The 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, was meant to present a united front of world leaders committed to tackling climate change. Instead, two weeks of strenuous negotiations have laid bare the cracks and revealed an unresolvable discrepancy between nations’ priorities. With the US, Russia, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia refusing to officially accept the urgency of climate change and Brazil threatening to bring the talks to a halt, producing a final document was far from an easy feat. Whilst Michał Kurtyka, president of the conference, seemed positive, the behaviour of key carbon emitters suggests any hope of future international cooperation on the theme of climate change is somewhat utopic.
“Right now we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.” This was the warning issued by Sir David Attenborough on the second day of the 24th UN conference on climate change. Attenborough’s cautionary tone echoes the findings of a report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October, which insisted that the 2°C limit on temperature rise set out by the Paris Agreements was still too high. The IPCC report stated that in order to prevent serious environmental damage this would have to be reduced to 1.5°C. This new target would demand “unprecedented” changes in international environmental policy. Such an alarming conclusion gave the conference a profound sense of exigency, and many activists hoped it would force leaders to recognise that now is the time for radical action and policies.
The IPCC report stated that in order to prevent serious environmental damage this would have to be reduced to 1.5°C.
Hopes were soon dashed as the report proved to be only the first hurdle of the conference. An optimistic proposal to issue a statement claiming the UN “welcomes” the findings of the IPCC was quickly shot down by the US alongside Russia, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. The latter had allegedly already attempted to restrict the conclusions of the report at the IPCC Panel Conference in Incheon, South Korea. The country disagreed with a section stating that current voluntary national commitments were insufficient in order to meet the 1.5°C target. Two months later and the report’s wording was still proving difficult for Saudi Arabia to stomach. Clearly concerned about the economic repercussions of any revolutionary environmental commitment, Saudi Arabia with its fellow oil-countries vetoed the optimistic wording and the statement was scrapped. What was eventually agreed on was a much more neutral, half-hearted statement, “welcoming the timely completion of the report” as opposed to the alarming content of it. Far from a diplomatic compromise, this is evidence of how four of the world’s top ten oil-producing countries are unambiguously blocking any international pledge to cut emissions.
This is not new behaviour for Russia, Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia and it won’t come as a surprise to many that Trump’s America has joined in. However, these weren’t the only nations causing problems. Brazil joined its fellow oil-nations, creating perhaps the most dramatic deadlock of the conference. The world’s ninth largest oil-producer gave indication that it might prove a tricky customer announcing just a few days before the conference it would be would no longer be hosting next year’s UN conference on climate change. Although financial restrictions were given as the reason for the decision, it is likely that newly-elected president Jair Bolsonaro also had a part to play. During his election campaign Bolsonaro claimed he was willing to relax Amazon rainforest protections in order to expand the mining and agricultural industries, and it appears this rhetoric may have influenced the Brazilian stance in Katowice. Brazilian representatives wanted a weak set of rules on the trading of carbon credits and the continuation of current market mechanisms. Carbon trading is perhaps one of the most ambiguous aspects of the Paris Agreements and has been essentially manipulated by large emission countries such as Brazil, curbing the effectiveness of emission targets. These emission trading practices, viewed by most experts as “cheating”, allow rich countries to buy more carbon credits in order to meet targets set out in the Kyoto Protocol. The conference attempted to look at ways that carbon trading could be policed more strictly, but was met with strong Brazilian opposition. As a result, the topic of carbon market regulations was simply deferred until next year. Deferring discussions is yet another example of the power held by uncooperative oil-nations.
Whilst “bully” might be too strong a word, the political and economic power of oil-producing nations does seem to allow them to manipulate the outcome of international conferences. Opposite them stand AOSIS (the association of small island states) representing one-fifth of UN members and over 40 million people whose livelihoods are threatened by rising sea levels. Yet countries such as the Soloman Islands hold little negotiating power when Russia and the US are, at this point, sitting on the same side of the table. Even if Europe earnestly commits to radically reducing temperatures, they are going to need to encourage the bigger players to do the same and refuse to delay negotiations if they are to save some of the Pacific’s lowest lying islands. But why are oil-nations dragging their feet? As far as Bolsonaro and Trump are concerned it seems to be just as much political as economic. Their climate-change scepticism confronts a scientific or academic elite and sets out to undo commitments made by their predecessors. In other words, their uncooperative stance on environmental policy contributes to their image as heterodox leaders who put their country’s economic prosperity first, refusing to bow to international pressure.
If this is the case, is there anything that can make them cooperate? The casualties caused by the collapse of the Brumadinho Dam in Brazil was a terrifying example of the dangers of unsustainable environmental practices. It may force Bolsonaro to rethink his dismissive attitude towards environmental policy, but in this case the pressure will come from inside the country. If something similar were to happen in the US, a call for more cooperation on environmental policy would be likely. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and Russia are no strangers to a certain antagonism when it comes to international relations, making it hard to imagine how much international pressure needs to be applied in order for them to sacrifice their oil gains for the sake of environmental protection. This is even more so the case when we consider that any pressure from without would have to compensate for the significantly muted pressure offered by civil society on the inside.
The IPCC report is a potent reminder that climate change will not wait for political leaders to reach a consensus or to wait for oil-nations to be convinced of the economic and political viability of environmental policy.
The IPCC report is a potent reminder that climate change will not wait for political leaders to reach a consensus or to wait for oil-nations to be convinced of the economic and political viability of environmental policy. There is no longer any room for nations to pursue a self-centric policy when the problem is global; there is no time for tepid statements or commitment. Instead if there is to be progress there needs to be true cooperation and a radical change in country’s priorities. The reality is, however, that such a turn-around may not be achieved within the pressing time limit scientists have set.