COP24: Climate change talks extended as US and other major polluters hold up landmark agreement

Divide emerges at crucial stage in UN summit between nations that feel threatened by global warming and those that feel 'more threatened by climate action'

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Friday 14 December 2018 19:27 GMT
Sir David Attenborough at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice: Climate change 'our greatest threat'

Critical climate talks have been extended by two days after big polluters including the US and Saudi Arabia pushed back against key scientific findings.

Tensions are running high in the Polish city of Katowice following two weeks of fraught discussions at the UN COP24 summit between countries with very different climate agendas.

UN chief Antonio Guterres warned failing to reach a satisfactory conclusion would be “suicidal,” a point echoed by small island states fearing for their existence as rising sea levels render their homes uninhabitable.

A group of these vulnerable states has pledged to further delay proceedings by “rebelling against extinction,” and blocking agreements until their demands for tougher action are met.

Experts cautiously welcomed a draft agreement that was finally released on Thursday night, but countries must now resolve outstanding issues, including pledges to ramp up emissions cuts.

Initially a conclusion was planned for Friday, but talks are now expected to run long into the night and spill over into the weekend. Some see the talks dragging on until Sunday.

Donald Trump’s shadow looms large over the conference, as his pledge to remove the US from the Paris climate agreement appears to have driven the US to align with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia.

Concerns were raised the moment this coalition of oil producers questioned the importance of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s scientific findings.

“They are going to the letter of what Trump said … when he announced the intention to withdraw,” Camilla Born from climate change think tank E3G told The Independent.

The group’s intransigence has meant US delegates held back from making stronger pledges to cut fossil fuels and emissions – a crucial step to limiting warming to 1.5C as the IPCC report recommends

Mohamed Adow, Christian Aid’s international climate lead, criticised US representatives attempting to water down an agreement they will not even be part of for much longer.

“Their reckless intention to withdraw from the Paris agreement was bad enough, but yet they continue to hang around like a bad smell, blocking progressive action from other countries,” he said.

Ms Born said the US team seemed to be keeping the nation closely enough aligned that a future administration might participate, but their caution was giving power to other disruptive participants.

“That has certainly emboldened the likes of Saudi, who are one of the bad guys when it comes to doing more on climate change,” she said.

As it stands, the draft text references the 1.5C target and the need to step up efforts, but avoids outright “welcoming” the scientific findings in a possible concession to these polluters.

Jennifer Morgan, Greenpeace International’s executive director, warned against such concessions at such a late stages in the talks.

“Compromise texts are paid for in human lives lost and the poor and vulnerable are demanding so much more,” she said.

With the US unwilling to take the lead, a group of nations including the EU has formed a high ambition coalition pledging to further cut emissions and help poorer countries achieve their own climate targets.

Meanwhile the major emerging economies of China and India have remained relatively quiet throughout, and may yet make their presence felt in the final stages.

Head of climate change at WWF, Gareth Redmond-King, said there was a divide between nations that feel threatened by climate change and those that “feel a bit more threatened by climate action”.

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Bringing these competing forces together requires a strong presidency, and Mr Redmond-King said there had been concerns the coal-loving Polish leadership had struggled in this task.

He said the ultimate goal is to achieve an agreement that commits to ratcheting up climate commitments by 2020, when countries must release their official targets for cutting emissions.

Other key issues need resolving too, including how countries transparently report their emissions, and whether nations should be paid to fix damage caused by climate change.

“The number one reason we are still here is because it’s really complicated – it’s technically really complicated and politically really complicated,” said Ms Born.

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