The UN climate conference: where ambition goes to die

Climate change protesters demonstrate, prior to the United Nations climate change conference in Poland, in central London on December 1, 2018.

This is an eyewitness account of the UN Climate Conference COP24, held in Katowice, Poland, in December last year from the perspective of one of the 30,000 participants. All attempts will be taken to avoid acronyms of climate terms, or at least explain them, and I will outline the ‘insider information’ that I got from my first COP.

As a political advisor in the European Parliament, I am used to working on EU-level climate and energy legislation, but now I found myself with an access badge to a global conference on the even messier stage of climate politics, the international level. A cup of tea with a curious friend got us talking in simple terms about what actually went on at COP24 in Katowice last December.

What does COP24 stand for?

It is an alphanumeric term used to refer to the United Nations yearly climate conference: the Conference Of Parties. Most nation states, and the EU, are ‘Parties’ to the United Nation’s Convention on Climate Change, otherwise acronymed as the UNFCCCCCCC. (Insider information: nobody really knows how many C’s there really are.)

The conference is the ‘supreme decision-making body’ of the Convention, and brings leaders of countries together to discuss the global response to climate change. It is the 24th time the parties have met since the first meeting in 1995 in Berlin, and the location of the conference rotates each year according to geographical areas.

So it changes location every year?

Yeah, but Poland has managed to host it three times, and nobody wants it to be hosted there again because it is damn cold in December and there is only so much pierogi you can eat before your stomach hurts. Next year it is over to the Latin American bloc, so it will be hosted in Chile, with a preparatory conference in Costa Rica, called the pre-COP – quite a change from snowy Katowice.

So what goes on?

Well, it is part decision-making, part random nonsense. The Paris Agreement in 2015 (COP21) was about establishing a binding agreement on keeping global warming “well below 2°C” and other vague climate goals.

The COP24 was supposed to be about setting rules that would clarify the details of this agreement in a single text, often called the ‘Paris Rulebook’ (except China wants it to be called the ‘Paris Agreement Work Programme’). The fine details of the rulebook were debated and decided by technical teams and ministers from all the parties, of course, in the utmost secrecy. Draft texts of the rulebook were uploaded online at random intervals, giving the press something to fuss about and participants like me a chance to see how the talks were progressing.

That sounds serious….

True, but the real face of COP for the ordinary participant is the ‘Pavilion Area’. In a massive prefab attached to the conference centre, pavilions lined narrow corridors and certain countries displayed their climate challenges and efforts. They host side events and shower the passer-by with freebies: the Germans giving coffee, the Austrians dishing up würstel, and the Indonesians gifting colourful pillow cases. Lanyards, badges and leaflets are all over the place. Delegates not knowing what else to do drifted from pavilion to pavilion to tune into segments of relatively non-inspiring presentations from (mainly corporate) stakeholders.

Also, the Pavilion area was flooded in corporate sponsorship. The panels at these side events contained speakers from industries proposing their techno-fixes and companies revealing their pledges to commit to ‘doing their part’ or ‘making climate action a business strategy’, and other malarkey.

Of course, these pavilions and events were geopolitically charged too; Brazil gave out leaflets on the efficiency of Brazilian livestock farming, the EU debated useless carbon markets, and Russia’s whole theme was bizarrely focused on the role of natural gas in the energy transition. The US took the biscuit with its event on coal – a form of middle finger to the Paris Agreement, which it intends to withdraw from.

Sounds bad…

A lot of it is just unhelpful corporate climate politics, but there were some good side events too, such as on energy poverty, a just transition, and the rights of women and indigenous communities. There was also an ‘exhibition area’, where civil society organisations and NGOs stood behind stands, like a careers fair.

However, they were symbolically ostracised from the decision-making, placed physically far away from the negotiations, located by the massive cloakroom. This was where NGOs could present their ideas and their work. There were also ‘themed’ wine receptions everywhere, i.e. terrible excuses for wine receptions. While the negotiators were negotiating, the other participants to COP were networking and enjoying a free glass of wine.

Well then who’s paying for all of this?

The conference itself is funded through the UN, but the host country normally accompanies this with sponsorship. To most people’s disgust, the Polish Presidency hosting the conference unashamedly invited coal and oil companies to be sponsors. Poland’s largest oil company, LOTOS, which is expanding its oil and gas drilling and exploration projects in the Arctic Circle, was among one of the many big polluters greenwashing its way into the conference through sponsorship. Most participants fund their own way to COP, with very few receiving daily subsistence allowances.

I saw that video of the 15-year old Swedish girl speaking on climate change. Is that the kind of message coming from COP24?

Unfortunately not. Greta Thunberg sent a very powerful message at COP, but it only rebounded off their heads in the plenary room. The corporate hold and capitalist mindset of world leaders means that they, of course, did not take her message on board. Her anti-capitalist call for crisis-level action, however, has already inspired more climate protests from activists, and particularly young people who have launched a school strike for climate action across the world.

But for COP itself, the message was more of the same: Ambition on climate change was frozen in 2015 with no talk of increasing efforts; corporate-friendly carbon markets dominated the discourse on solutions; weak rules mean that rich countries can even count commercial loans as climate finance to poorer countries. The result is mellow, when what we need is revolution.

[Reposted from Irish Broad Left. Damien Thomson is a contributing editor for Irish Broad Left.]