My 24 years at the UN climate talks

by Saleemul Huq | International Centre for Climate Change and Development
Tuesday, 4 December 2018 12:23 GMT

Delegates arrive for the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland December 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

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What's changed in that time? Climate change is now a problem of here and now - not a future threat

I have just arrived in Katowice, Poland and registered for my 24th Congress of the Parties (COP). I am not sure how many others have been to every single COP.

Over the last two and a half decades, a lot has changed.

A friend calculated that by spending two weeks every year at the COP I have spent nearly a full year involved in the negotiations process under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. He asked: Has it been worth it?

My answer is that the progress that has been made, though the process has been slow and inadequate. Nonetheless it is essential to deal with a global problem on the scale of human-induced climate change.

Occasionally, as in Paris in 2015, we actually achieve a breakthrough. With the signing of the Paris Agreement, all countries agreed to take action to tackle climate change.

What has kept me enthused, despite the often slow progress, is what I have been doing the other 50 weeks each year, which has been to assist the most vulnerable countries and communities in adapting to the adverse impacts of climate change.

Much of the time spent at a COP feels completely removed from that reality on the ground. Much of what I do at the COPs is try to connect them. 

As I am not an official negotiator but rather an advisor to the Least Developed Countries (LDC) group on adaptation and loss and damage. I spend much of my time helping build the capacities of the LDC negotiators and I am pleased to see that they have become a formidable negotiating group at the COPs over the years.

But the biggest change over the years has been seeing climate change morph from a global problem for the future into a global crisis here and now. 

As well, the Paris Agreement has unleashed massive opportunities for not just national governments but also sub-national regions, cities, and even companies and civil society to take their own actions to on climate change.

U.S. President Donald Trump, for instance, has been unable to prevent states like California, cities like New York and companies from implementing the Paris Agreement - even after he has officially declared he will withdraw the United States from it.

However, the withdrawal of the US is definitely a setback that will have to be addressed by the countries remaining in the Paris Agreement, including in Katowice where the rules governing the Paris Agreement are expected to be finalized and adopted.

One of the reasons I feel 2018 will prove to be a watershed year is the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on 1.5 degrees, which made a solid scientific case for keeping global temperature below 1.5 degrees and also showed how it is still achievable (but only with much greater political ambition) by transitioning to zero emissions by 2050 at the latest.

The report comes as clear evidence of worsening climate threats is growing - Hurricane Florence hitting the United States, Typhoon Mankhut hitting Philippines and China, and wildfires devastating California. Scientists who study them say they all were exacerbated by the 1 degree Celsius of human-induced climate change the world has already seen.

The loss and damage from climate change is clear – and the UNFCCC needs to respond urgently to this new phenomenon.

And there’s another unleashing of energy we are seeing around the world that is a reason for hope and optimism: the mobilisation of youth. The climate change crisis (it’s no longer just a “problem”) is becoming less about left vs right or even rich vs poor but increasingly about young vs old, where we the older generation who caused the problems now have to listen to and empower the young to solve them.