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People do a lot of odd things at the sprawling UN climate talks held at the end of each year. They sleep on the floor. They break down in tears. Until last month’s gathering in the Polish city of Katowice, however, no one had done what Michał Kurtyka did.
Mr Kurtyka, the Polish minister who presided over the fractious meeting, spent two weeks watching countries argue over operating rules for the Paris climate accord. When a deal was reached, he was so overjoyed he climbed on his chair and leapt off the podium to congratulate delegates on the floor.
His relief was widely shared. The conference was one of the first serious tests of the world’s commitment to collective climate action since the Paris deal was adopted in 2015. Had it ended in failure, the repercussions would have echoed far beyond the climate negotiations, as some were quick to point out. “Success here also means success for multilateralism and the rules-based global order,” said Miguel Arias Cañete, EU commissioner for climate action and energy.
Yet three years on from the Paris accord, rising forces of nationalism and populism continue to sow doubt about the future of the agreement and, by extension, other efforts to tackle widening environmental dilemmas.
The international co-operation that led to successful treaties such as the 1987 Montreal Protocol protecting the ozone layer seems distant at a time of growing strain on global co-operation.
From ivory poaching to ocean plastic pollution, few problems can be solved by one or even several nations alone. Attempts to seal a global pact to cut plastic waste are where international climate negotiations were 25 years ago, yet some believe the climate talks offer a model for a global framework imposing clearly measurable targets to reduce plastic pollution. That raises an important question: will the global climate co-operation embodied by the Paris accord resist rising pressure on the liberal democratic order?
It is 18 months since US president Donald Trump declared he would pull the US out of the Paris accord to avoid its “draconian” economic burdens, and so far he remains a noisy but lonely outlier. Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, has backed away from campaign threats to withdraw from the deal, though his country has rescinded its offer to host next year’s UN climate talks.
In Katowice, some countries made it clear they were with Mr Trump, at least in spirit. Australia backed a US event where officials extolled the importance of fossil fuels — just days after scientists reported carbon emissions were on track to reach a record high in 2018.
The conference was also jolted when Russia and Saudi Arabia sided with the US to water down approval of a landmark UN scientific report on the impacts of 1.5C of warming.
Yet that report shows why politicians and companies should be wary of being distracted by the global political situation, says Michael Liebreich, founder of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance research service. The UN study found that to keep warming below 1.5C, carbon emissions will need to be cut by 45 per cent by 2030. Mr Liebreich says this means in just 12 years, or about two business cycles, companies will face a world where either emissions are drastically lower or the social licence to run a carbon-intensive company is lost.
“You’ve got to separate the signal from the noise,” he says. Mr Trump and even the Katowice talks are only noise, he adds. “The signal is: where do you want to be in 2030?”
Still, international collaboration has played an undeniable role in cutting emissions. The EU is a case in point, says Joseph Curtin, a climate policy researcher at Ireland’s Institute of International and European Affairs think-tank. In contrast to the US, Japan and other advanced economies, EU emissions have fallen more than 20 per cent since 1990, while its economy has grown by more than half.
“There’s not one example of a non-EU developed country that has managed to reduce its emissions since we began to take climate action seriously in 1990,” says Mr Curtin. “In fact, every single developed country outside the EU is failing critically on climate change.”
He concedes part of the difference can be explained by factors such as the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent economic meltdown in eastern European countries. That helped push down emissions as carbon-polluting factory production slowed.
But he says the decades EU countries have devoted to collaborating on legally binding climate targets and policies to meet them have played a vital role too.
The EU is indeed home to a range of significant climate measures, from the world’s largest carbon market to record-breaking use of renewable energy and energy efficiency rules for buildings, cars and appliances. Yet it still needs to do considerably more to stay in line with the goals of the Paris agreement.
Ultimately, the challenge of climate change seems certain to outlast today’s political shifts, while the scale of action needed seems beyond the imagination of many of today’s leaders. That speaks to a need for transformational thinking, says Mariana Mazzucato, director of University College London’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose.
“To battle climate change, we can transform fear into a mission to be accomplished, as bold and inspirational as the 1969 moon shot,” Professor Mazzucato says. “But green missions are more complex.”