From Ambition to Reality: Why COP24 Needs to Acknowledge the Crucial Role of Local Governments

COP 24 is the place to further enhance the much-needed dialogue and collaboration between local and national governance with regards to their climate change policies, says Lou del Bello.

The Paris Agreement is about to take a crucial leap from ambition to reality as the member countries of the UNFCCC are gathering in Katowice for the next two weeks. Delegates will brave the unforgiving Polish winter with their eyes set on a historic prize: a set of practical guidelines that will help countries implement the ideas submitted three years ago in Paris, the so-called rulebook.

The Power of Local Governments

The proceedings of the UN convention on climate change have traditionally been perceived as frustratingly inaccessible to regions, cities, and businesses. But this is poised to change this year, with local entities showcasing early progress within the official Talanoa Dialogue framework.

The talks in Katowice will unfold in a very different political landscape than delegates had anticipated in Paris in 2015, when the landmark climate agreement was signed. Over the course of three years, several global leaders – most recently Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro – have reneged on their climate commitments, thus further widening the policy gap the world needs to bridge in order to keep global warming within 2°C.

“We have a gap between the nationally determined contributions and the emission targets we need to meet,” says Andrew Cooper, climate governance rapporteur for the European Committee of the Regions, “so we’ve got to find these emission savings somewhere.” One approach might be to add locally determined contributions to the insufficient nationally determined ones – an area that has so far been neglected by national government officials.

“One thing really struck me at the time of the [2015] negotiations, when the 1.5°C goal was set,” says Cooper, “as a local politician, at no point had my government been in touch with any councils, to ask for help or assistance. It’s three years now and they still haven’t.”

Cooper, who is also a councillor for the city of Kirklees, United Kingdom, believes that this year’s COP and especially the rulebook may finally see the recognition of cities’ and regions’ contributions. The proposed “locally determined contributions” could find their rightful place alongside the broader, but not sufficient, national pledges. These, if left on their own, would lead to a 3°C warming above pre-industrial levels.

Jisun Hwang, a climate and advocacy officer with ICLEI, says that in the current climate of global political uncertainty, city networks and local initiatives can take the lead towards a steady progress because they can act independently from national governments.

Talanoa: Cities and Regions as Key Actors

The Talanoa Dialogue, introduced last year during the COP23 conference, is meant to tap into that potential by opening up an official conversation between the UN member states and non-state actors such as cities and regions.

The Cities and Regions Talanoa Dialogues is an initiative spearheaded by ICLEI that has already visited 31 countries, 60 per cent of them in the developing world. Ten months after its launch, Hwang is somehow optimistic. She recalls that back in the 1990s, all the local initiatives that were mushrooming in Europe were based on cities that took initiative before any government would tell them what to do.

“That kind of spirit has continued, even more so at a time like this, when we have isolationism on the rise among national governments,” she says.

The Talanoa Dialogue is not just about reducing the emissions of carbon intensive urban spaces, but also about promoting sustainable development and about adaptation to new environmental threats such as heatwaves, wildfires, or floods.

Rich Nations Must Assume Responsibility

To allow low-income nations to adapt to a new, more extreme normal, and pay for irreparable damages to infrastructure and livelihoods, finance will need to be scaled up dramatically. Once again, even though climate finance flows have grown by 17 per cent over the past two years compared with 2013 and 2014, financial flows are expected to remain a contentious issue at COP.

The ‘2018 Biennial Assessment and Overview of Climate Finance Flows’, a main piece of research, is due to be revealed this week in Katowice. Shortly before the conference, it is reported that the wording of the report was tweaked after the US delegation questioned the very definition of developing and developed countries. This is a highly problematic development, as it casts doubt over rich nations’ moral obligation to pay back for their historical environmental responsibility.

COP24 Will Make or Break the Paris Agreement

As the commitment of nations falters, it is more important than ever that local actors, particularly in the developing world, are well equipped to tap into those resources already there. But to do so, the cooperation between local and national bodies is crucial.

Over the next two weeks, the global climate community expects to see problems addressed, and productive compromises achieved. Observers claim that this year’s COP will make or break the Paris Agreement. Certainly, the way in which the voice of local actors will be woven into the final text will contribute to the outcome.

Lou del Bello

Lou del Bello

Lou Del Bello is a climate journalist who specialises in science and development issues. She is a COP veteran and has been following the work of the UN climate framework for more than five years.
Lou del Bello