Installment 5: Dispatches from COP24, A UMN student delegation in Katowice, Poland
This installment is written by Nina Domingo, a Ph.D. graduate student in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering.
It’s no secret that the nations most vulnerable to climate change are those that contribute the least to the problem. It is also known that the barriers that prevent us from acting on climate change are not scientific or technological challenges, but political ones. At COP24, leaders from nearly 200 nations come together to negotiate the policy actions their countries will take to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and support those that are already experiencing the effects of climate change today. As observers, students from around the world are witness to negotiations, dialogues, and proposals that seek to address the defining threat of our century.
There is a stark contrast in how different countries present themselves at COP—high-income countries often present grand visions of how they plan to accelerate the transition to renewable energy and electrify transport, while speeches by low-income countries are much more somber, frequently filled with stories of how climate change is already hurting their people’s ability to work, grow food, and provide safe homes for themselves.
In a press conference on the experiences of indigenous people in the Amazon, one delegate described how mining operations close to their community had introduced mercury to their water and poisoned their fish. As the amount of illegal mining and logging continued to rise, communities were forced to travel further and further away from their homes to feed themselves. Several indigenous groups had partnered with the government to surveil and protect parts of the Amazon forest from illegal activities for little or no compensation, preventing the release of significant amounts of carbon currently stored in the soil or plant biomass. One of the indigenous groups had come to ask to be compensated 10 US dollars per hectare of amazon forest surveilled from the adaptation fund. I struggle to think of a case wherein a more privileged community would offer a service of so high a value to the world at so low a cost. Though these presentations frequently seemed intent on painting the contributions of indigenous people in a hopeful light, they often left me wondering: how much longer are we going to rely on the altruism of those with less to protect those with more? How can we boast about progress when we treat others as if they have fewer rights than us?
The most recent Adaptation Gap Report published by the United Nations Environment concludes that annual costs of adaptation could range from US$140 billion to US$300 billion by 2030. Despite calls by scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for a rapid scale-up of ambition, most high-income countries have so far failed to assure greater support for international climate finance. European governments argue that existing budget rules limit their ability to allocate funding more than a few years in advance. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Russia, and the United States, all major oil and gas producing countries, are strongly pushing for the conference to “note” rather than “welcome” the urgent callings of the IPCC report. Outside the negotiations, the Polish government displays a pro-coal exhibit in the COP pavilion and promotes the official COP24 bus as an “ecobus”, despite being powered by oil and gas.
The 2018 IPCC report concludes that limiting warming to the 1.5C target is still possible, but the deadline to act is fast approaching. On my last day of COP24, I attended the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice’s closing plenary session, where negotiators gather to finalize the wording of the Paris rulebook. I am filled with hope and heartbreak as I take in the sight of a room filled with delegates from nearly 200 nations, finalizing the rules that will greatly determine the fate of billions of people. There is so much we can do to protect one another if we embrace our power and responsibility to act on climate change. All we must do is try.