The 2018 annual conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, happening now, is the most anticipated and consequential such global negotiation since 2015, when the Paris Agreement on climate change itself was reached.

First, the urgency of the climate challenge has never been greater or more evident – and thus the pressure is mounting for countries to start making more progress in meeting it. Just last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the premier global body for the evaluation of climate science – published a special report on the implications of 1.5°C of global warming, and the findings provide overwhelming evidence of the need to enhance climate action – both to avoid the worst consequences of climate change and also to capture the benefits of such action, before it is too late.

According to this international body of leading scientists and experts, the severe effects of climate change that we are already experiencing – such as major hurricanes, floods, heatwaves, and wildfires of the sort that have killed and displaced thousands over the past few months alone – will be dwarfed by what we should expect if we do not rapidly alter our course: rapid sea level rise that will imperil low-lying lands and cities, extended droughts, super-charged storms and typhoons, drastically-reduced agricultural productivity, climate-induced migration, and widescale species and biodiversity loss.

Furthermore, the less we do to reduce emissions in the near term, the greater the risk of reaching tipping points – e.g., thawing arctic permafrost’s release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas – that could unleash exponentially worse impacts.

But the report is very much a call to action, not cause for despair: It also finds that there is still time to meet the challenge if we muster the will do to so – and that we will reap enormous health, economic, and other benefits in the process.

In Need of Climate Leadership

Yet, at the very moment when climate leadership needs to be enhanced and multilateral problem solving embraced, we are seeing climate change sinking down the list of national priorities – or, in some cases, national governments are actively working to undermine recent domestic and international progress.

The most glaring instance of this is the United States. President Donald Trump announced several months after taking office that he would be withdrawing the country from the Paris Agreement on climate change, and his administration has worked steadily to dismantle domestic federal climate policies and regulations. This includes steps to roll back the core elements of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan, such as the United States’ first-ever greenhouse gas emissions standards for power plants, new vehicle efficiency standards for cars, light trucks, and heavy-duty vehicles, regulations on methane leakage, and more.

President Trump has also reneged on prior commitments to support international climate mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing countries. This includes his refusal to provide $2 billion of previously pledged support from the United States to themultilateral Green Climate Fund – making the U.S. the only country to break its commitment to this fund. With a new replenishment round for the Green Climate Fund slated for next year, the United States’ failure to honor its finance commitment will be felt by recipient countries and donors alike.

The good news is no country has followed suit in announcing an intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which is credit to the other leaders around the world who are actively working to keep the global coalition together. But vigilance – and relentless climate diplomacy – is still very much required to prevent further flight.

Moreover, it is insufficient for heads of state to simply remain party to the Paris Agreement and content themselves with the status quo, as we are far from being on a glide path to reaching the goal of limiting the rise in global temperature to “well below 2°C”; rather, national leaders need to go further and keep climate action high on their domestic agendas.

Powerful Allies for Climate Action

Fortunately, national governments have a powerful set of allies in this effort: Sub-national and private sector actors – cities and states, businesses and investors, civil society, and citizens – are galvanized as never before. Events such as the Global Climate Action Summit, which took place in San Francisco in September, and President Macron’s One Planet Summit, which seeks leveraging public and private actors on climate action, have showcased the extent to which real climate action is bubbling up from all levels of society.

In the United States, these actors are emerging as an increasingly organized and potent counter-vailing force to the Trump administration’s anti-climate agenda. Of note is the U.S. Climate Alliance, which is housed by the United Nations Foundation. The Alliance is a growing coalition of 17 Democratic and Republican state and territory governors committed to upholding the Paris Agreement.

Co-chaired by the governors of California, Washington, and New York, the Alliance represents 40% of the U.S. population and accounts for nearly $9 trillion in combined economic activity – which makes this group of states collectively a larger economy than any country in the world other than the United States and China. Alliance states are now more than halfway toward the goal of meeting their share of the U.S.’s target under the Paris Agreement, having reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 14% below 2005 levels. They have achieved this while growing their economies faster than the rest of the country.

Ultimately, this sub-national and private sector activity is not simply a way to try to compensate for insufficient national policy, but rather could become a critical enabler and driver of the Paris Agreement and national ambition itself. Although only national governments can formally join the agreement and set targets within it, the groundswell of sub-national and private sector climate action that we are seeing creates political, economic, and technological conditions that should help encourage national leaders to both deliver on their existing targets and, crucially, to raise their national ambition going forward.

What Needs to Happen at the Annual UN Climate Conference

It is against this backdrop that countries will try to ensure that the negotiations in Katowice – referred to as the COP 24 – are a success. For that to happen, several key things could be accomplished:

First, countries need to reach agreement on the so-called ‘Paris rulebook,’ which will set out various technical guidelines and procedures that were left for future elaboration when the agreement was reached in 2015.

They largely relate to the provision of information by countries, such as information necessary to make their emissions targets clear and to the review of such information. Many of the same issues are arising in the negotiation of the rulebook that arose on the road to Paris, particularly around how to strike the right balance between the extent of national discretion versus how much is prescribed internationally. It will be important for the rulebook to embody the same balance that made agreement in Paris possible, especially by avoiding introduction of Kyoto Protocol-like distinctions between developed and developing countries that would have severe implications for the agreement’s efficacy.

Second, developed countries can demonstrate persuasively at the ministerial meeting on climate finance that they have both the will and the capacity to meet their 2009 commitment to mobilize $100 billion per year in public and private climate financing by 2020.

This means providing evidence that they have made sufficient progress over the past nine years such that they can close the remaining gap in the two years that remain, as well as previewing some of what this additional financing might entail – such as, for instance, replenishing the Green Climate Fund next year.

Third, countries should leave no doubt that they are entering a new “ambition” phase of the Paris Agreement in which countries that do not have 2030 targets are developing adequate ones and countries that do are reassessing the (in)adequacy of their existing commitments.

These targets should also be set in the context of – and keep countries on track to achieve – their individual national long-term low-carbon strategies. The science is overwhelming that enhanced action beyond what countries have currently pledged is required to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal, and countries must not shrink from that fact. To help bolster ambition and action, the UN Secretary-General will host a special climate summit in September 2019.

Given that the stakes are so high, it is inevitable that countries will push forcefully at the COP and that compromise could come late – and the weakened position of the United States makes building the necessary agreement that much more difficult. Fortunately, there is a path forward if countries use the Paris Agreement as the guiding light.


Editor’s Note: A version of this post originally appeared in the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affair’s journal GAIKO (Diplomacy), Vol 52, November/December 2018.