How far can we go on the site of an abandoned coal mine? Some reflections about COP24

By Fang Zhang

Before I came to Katowice to attend COP24, my imagination of the city was dark and dirty because it is a small city sitting on an old coal mine. When I arrived in Katowice, the beauty that has rejuvenated from the past indeed surprised me. The city is clean, pretty, and quiet, where you cannot imagine that coal mining had even existed. However, a country which has a long history and relationship with coal, coal is deeply connected to its culture. The first dinner that I had there was in a restaurant where all the decorations were modeled or marked with signs of coal history. The mix of the strong tracks of the coal culture and the progress of the phase-out of coal, mimics the compliance of the low-carbon transition.

As a person who attended the COP for the first time, I was super excited about the negotiation process and the side events, especially in the early days. Fortunately, there were a few negotiation rooms that were open to the public, though most negotiation events were closed-door. I, however, quickly got tired and lost my passion after attending three negotiation sessions. Most of the time, delegates were just there to present their ideas or shout out their demands for others but were unwilling to lay out their own concrete action plan. Surprisingly, some of them seemed to lack the knowledge to deal with the global stocktake, especially the technical aspects, partially due to the complexity of the issue, and therefore made the negotiation process unnecessarily slow and ineffective. My initial curiosity quickly faded during the long and boring negotiation process as I began to understand how difficult the climate change negotiations could be, given the time limitations.

Fang Zhang at one of the COP24 negotiation sites

Fang Zhang at one of the COP24 negotiation sites

What excited me during my stay in Katowice is the strong message from sources that there are dramatic success stories of coal plants declining in most of the world and how the capacity of renewable energy is rapidly accelerating. Renewables in China, India, Chile, and Mexico are booming. The EU committed to having renewables account for 32 percent of their energy use by 2030. Though the U.S. federal government drags its feet on the climate change issue, solar and wind power are now cheaper than fossil fuels, and an increasing number of private entities are motivated to take action. For instance, the U.S. utility company Xcel Energy has committed to producing 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050. However, compared with the astonishing achievement of renewables; energy efficient technologies, adaptation technologies, and others that are required by deep decarbonization have proceeded much slower. Surprisingly, conversations on other technology fields are marginalized during the conversations at COP24 given that only a few side events focused on them.

My CIERP colleague, Mr. Rishikesh Bhandary, and I attended the “Building Resilient Economies by Improving Climate Risk Financing and Investments” event at the Japanese Pavilion, where he provided a briefing on our joint research on green finance. Our point that only information disclosure is not sufficient enough for green finance was echoed by the panelists and as well as the audience. To mobilize more green finance to support climate change action, we need other types of policies, such as financial or fiscal policy, and greater coordination among them too. In our assessment of direct lending policies, we also find that much of the scholarly literature focuses on companies as the unit of analysis. We are calling for more thinking about the risk profiles of cities, other sub-national actors, and other various jurisdictions, and the nature of finance they have access to.

During COP24, President Trump sent out several rounds of Twitter attacks on combating climate change, but they have been surprisingly neglected by delegates and no one seems to be bothered by him in at the COP. As the climate talks went on, however, France’s “Yellow Vest” movement cast a pessimistic shadow on COP24 that government-led climate action can be tenuous in any country, even in a country where the most optimistic Paris Agreement was reached. When people talked about this demonstration and the French President’s final decision to give up his planned increase in fuel taxes, I could tell the pessimistic tone and deep disappointment behind them. Some people also reminded me, though, that anti-climate change is just a scapegoat. What protests are really against is social inequality rather than climate change actions, which reminds the importance of other issues when we are working on climate change.