in Kuwait, Russia, Saudi Arabia, USA

A storm in a Katowice tea cup: COP24 climate negotiators argue about the difference between “welcoming” and “noting” the IPCC’s latest report

The COP24 climate negotiations in Katowice are following the same predictable path that the UN climate meetings follow every year. After the first week, the negotiators are arguing, apparently unable to agree on anything much. Over the second week, as ministers arrive, everything will seem hopeless. Then, after a couple of late-night sessions at the end of the second week, an agreement will be found, and the Katowice Compromise can be applauded. The world will breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Meanwhile, absolutely nothing will have been done to address climate breakdown. Keeping fossil fuels in the ground is not on the agenda in Katowice. Fossil fuels are not even mentioned in the Paris Agreement.

Fortunately for the 1,500 journalists in Katowice, there was a kerfuffle on Saturday afternoon.

Here’s a sample of headlines from the past couple of days:

The meeting that generated these headlines was the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) Closing Plenary on 8 December 2018.

The SBSTA chair, Paul Watkinson, got through the first eight items on the agenda in about half-an-hour. Then he moved on to item 6: “Research and systematic observation” (the agenda items were not in numerical order).

Item 6 could have been a simple matter of agreeing to a draft text that the SBSTA chair had proposed in a document titled “Research and systematic observation: Draft conclusions proposed by the Chair”.

The difficulty in agreeing the draft conclusions came in a paragraph about SBSTA’s response to the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. The SBSTA chair had proposed the following text:

The SBSTA noted the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C.21 It welcomed the efforts of the IPCC experts on the report and the presentations given by IPCC experts and the rich dialogue that Parties and observers had with IPCC experts at the SBSTA–IPCC special event.22 It noted the importance of the underlying research and systematic observation enabling the production of the report. It took note of the knowledge gaps and information needs related to systematic observation in the report.


21. IPCC. 2018. Global Warming of 1.5°C: An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Available at http://ipcc.ch/report/sr15/.

22. On unpacking the new scientific knowledge and key findings in the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C; see https://unfccc.int/event/sbsta-ipcc-special-event-unpacking-the-new-scientificknowledge-and-key-findings-in-the-ipcc-special.

It is important for the UNFCCC to at least try not to allow global warming to exceed 1.5°C. But would it really have been so bad for SBSTA to accept this text as it is? Would it really make any difference to addressing the climate crisis?

Had they accepted the SBSTA chair’s text, in theory at least, negotiators could have spent their valuable time on something that might actually stand a chance of addressing climate breakdown. Except, of course, that keeping fossil fuels in the ground is not on the agenda in Katowice.

Does any of this really matter?

The following is a report of the discussions in the SBSTA meeting, starting with the Maldives’ response to the text proposed by the SBSTA chair:

Maldives: We, the group of Alliance of Small Island States believes that there is one paragraph where we have not been able to reach a consensus, and that is a paragraph that is critically important to our group and to many of the parties that are present here. That is the issue on how we as parties respond to the special report on 1.5 degrees by the IPCC.

The proposal that you have put us, Mr. Chair, at least from our understanding, is not captured in what the vast majority of the parties think about this report.

Of course the special report was accepted by the IPCC plenary in October on the basis that it was a comprehensive, objective and balanced assessment of the impact of 1.5 degrees celsius and emission pathways for getting there.

Governments have had, here in this room, have already accepted the report. The IPCC has fulfilled its mandate and the request, and we have seen from the presentations in the recent days how valuable this report has been in informing all elements of our work.

To us it is therefore incomprehendible [sic] that most of the valuable information of the report, that is produced at our request, could now not be welcomed in the research and systematic observation conclusions.

This report has confirmed us the urgent need to accelerate our work in implementing the Paris Agreement and tackling the climate change. And yet this urgency is being ignored by many in the room, and that will hurt us.

What signal does it send to the world and to the IPCC if we cannot welcome the best available science?

We need to welcome it, and we need to listen, and we need to show that the world is serious about tackling climate change, that we have understood. And the message that the science is sending to us, that is one of the greatest urgency.

Therefore we insist on welcoming the report of the IPCC. Thank you.

Several parties spoke in favour of the Maldives’ proposal to change the word “noted” to “welcomed”, including IALAC (Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean), the Least Developed Countries (48 parties), EIG (Environmental Integrity Group – Mexico, Liechtenstein, Monaco, the Republic of Korea, Switzerland and Georgia), Norway, Argentina, Nepal, Belize, Tuvalu, Bhutan, and South Korea.

Four countries opposed the proposal: the U.S., Kuwait, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Of course it is no coincidence that this list includes the top three oil producing countries in the world, and the 10th.

Here are their statements:

United States: Thank you. United States is ready to accept the draft conclusions on Item 6 as proposed by the SBSTA chair. We would like to make the following statement with respect to the IPCC special report referenced on in these conclusions.

The United States appreciates the hard work of the scientists and experts who authored the IPCC special report. We note that as the United States stated at the IPCC plenary on October 6th, acceptance of the report and approval of the summary for policy makers by the IPCC does not imply endorsement of the specific findings or the underlying contents of the report by the United States. Thank you.

Kuwait: Thank you Mr. Chair. Kuwait would accpet the proposed by you, sir, as proposed in document L.19 and we would like to keep it as it is. Thank you.

The Russian Federation: Thank you Chair. Yes, we too would like to support your proposal and to leave the text as it stands. Since we very much welcome the work of the authors, but we don’t think there’s any need to welcome the report. I think that it’s enough just to note it in this case. Thank you.

Saudi Arabia: Well, thank you very much Mr. Chair. This is a very interesting exercise we are going through here. It’s a warm up for what is coming in the SBI and APA.

If we, as parties, are debating a war between “welcome” and “note”, I can’t imagine what will happen when we come to the real stuff of the Paris Agreement, the Katowice Package that we’re all eyeing to adopt. But this is not really giving us a good signal that it’s going to be a smooth business.

If we are debating a war between “welcome” and “note” and we have this run down, the show down, of countries coming one after another of course we can all do this. I can bring a whole host of countries behind me. But this is not an effecient way of doing our business.

We have a clean text and I think the clean text was proposed by you. We have confidence in your leadership, those who objected could have done this in the room. But to come here under the, under everyone’s eyes and trying to push on just simply changing a word from “note” to “welcome”, it will put us in a very good position now preparing for what’s coming ahead.

Not only this week, but also next week, that is going to be really very sensitive delicate situation here where parties are unable to agree between “welcome” or “note”.

Later on, talking about transparency, flexibility, later on talking about compliance, later on talking about the rest of the Paris Agreement. But we’re prepared for all of that.

But this sends us a very good signal that we really need to be prepared for some serious, serious discussions that hopefully will lead us to a successful conclusion of COP24.

Mr. Chairman, the dynamics is changing now. When you tabled your draft, the draft that came from the room, you asked for an objection. I did not hear an objection, I heard a counter-proposal from the AOSIS, they said they are not happy, but they did not object. I did not hear the word them objecting to the proposal that you tabled.

And now you are saying we are taking views on the proposal made by you. That is not the case. We are taking views on the proposal that you tabled. And if AOSIS is objecting I would like to hear them say they are objecting to your proposal and then we’ll have some discussion around it.

Until we hear that clear objection from AOSIS, or any other party who wishes to object, we cannot engage on this proposal. So until we hear that, please, I am not engaging in the proposal from AOSIS until we hear clear objection to the tabled document, that is a clean document, that has no brackets, and we need to hear from the floor someone objecting to it. Thank you very much.

So, four major oil producing countries are behaving like the planet destroyers that they really are. Should we be surprised?

Apparently St Kitts and Nevis was surprised:

St Kitts and Nevis: “For the avoidance of doubt, St Kitts and Nevis does object to paragraph 11 in the text. That being said, Mr. Chair, it seems as though the discussion that we’re having is really being limited to a choice between one word and another. And so just for the clarification the plenary, this is not a choice between one word or another. This is us as the UNFCCC being in a position to welcome a report that we requested, that we invited the IPCC to prepare.

And so, it seems to me, that if there is anything ludicrous about the discussion that is taking place it is that we in this body are not in a position to welcome this report. And with that, we are in your hands. Thank you.

That received a round of applause. SBSTA chair Watkinson proposed that the parties interested in this should carry out small informal consultations. He pointed out that, “If there is no consensus, I would stress that Rule 16 would then prevail on the work as far as this is concerned. And I think that this isn’t the best solution, so before concluding with this meeting, and I do hope that we will be able to reach a result.”

Rule 16 states that if consensus is not reached on any agenda item, that item is automatically included in the agenda of the next session, “unless otherwise decided by the Conference of Parties”.

SBSTA chair Watkinson suspended the meeting and invited interested parties to “come closer to the platform”. A huddle formed in front of the stage. That lasted for more than an hour.

Watkinson read the proposed text:

SBSTA chair: “The SBSTA welcomed the efforts of the IPCC experts on the report and the presentations given by IPCC experts and the rich dialogue that parties and observers had with IPCC experts at the SBSTA-IPCC special event. It noted the importance of the underlying research and systematic observation enabling the production of the report. It took note of the knowledge gaps and information needs related to systematic observation in the report.”

In addition, the footnote which in L.19 was at the end of the first line, footnote 21 would be moved to after the word “report” which is in the second line in the written text. So the SBSTA welcomed the efforts of the IPCC experts on the report, and at that point in the text would be inserted footnote 21 which is found at the bottom of the page, where you have the title of the report produced by the IPCC.

I hope that the amendment I am proposing is clear. If anyone wishes me to repeat it, I will do, but essentially we delete the first line from “noted” until “It”. So, “The SBSTA welcomed the efforts” and so forth is how it would then read, and the footnote 21 which currently is at the end of the first sentence is moved to the word report which is currently in the middle of the second line.

May I consider that the SBSTA adopt the conclusions on paragraph 11 in FCCC/SBSTA/2018/L.19 as orally amended?

The translator momentarily lost herself in the excitement. “It is so decided,” she said, before apologising.

The European Union had something to say.

European Union: Thank you Mr. Chair, and thank you to all colleagues for the intense discussion we’ve just had. We very much welcome the efforts that have been taken in order to find a compromise here.

Having said that, however, we don’t feel that our concerns are really reflected in the way in which you have just forwarded that compromise, given that we want clear language that welcomes reports of the IPCC under the SBSTA, and not just welcome the efforts that scientists have taken. And that is in particular the case not only for this report, but also for other reports to come in the future on the IPCC.

And for that, unfortunately we cannot join the compromise on this language. Thank you.

Colombia, on behalf of IALAC, said “We are very sorry that this matter can’t conclude but we cannot accept such a weak formulation as the proposed.” The Maldives and Ethiopia also rejected the proposed text.

Watkinson made a statement:

SBSTA chair: Very good. So there is no consensus. Rule 16 will apply to the work done here in Katowice in the SBSTA and Item 6 Research and Systematic Observations, that will be on the agenda of our next meeting, SBSTA 50 in June 2019.

And I will not deny that I am very disappointed with this result. This was important work done by experts on this issue. I have heard your positions, the positions of all of the parties and I hear strong voices in the room which feel that report of the IPCC on the 1.5 degrees is very important, yet we have not achieved consensus on how to respond to the IPCC report on 1.5 degrees.

It is a matter of regret that the work in these conclusions cannot be adopted, but that is the situation, as I understand it, that is how it stands. Of course, I will draw the COP President’s attention to what has happened this afternoon because I know that this matter is of great important to many parties who wish to have a solution to the question of how to respond to the IPCC report.

We have spent a lot of time on this without achieving a result.

The Maldives read out a statement on behalf of AOSIS, welcoming the IPCC’s special report on 1.5 degrees. “Our future work under the UNFCCC must be guided by this crucial report and its findings.”

Colombia promised to be brief because they agreed with everything that AOSIS had just said. “We need this IPCC report. We welcome it, and hope we’re guided by it.”

The European Union said that it “welcomes the IPCC’s special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees celsius.” and that “We are very disappointed no agreement could be reached.” Tuvalu said it was “deeply disappointed”. Switzerland announced that EIG also supported the statement from AOSIS and that EIG was also “deeply disappointed”.

Saudi Arabia asked, “Do you need to gavel on rule 16, Mr. Chairman? Because you didn’t gavel on it.”

Gabon said, “The African Group would like to highlight the importance of science in our work. We have always welcomed the work of the IPCC and always appreciated IPCC reports.”

Norway said it was disappointed. “We would like to associate ourselves with the statement made by AOSIS and the EU.”

Ethiopia was also deeply dissapointed and wanted, “to be associated with the statement by AOSIS and other colleagues”.

Watkinson pointed out that the time available for the meeting was running out.

That didn’t stop Zambia, New Zealand, Ghana, South Korea, Argentina, Canada, South Africa all associating themselves with the groups the welcomed the IPCC report.
 

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  1. Leo Hickman has done a detailed interview with Ayman Shasly, senior negotiator for Saudi Arabia:

    The Carbon Brief Interview: Saudi Arabia’s Ayman Shasly
    By Leo Hickman, Carbon Brief, 12 December 2018
    Ayman Shasly is a senior negotiator for Saudi Arabia at both the UNFCCC and IPCC. In his role as an international policies consultant with the ministry of petroleum and mineral resources in Saudi Arabia, he is a board member of the Green Climate Fund. He has also worked in China for Saudi Aramco, one of the world’s largest oil companies.