For all the success of December’s global climate change talks, it will not unlock real change, Aaron Tang writes.

Climate change needs no introduction. We know that the pace of the global response has been glacial. We know that small Pacific countries are among the most vulnerable. International agreements, like the 2015 Paris Agreement, are designed to shift the world’s behaviour from chronic inaction to systematic change.

However, the Paris Agreement is only a broad legal outline. It says broadly what has to be done, but the specific details of how need to be fleshed out. For example, countries must submit new and stronger climate targets every five years. However, the Paris Agreement does not specify how targets will be recorded, and to what extent additional information such as time-frames, industrial sectors covered, and relevant greenhouse gases might be required.

For the past three years, climate diplomats have been working hard to grind out the intricacies of implementation. The outcome of these negotiations formed the ‘rulebook’ – eventually finalised at the UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice in December.

The Katowice Rulebook provides useful technical guidance, but does not address the flaws of the Paris Agreement. Nor will recalcitrant actors now begin the unprecedented behavioural change needed to keep global warming under two degrees Celsius.

This begs the question – what guidance does the Rulebook provide?

What is the Katowice Rulebook?

The Rulebook largely determines the information countries have to share under the Paris Agreement (note that other authors have published detailed analyses of more specific outcomes of the Katowice Rulebook).

Starting from 2024, countries must submit transparency reports every two years. These reports will include progress towards climate targets, levels of greenhouse gas emissions, and which sectors the emissions come from.

Developed countries have to report financial resources provided to developing countries – how much money is moved, how money is moved, and how the support helps recipient countries address climate change.

What the Rulebook does not contain is comprehensive guidance on market mechanisms – for example, trading ‘extra’ emissions reductions if a country meets its climate targets. The impasse is the issue of double counting: if one country buys ‘surplus’ emissions reductions from another country, those emissions reductions would count for both countries and therefore be counted twice. Market mechanism negotiations will continue throughout 2019.

The key across all these sectors is that the ‘spirit’ of Katowice is information and legal technical detail. But as important as these things are, Katowice is just one part fitting within the broader Paris Agreement framework.

Big agreement, small change

Remember those new and stronger targets countries must submit every 5 years? These targets are the main legal obligations of the Paris Agreement.

But countries don’t actually have to actually meet their targets.

For example, Australia doesn’t have to meet its pledge to reduce emissions to 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Australia just needs to submit a more “ambitious” target by 2020. Ambition is left undefined in the Paris Agreement.

The Katowice Rulebook adds little – merely that when a new target is submitted, countries must state how they think their new target reflects their “highest possible ambition”. In theory, Australia could ‘improve’ their target to 28-30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. As long as Australia explains how it thinks this is ambitious, it would then be considered sufficient in the eyes of the Paris Agreement – no actual emissions reductions required.

In the big picture, the critical gap of the Katowice Rulebook is that it cannot fully address the structural flaws of the Paris Agreement. Therefore, the Rulebook’s capacity to change behaviours is limited.

Behavioural change

Ultimately, the Rulebook is an extremely technical guide for the Paris Agreement (which is in itself inadequate). The Rulebook is concerned more with counting the emissions reduced by moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy, than with behavioural processes or barriers to broad and systematic energy change.

Such technicality is not the key to real change. Guidelines did not stop the Morrison government from pledging further support for fossil fuels and will not make Donald Trump accept or act on the findings of climate assessments by his own government.

Voluntary targets, no matter how well accounted for, will not make feet-dragging governments any less climate-recalcitrant. If we are serious about limiting global warming to under 1.5 degrees, we need governance and institutions that can address climate pariahs like Trump’s US, Morrison’s Australia, and Bolsonaro’s Brazil.

Even in the face of such leadership, holding global warming to under 1.5 degrees is possible.

But 1.5 demands a shift in climate change discussion and action. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions has so far driven the climate discourse. This is no longer enough. We must actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere as well.

This requires a substantial increase in political will. All eyes are on UN Secretary General António Guterres’ climate summit in September. The mandate of this summit is explicitly about political will – not the legal minutiae of climate targets or emissions accounting. Time will tell whether this jumpstarts global change or joins a long line of UN climate inadequacy.

The small picture

With tiny Pacific countries like Tuvalu facing catastrophic crisis, large and abstract concepts like ambition and political will seem beside the point.

But the international environmental policy machine keeps on chugging. There is an inherent disconnect between what is happening on the ground and the conversations being had in the climate sphere.

As much as climate action is about the big picture, action on the ground is important as well.

We can’t forget the small conversations and small actions that actually matter. Big words in important places are still just words. To quote Alden Meyer from the Union of Concerned Scientists, “all the decision text in the world doesn’t cut a molecule of carbon”.

This article is adapted from a talk hosted by the Climate Change Institute. Available to listen here.

Aaron Tang is a PhD Scholar at the Fenner School of Environment and Society. His research focuses on international climate policy, particularly the governance of geoengineering.

Feature image source: Peggychoucair

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