Blog | Dec. 18, 2018

5 things we learnt from the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference

Global Witness was at last week’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland.

The media is awash with summaries, but what really happened? The conference adopted a ‘rulebook’ on how the Paris Agreement is supposed to function, but left out key principles such as equity and justice, and pushed some of the harder decisions until next year. A Twitter thread by Friends of the Earth campaigner Rachel Kennerley sums up the situation succinctly – the Katowice summit has not got us on track to stop climate change.

There is still hope, however – but it rests with the world’s people to ensure governments do the right thing, and bring about the systemic change that can help slow the rapid breakdown of our climate.  

To break it down for those trying to wade through all the summaries, here’s five things Global Witness learnt at the Katowice climate talks:

1: The UN process (on its own) won't save us.

This will be hard for a lot of people to hear, but agreements at the UN won’t give us a solution to climate change, at least not on their own. The Global Witness team were expecting this, but were still shocked at the level of greenwashing, the influence of the fossil fuel companies in the talks, and the sheer volume of empty words. Our colleagues at DeSmog have pointed out that coal, oil and gas companies participated in 31 side events during the conference. That includes side events by Shell, the sponsorship of the conference by a huge Polish coal company, and several events by gas lobby group Gasnaturally. And this is just the influence we know about.

Global Witness was in the room when the Maldives proposal to ‘welcome’ the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest special report into the urgent need to cut emissions was blocked. We watched as the European Union, Argentina, South Korea, Tanzania, the Alliance of Small Island States and many other countries lined up to support the proposal, but the proposal was blocked by the USA, Russia, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Because UN decisions need consensus, the session was broken up in an attempt to find a compromise, in a situation that ate hours of valuable negotiating time and did not result in a resolution.

A small amount of rogue countries, acting as puppets of the fossil fuel industry, can hold up all progress. It’s clear therefore – a global movement of the people, in every country, is key to helping solve the climate crisis and pushing governments to act. But how? More on this further down.

2: The real solutions are being discussed on the sidelines.

The Global Witness side event (co-hosted by Oil Change International and the Stockholm Environment Institute) on phasing out fossil fuels had a full house, unusual for these events. A rare all-female panel led a discussion about the ‘first mover’ countries across the world that are already ending new licensing for oil and gas and preparing ‘just transition’ plans for a managed phase-out of the oil and gas industry, protecting workers as well as the climate. These include New Zealand, Costa Rica, Belize and others. More are on the way. These first mover countries should not be underestimated. You can find a Twitter Moment summary of our event here.

Another side event tackled the role of the financial industry in funding fossil fuels. And yet another event – a meeting of the monitoring body for the New York Declaration on Forests – used Global Witness data to demonstrate just how important it is to support land and environmental defenders and indigenous communities to stop climate change.

These are huge issues – they should be being discussed in the main negotiations, but they aren’t. It’s been pointed out by many that the Paris Agreement doesn’t even mention fossil fuels.

The real dynamism is outside the formal negotiations – only all of us, acting in every country and calling for systemic change, can force the real solutions into the talks. 

3: Polluters pushing false solutions will face escalating protest.

Shortly after our panel on fossil fuels, the Trump Administration held a pro-fossil fuels event. This sparked ferocious protest. Japan came under criticism from South East Asian groups, for being one of the biggest financiers of new coal plants in the world. Shell were challenged at their side event by Nigerian activists, who say Shell have turned their home into ‘hell on earth.’ (Check out Global Witness’ separate expose into Shell’s activities in Nigeria here). UK Climate Minister Claire Perry was embarrassed as her speech was interrupted at least four times by protesters, taking her to task on issues as diverse as fracking, a just transition, biofuels and keeping fossil fuels in the ground. As fossil-compromised nations and fossil fuel giants continue to sabotage the UN process, they can expect an escalating backlash. 

4: The science is becoming ever more stark.

We now know more than ever before about the global heating in the world climatic system. An event hosted by the Met Office laid down some chilling facts about what will happen if we miss the target of keeping global average temperatures under 1.5c above pre-industrial levels. We face worldwide mass forced migration, escalating heat death, droughts, floods and food insecurity that could lead to mass starvation in some parts of the world. Professor John Schellnhuber from the Potsdam Institute said that if we went beyond the Paris Agreement limits on climate change, “we will raise hell” – very stark words for a scientist to use.

But out of the grave warnings and the complicated science, there emerges a simplicity. In order to have a liveable planet, it’s clear that there are some things we now simply must do – the vast majority of fossil fuels need to stay in the ground. No new fossil fuel infrastructure can be built, and existing fossil fuel infrastructure must be phased out rapidly, in a managed way that protects communities. No solution is now possible without this.

5: So...what should we do?

At Global Witness, our work continues. It’s vital to defend our forests. It’s vital to protect land and environmental defenders. It’s vital to challenge the corrupt business practices of the fossil fuel companies. We need your support, and a global movement of people can help save us. But what can everyone do? Well, here’s a few things:

These are just a few things that we can do. But all of them involve creating action where you are, as well as supporting organisations that campaign globally. Auden Schendler and Andrew P Jones sum it up well in the New York Times – winning this fight requires all of us to give a significant part of ourselves:

This work must be habitual. Every day some learning and conversation. Every week a call to Congress. Every year a donation to a nonprofit advancing the cause. In other words, a practice. Maybe this approach doesn’t seem as noble as, say, our memory of the civil rights movement. But that era’s continuous, workmanlike grinding probably didn’t feel all that glorious then, either. With history as our judge, though, it does.

Join us in a daily practice that goes beyond changing lightbulbs and sorting recycling, and together we can build a global movement with the power to save us. 

Sign up to our newsletter to stay engaged with Global Witness activity; read more on tackling the illegal destruction of climate-critical forests here; and learn what steps governments and businesses can take to protect land and environmental defenders here


  • Adam McGibbon

    Campaigner, Climate Change


  • Adam McGibbon

    Campaigner, Climate Change

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