Just as global institutions are being challenged on multiple fronts, the United Nations body on climate change will face the same. Though the economics of many technologies to mitigate or adapt to climate change are becoming more attractive, the weakness of international institutions will limit the power of the international framework in reaching its objective.
The 24th Conference of Parties ended on a high note on Dec. 15 by completing a rulebook for the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. Though a contingent of nations stayed an extra day at the annual meeting in Poland to finish the instructions — known as the Katowice Climate Package — a number of issues remain unresolved. The package provides directions and guidelines for tracking the voluntary targets to limit carbon dioxide and other emissions that were agreed upon three years ago in France. The nearly 200 nations represented at the meeting agreed to set targets on financing and to do a global "stocktake," which involves evaluating progress at midpoints and establishing methods to track emissions as well as the development and transfer of technology. However, the conference delegates failed to establish a voluntary market mechanism, and the agreement was criticized as weak and lacking urgency.
Funding from the developed world helps developing nations shoulder the cost of climate-friendly economic development, but in the current framework, though pledges are high, follow-through is not ensured. Additionally, there remains a key divergence in the interests among nations and the approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation. That was front and center at this year's two-week meeting. Brazil, with an uncertain climate policy under President-elect Jair Bolsonaro (he takes office Jan. 1), was a key dissenting voice in the debate over the voluntary market mechanism. The United States (which still has representation and doesn't formally pull out of the agreement until 2020) led a contingent including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia in objecting to language that approved of the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released earlier this year. The U.N. panel gave the world a little over a decade to avoid a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius. This scientific consensus emphasizes urgency, but the enactment of the Paris Agreement and subsequent negotiations continue to stretch over long periods of time.
Climate governance will meet the same challenges as other international governing bodies as shifts in the world order weaken their effectiveness. The opposition is happening at a crucial time in climate progress, because public support for action is rising in many places, including at the corporate and local levels, sometimes contrary to national policy. As the costs fall for efficiency technologies, as well as renewables, their adoption will naturally increase, though that pace may not be rapid enough to reach the emission targets outlined by international climate bodies or assuage climate risk. The continued weakness of international institutions will limit the ability of the world to reach a consensus that truly drives adaptation or mitigation.
In addition, the great power competition is propelling China and the United States to push back against international institutions in a number of ways, and it is unlikely that the United Nations' climate arm will come away unscathed. Because of their diverse economic interests, the world's nations will consistently butt heads, and the leeway given to developing nations and China will remain a key sticking point. There will be numerous talks ahead of next year's meeting in Chile, but key definitions and requirements will present challenges, especially when it comes to markets and other enforcement or tracking mechanisms. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change may have taken a small step forward in Poland over the weekend, but there is still a vast chasm left to cross, one unlikely to be bridged in the current state of the world.