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Criticise COP24 if you will, but meeting matters

COP24 was hailed by organisers as a ‘success’, but for many the UN climate talks were an example of international meetings at their worst –  expensive talking shops that achieve very little.

Those taking part in the event, held in Katowice, Poland, have been criticised by environmental groups and scientists for failing to recognise the urgency of the threat of global warming. But can this really be deduced from the meeting?

The key outcome of COP24 was agreement on a ‘rulebook’ for putting into effect the 2015 Paris Agreement, which commits governments to limiting CO2 emissions to 2C, with an aspirational target of 1.5C. However, there was scant agreement on how countries were going to achieve these falls, with current emissions putting the world on a path towards 3C above pre-industrial levels.

This lack of technical detail, of firmer commitments, has upset those who were expecting more from COP24, but it is unclear how much more could have been achieved in the time available: the meeting overran by 24 hours. Given the rise of populist sentiment, and Trump’s pledge to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2020, the fact the meeting took place at all is a victory for multilateral cooperation.

As a parent of young children I agonise over the future, and what it might bring. The temptation is to criticise meetings like COP24, but I suspect that’s a little too easy, a little too convenient. With 192 nations all having their say, some more economically advanced than others, it is a miracle that anything is agreed at all.

To make an international meeting liable for the success or failure of humanity’s struggle to ‘save the planet’ is surely to saddle it with a level of responsibility it cannot hope to bear. There is something of the scapegoating here, too, that lets us off the hook. Why should I reduce my meat intake/stop flying/insulate my home properly if they can’t get their act together?

Some commentators have pointed to the environmental impact of the event itself and argued that, by not using technology to communicate with each other remotely, leaders were failing to practice what they preached. This is an ad hominem fallacy, an appeal to hypocrisy that doesn’t bear much scrutiny.

If you think getting the leaders of 192 nations to reach consensus face to face is difficult, then achieving the same on skype, notwithstanding technical hitches, would surely be impossible.  As a matter of fact, organisers have promised to plant six million trees to offset the CO2 emissions linked to the meeting.

None of this is to shield world leaders from their responsibilities.

I am aware that defending the international meeting as a mechanism for progress will trigger the raising of many eyebrows. People will point to the fact that since the COP talks began, in 1995, global CO2 emissions have gone up by around 60 per cent. But, even now, these talks give us hope, are our best hope of averting catastrophe.

International meetings are often described as ‘platforms’ upon which progress can be made. In the case of COP, we might want to swap platform for life boat.  For, no matter how frustrating and disappointing this series of meetings has been so far, when the talking finally stops we all sink.