number of former negotiators also helped shepherd the rule book over the finish line. There’s little question, though, that the absence of top-level political support from the U.S. government remains an obstacle. Climate activists disrupted and ridiculed the Trump administration’s side event last week on the virtues of fossil fuels, according to news reports.

Although concluding the Paris rule book was important, it mostly serves as a focal point for managing collective expectations. With high expectations, countries rally around an ambitious position like they did in Paris. With mixed expectations, it is harder to raise collective ambition.

With the mechanics of the Paris agreement now largely fleshed out, country implementation remains the most important issue. As Nigel Purvis, chief executive of Climate Advisers, noted: “The problem is not the Paris agreement, which is the best climate pact ever negotiated; rather the problem is inadequate political will in capitals around the world.” In the coming months and years, the hard part will be implementation and raising ambition.

Joshua Busby is an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. His report with Nigel Purvis on “Climate Leadership in Uncertain Times” was released this fall by the Atlantic Council. He has a longer piece on climate governance in the January 2019 issue of Current History. Find him on Twitter @busbyj2.