Skip to main content
An attendant stands behind flags ahead of the opening ceremony of the fifth World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province, China, November 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee - RC19C66AD7D0

Around the halls: Brookings experts on what to watch at the COP 24 climate summit

, , , , , , , , , and

COP 24 The 24th Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) begins Monday, December 3, in Katowice, Poland. Normally the host plays a big leadership role. This is the third time Poland has physically hosted the COP—more than any other country, except Germany (which hosts the climate change secretariat and pays an outsized share of the cost). Poland itself hasn’t been a big climate leader, Europe is distracted by Brexit and other dangers, the United States is planning to leave the Paris Agreement, and China and India are wary of too much exposure.

Who will lead international efforts to combat climate change, and what should we expect at this year’s COP? Climate experts from across Brookings explain the key issues.

Todd SternTodd Stern (@tsterndc), Senior Fellow in the Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate: The 2015 Paris Agreement was a landmark, the first universal and operational accord to guide the international response to climate change. The central challenge of the annual Conference of the Parties this year, taking place December 3 to 14 in Poland, is to complete the so-called “rulebook” of guidelines, procedures and rules needed to turn the Paris Agreement into a working regime, and to do this in a manner faithful to the delicate compromises that made Paris possible. The United States, of course, has been unable to play its usual leading role this year, but this is a handicap that can be overcome.

An international agreement can’t contain climate change by itself. The clean energy transformation already underway needs to accelerate markedly in speed and scale, and that in turn will demand a step change in resolve among leaders and citizens around the world. But a successful, working Paris regime can help drive that change, strengthening norms and expectations, and holding countries’ feet to the fire through mechanisms like regular reporting and review of country efforts, five-year cycles to ramp up country action, and additional five-year cycles to take stock of global progress toward the Paris temperature and emission goals.

A number of issues are on the table, relating to mitigation, reporting and review, finance, the global stock take, and markets, among other things. The most controversial issues tend to revolve around 1) how to manage the principle of differentiation among countries at different stages of development, without re-creating the old “firewall” structure between developed and developing countries, and 2) financial assistance. At this point, key country players pretty well know what the plausible “landing zones” for these issues are. If they keep their eyes on the prize, COP 24 can succeed.

David Victor, Co-Chair, Energy Security and Climate InitiativeDavid G. Victor, Co-Chair of the Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate: Most observers are focusing on whether diplomats can sew up the final details on the “Paris Agreement Work Programme”—also called the “rulebook.” When the Paris Agreement was finished to much fanfare back in 2015, many of the key details needed to put Paris into operation were left unfinished. Preparatory agreements in Bangkok produced a draft rulebook, of sorts, but disagreements are many and the text is sprawling. This year, in theory, is the deadline for ironing all that out.

Rulebooks are important, but it is easy to over-state their relevance because the Paris process is, by design, decentralized—it relies on countries and regions to take the lead with pledges of action and commitments to take the climate problem seriously. I’m looking to see whether serious leaders emerge in Poland—that is, countries that demonstrate, through their own actions, that they are dealing with climate change and that their actions are creating norms for others to follow. Leadership is particularly important when it comes to the rulebook because I doubt that nearly 200 countries will reach useful consensus on all the elements of the rulebook. Some of the topics, like the content of national pledges and the mechanisms for reviewing those pledges—which are the backbone to the decentralized process of governance agreed in Paris—are just too controversial. Leaders need to show best practices and models.

Victor: “Rulebooks are important, but it is easy to over-state their relevance.”

Samantha Gross, Fellow, Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate, The Brookings InstitutionSamantha Gross (@samanthaenergy), Fellow in the Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate: The key goal at COP 24 is to complete the rulebook to implement the Paris Agreement. But this effort is taking place in a challenging environment. A number of important countries are looking inward right now, including the United Kingdom as it negotiates the Brexit process, and Brazil and Mexico as they inaugurate new, disruptive leaders. Other governments are turning away from their Paris Agreement pledges—the United States is the extreme case, but Australia is not far behind. Multilateralism and international cooperation are a tough sell in a global environment where anti-establishment sentiment seems to be gaining ground. I also share others’ concern that the developed vs. developing country divisions will re-emerge in Katowice.

Nonetheless, I find hope in action. As negotiators struggle to come to agreement on thorny issues like transparency, review, and finance, important technologies like wind, solar, and power storage continue to improve and drop in price. China’s clean energy investment hit a new high of $132 billion last year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Electric vehicle sales in the United States are up 35 percent over last year and electric vehicle sales in China are three times those in the United States. I’m more concerned with countries establishing supportive policy environments for energy transition within their borders and in the continued march of technological progress than in achieving a perfect agreement in Katowice. Ideally, best practices can emerge from forward-looking countries to be shared as the Paris process advances.

Sahil Ali in Brookings IndiaSahil Ali, Associate Fellow in Brooking India; and Rahul Tongia (@drtongia), Fellow in Brookings India: If the tensions that prevailed at the Bangkok Climate Change Conference this year are anything to go by, we must be prepared for stickier disagreements over the details at Katowice. Whilst the former Annex 1 bloc, led by the EU, will stress on the rigor of the rulebook, developing nations may bring up “equity” and differentiated priorities and capabilities more strongly. America’s absence at brokering consensus gives the latter the moral upper hand.

Rahul Tongia, Fellow, Brookings IndiaAs with all durable partnerships, it’s about commitment and compromise. A successful agreement will necessarily have to be one that upholds the spirit and integrity of the Paris Agreement. How much of the IPCC 1.5°C report influences the negotiating outcomes will be interesting to watch!

As for India, it will resist capping absolute future emissions but emphasize its contribution and ambition, and demand more flexibility and support within the terms. For transparency, it will be well-served to clarify 1) the mitigating role of sinks in its nationally determined contributions and 2) the switchover from non-commercial biomass (highly polluting but carbon neutral) in various (primarily) rural applications to modern (emitting) fuels as necessary to its development strategy. In light of the stringent review and transparency system for the global order, much homework needs to be done to strengthen accounting, verification, and reporting of activity-wise greenhouse gases emissions domestically.

While India has chiefly focused on decarbonizing its electricity with cheap renewable energy, deep decarbonization will need to go far beyond this low hanging fruit, necessitating structural and operational revamps in its energy ecosystem. Of course, this is true for all countries to varying extents, which is where viable and meaningful consensus on effort-sharing will have to be reached.

Nathan HultmanNathan Hultman (@natehultman), Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Global Economy and Development program: The upcoming U.N. climate conference provides an opportunity to advance global action on climate change in two important ways.

The first opportunity—and formal driver for the meeting—is to implement a major element of the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement itself was an innovation in how the world organizes around climate, rooted firmly in the ability of individual countries to set forth their own strategies for addressing climate change. Key to this strategy was the process of transparency and reporting—and the resulting course corrections that such activities can facilitate through the levers of domestic and international politics. The key element for this year’s conference is agreeing on the “rulebook” for such transparency. While this discussion will be more technical than visionary, it will undergird an essential dimension of the Paris process, similar to how accounting standards are important for the smooth functioning of the global financial system.

The second opportunity is broader: This conference is really the opening bell for a 2-year period of both top-down and bottom-up climate policy actions that will be critical for raising global climate ambition, with the end goal of realizing major new increases in climate commitments in 2020. After the success of the Paris Agreement and the subsequent challenges posed by reactions in key countries’ national politics, the world community is facing a moment of significant decision. In just the recent two months, global attention to the tight timeline for addressing climate change has been heightened via several major scientific reports and significant climate impacts such as the California fires. At the same time, a groundswell of bottom-up climate actions happening around the world—notably in the United States, and bolstered by the recent election—combined with continued dramatic decreases in clean energy costs are strong indicators of how to solve this problem. This conference is the beginning of that sprint to 2020, and encouraging all cities, states, businesses, countries, and other actors to set their sights on more rapid and thoroughgoing economic transformations.

Timmons RobertsTimmons Roberts (@timmonsroberts), Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Global Economy and Development program: One key issue at COP 24 in Katowice is the finalization of the “rulebook,” created to clarify what countries must do to be in compliance with the Paris Agreement. Since Paris was essentially a voluntary pact where nations pledged what they thought would be possible in their “Nationally Determined Contributions,” the only real binding part was the need to report what each has actually done to fulfill those pledges. Therefore, a lot of attention will be paid to issues of transparency in reporting of climate actions by nations. This means both what a country does at home and what they do to help countries in the developing world.

At home, rules have to be agreed upon about how much detail different groups of countries need to report on their actions to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, and on their efforts to adapt to the impacts of climate change. But also and crucially, there are many details to be agreed upon about how countries report the amounts and types of financial support they provide in grants, loans and other ways they’ve “mobilized” private actions in developing countries.

The politics on each of these areas of reporting are remarkably complex, and thorny. Watch for the re-emergence of old divisions between developing countries wanting clarity on what support is forthcoming so they can plan ahead, and developed nations being reticent to provide that information. Transparency on climate action and finance is fundamental for the Paris Agreement to work, and civil society will play a key role in pushing nations to be rigorous and hold each other accountable.

Jeffrey Ball, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and ClimateJeffrey Ball (@jeff_ball), Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate: What happens unofficially on the sidelines of global climate conferences almost always is more important and interesting than what happens officially in the confabs themselves. That was true in 2009 in Copenhagen. It was true in 2015 in Paris. It almost certainly will be true this month in Katowice, Poland.

The climate negotiators’ impassioned speeches in these international gatherings tend to be long on rhetoric about a coming environmental crisis, but their negotiations, often behind closed doors, tend to be short on meaningful steps to confront it. The lower-key discussions among industry lions tend to matter more because they’re about what really will determine whether the world curbs climate change: private money. Study after study has concluded that massive amounts of private investment will have to shift in a greener direction if the world is to seriously slash carbon emissions. Government policy and spending are important mostly to the extent they accelerate that shift in private capital.

Ball: “Study after study has concluded that massive amounts of private investment will have to shift in a greener direction if the world is to seriously slash carbon emissions.”

The official negotiations in Katowice will clarify how serious countries are in implementing—and ultimately in toughening—the relatively weak pledges they made in Paris to constrain their emissions. To be sure, that signal will matter. But what I’ll be watching for in Poland (from afar, alas) is what the players with the good suits and the deep pockets say and do. If the heads of sovereign-wealth funds, pension funds, insurance companies, and other institutional investors fly away from Poland having resolved—or been pushed—to significantly intensify the decarbonization of their portfolios, Poland will have done something for the planet. If they don’t, the climate conference will have been little more than ceremonial.

Colette D. Honorable, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate, The Brookings InstitutionColette D. Honorable (@CHonorableEsq), Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate: The table is set for COP 24. This conference is poised to be the most significant gathering of nations focused on collective climate action since the Paris Agreement. This convening will allow all countries to assess how they “measured up” with the goals or pledges made in 2015. More importantly, COP 24 will give all participating countries an opportunity to renew their respective commitments to climate goals.

On the eve of the Poland conference, the EU and United States have heightened the awareness of the need for urgent climate action in meaningful ways. This week European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy Miguel Arias Canete announced EU’s goals to reduce emissions by 45 percent by 2030, and 60 percent by 2050. Many other countries have stepped forward to renew their commitments ahead of COP 24 as well.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, we were thankful for the administration’s issuance of the Fourth Annual Climate Assessment on November 23, which thoroughly and unequivocally addressed the dire impacts of unaddressed climate change on our citizens, society, and the environment. The report predicts that, among other devastating impacts, the U.S. economy will lose billions over time if these impacts are not addressed, shrinking the economy by as much as 10 percent if warming continues at its current pace.

Separately, the U.N. Environmental Programme recently announced that global emissions of carbon dioxide actually rose in 2017, for the first time in three years. Taken together, these actions and reports speak to the importance of what must occur after COP 24. The leaders at COP 24 should motivate policy makers and decisionmakers in countries around the world, state legislatures and city councils, mayors and local communities, boardrooms of global corporations, and beyond to renew their efforts. In order to achieve meaningful outcomes, an unprecedented level of coordination must occur among policymakers, lawmakers, global corporate leaders, and consumers.

We must decide, as Canete said, if we want to be “front movers” or “followers.”

Amar BhattacharyaAmar Bhattacharya, Senior Fellow in the Global Economy and Development program: COP 24 provides an important opportunity to shift the discussion on climate finance away from burden sharing to a new partnership to deliver on the ambitions of the Paris Agreement. Climate finance has been at the heart of the climate negotiations since its inception. The agreement to provide an additional $100 billion per year in climate finance at COP 15 at Copenhagen in 2009 brokered by President Obama led to the breakthrough in climate negotiations that paved the way for the Paris Agreement. This commitment was reaffirmed and embedded as a central part of the Paris Agreement.

Consequently, there has been a lot of focus on the delivery of the $100 billion commitment. Progress on multilateral climate funds has been mixed: The Climate Investment Funds launched after Copenhagen while modest in scale have had a very successful track record; the aim of establishing the Green Climate Fund as the principal climate financing mechanism has not materialized; and more recently, there has been a very successful replenishment of the Global Environment facility. The main development has been a large step increase in climate finance by the multilateral development banks, as a result of which the $100 billion commitment will likely be met.

It is now time to shift the focus to the larger task of mobilizing the trillions that will be needed for sustainable infrastructure, as well as for adaptation and preservation of natural capital, in order to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals and the climate goals. We need an enhanced partnership based on a new understanding of climate action. Climate action is not separate from but an integral part of growth and development strategies. As the latest report of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate has underscored, the benefits of climate action are greater than ever before and the costs of inaction continue to mount. The challenge is to unlock investments in sustainable infrastructure and mobilize the finance that can realize the growth opportunity of the 21st century. The bulk of the financing will have to come from domestic resources and the private sector. The challenge for the international community is to ensure that international public finance—from the multilateral development banks and multilateral climate funds—is of sufficient scale and used most effectively to catalyze the overall volumes of finance that will be needed.

The findings, interpretations and conclusions posted on are solely those of the authors and not of The Brookings Institution, its officers, staff, board, funders, or organizations with which they may have a relationship.


Get daily updates from Brookings