In 2019, Climate Diplomacy Needs to Challenge ‘Systemic’ Politics

The 24th edition of the UN climate talks in 2018 (COP-24) will be followed by a series of meetings in 2019 that will further build on its outcomes, primarily the Paris “rulebook”. The rulebook is essential for the 2015 Paris Agreement to come into force in 2020. The ‘Katowice Climate Package’ did not deliver as much as one would expect, with several decisions on market mechanisms and other matters being postponed to future meetings, especially in the aftermath of the release of the special report on Global Warming of 1.5°C by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The year 2019 therefore presents many challenges to international climate diplomacy, which will decide what shape the global climate regime takes, come 2020. The systemic challenges are at the heart of why – despite the increasing number of ominous signs of climate change and urgent calls for climate action – there is very little movement towards implementing a more ambitious agenda and concomitant climate action. And in such a scenario, developing countries are and will be the most affected parties, as the lack of ambition and inefficiencies in the international climate regime emerging from these systemic challenges render them more vulnerable environmentally, socio-economically and politically. As long as climate diplomacy overlooks science and human security, the effects of climate change cannot be escaped.

Long-term interests of developing countries

To have arrived at the “rulebook” by the end of COP-24 is an achievement in itself, considering that in the run-up to it, scepticism loomed large over the future of the Paris Agreement after the United States’ announcement to withdraw from it and the new Brazilian government’s threat to follow suit. Now that there is, more or less, consensus on how to measure, report on and verify emissions reduction efforts and on contributions to climate finance, countries still need to finalise rules regarding carbon market mechanisms, and more importantly, discuss a long-term vision for the world, which is largely missing in the text of the Package.

In particular, the long-term interests of developing countries need to be addressed and secured. Despite attempts to dilute ‘differentiation’, especially by the United States, it was incorporated in several places across the rulebook. However, this is not enough to ensure that the developing countries would be able to mobilise adequate finances for their mitigation and adaptation efforts, specified under the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The long-term interests of developing countries have therefore been overlooked to a certain degree in the interest of achieving some form of consensus on the rulebook, which is a bigger systemic requirement for the Paris Agreement to come into force. But is the fulfilment of systemic requirements enough to address the climate and environmental crises that humankind faces?

The red lines of developing countries have been compromised

Even while agreeing upon the principles of the ‘transparency framework’ that provides flexibility to developing countries in terms of self-determining the parts of the framework that they accept based on their national capacities – watering down the principle of differentiation to some extent – issues of adaptation, finance and loss-and-damage that were raised by these countries were neglected.

The outcome is therefore a mitigation-centric one, which does not commit any financial support for the loss-and-damage mechanism (Warsaw International Mechanism). Although the focus of this COP might have been on achieving broad-based consensus on mitigation, at a time when developing countries are facing the brunt of loss and damage caused by climate change, if they are left to fend for themselves, it would indeed be the gravest form of climate injustice. For that matter, the pre-2020 financial commitments (even for mitigation) have also been falling far behind expectations. Similarly, with concerns regarding equity being marginalised even further and erased from the text, clearly the red lines that developing countries such as India have championed for so long have been compromised.

“If solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself”

In a state-centric model of climate diplomacy, neither science nor human security receives the kind of attention they deserve. This is why the Katowice package fell short of “welcoming” the IPCC’s 1.5°C report, stuck to the lowest common denominator on most of the decisions, lacked ambition and financial commitments, and paid little heed to the interests of the developing and least developed countries’ requirements. It is no wonder that 15-year old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, asserted in her eye-opening speech at COP-24, “If solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself.”

The international community is gradually moving towards a market-driven climate regime, which is in itself not bad; but if the market mechanisms perpetuate dubious emissions trading principles and processes that are non-transparent and corruptible, as it is turning out to be, one wonders if there will be any real progress in climate mitigation. More importantly, are these mechanisms even in commensurate with the available scientific data? As much as these mechanisms are crucial for corporations, how will they translate into human-centric instruments based on equity and justice, aimed at the most marginalised societies of the world? The ‘Silesia Declaration on Solidarity and Just Transition’ is a step in the direction of integrating social dimensions and justice into the required transition, but we are miles away from realising these goals that should be at the heart of the discussions and not at their periphery, as is the case now.

Climate diplomacy needs to overcome systemic hurdles

There is much to be debated and discussed in 2019 and in the years to come. However, we cannot bank and rejoice anymore on infinitesimal successes (which the Katowice Summit presented), as the “window is narrowing”. A systemic change might be a far cry but climate diplomacy needs to overcome the existing systemic hurdles to deal with multi-faceted issues that are not only restricted to climate change, but also to a slew of other problems linked to it.

It has been argued that the conceptualisation of international politics as a system built on ‘material’ structures, ‘anarchic’ principles and ‘power’ politics may constrain actions that could minimise environmental degradation, reduce socio-economic disparities and bridge the technological divide. The international community, even while cooperating on several crucial issues, is still divided along geopolitical and geoeconomic lines, which is evident in the manner in which these fault lines have materialised in the form of populism and nationalism, and which have affected progress in climate action as well.

Without debunking the role that the international climate change negotiations are playing and will continue to play, a fresh framework that draws from and feeds into local, national and regional climate action plans needs to be nurtured. These efforts, reflecting on contextual (local or national or even regional) risks and needs, should be geared towards human security, especially the security of the most affected communities. A strong bottom-up movement is already underway in many contexts, which can transform the climate and the planet positively, by keeping issues related to fairness, rights and justice at the centre of climate action. Through the Paris Agreement, the bottom-up approaches and initiatives are getting more traction as well, but we need a more concerted approach to bolster and sustain them, especially in developing countries wherein the lines between socio-economic, political and ecological variables are more blurred than in other contexts. They will hold the key to the future of this planet, and therefore they need to be strengthened further to challenge systemic politics (and not politics that cannot and should not be sidestepped) that has been holding the entire climate agenda to ransom for all these years.


Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute of Political, Historical and International Studies hosted by the University of Lausanne, Switzerland; Co-Coordinator at the  Centre for Climate Studies and Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka, India.

[The views expressed in this article are personal.]