KATOWICE, POLAND - A global action plan to limit damage from climate change was adopted by almost 200 nations late on Saturday (Dec 15), a day after talks were scheduled to conclude, following a two-week marathon involving delegates spending days and nights poring over the fine print.
"The overall impact of this package is positive to the world," said Mr Michal Kurtyka, Polish president for the talks, during the final plenary session of the United Nations climate change conference in Katowice in southern Poland. "It will move us one major step closer to realising the ambition enshrined in the Paris Agreement."
The action plan, or the Katowice Rulebook, sets out a single system for countries to make emissions cuts under national climate plans and how those plans can be regularly reported, measured, scrutinised and progressively ramped up.
The goal is to keep global warming well below 2 deg C above pre-industrial levels - a target set out in the Paris Agreement drawn up three years ago - and to aim for 1.5 deg C, if possible.
The bolder 1.5 deg C target is a key threshold for avoiding catastrophic climate change, according to a recent scientific report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was a central focus of the UN talks, called COP24.
While the Paris Agreement provided a skeletal framework to help countries achieve this goal, the rulebook lays out the roadmap for how this can be done and aims to keep all countries honest in the process. The Katowice talks marked the culmination of three years of negotiations on the rulebook, which is needed to put the Paris pact into practice.
Ms Laurence Tubiana, chief executive of the European Climate Foundation and key architect of the Paris Agreement, said: "Despite all the headwinds, the Paris Agreement has stayed course at COP24, demonstrating the kind of resilience it has been designed for.
"The decisions made here on the... rulebook give us a solid foundation to keep building trust in multilateralism and accelerate the transition all across the world."
Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli told The Straits Times at the conference venue that the adoption of the rulebook was a historic moment - one that was especially significant for Singapore, which will be wrapping up its Year of Climate Action at the end of this month.
He said: "We bookmarked the year with the passing of a carbon tax, which showed our responsiveness and commitment to reducing emissions by industries. This is a fitting end to the year, with the rulebook adopted by all the countries that ratified the Paris Agreement."
Mr Masagos added that Singapore's Year of Climate Action, a year-long initiative to raise awareness on climate change, had been a productive one, with many activities for Singaporeans. "Now, the world has responded by putting an end to all the difficulties that negotiators have gone through by agreeing on the rulebook."
In a Facebook posting, Mr Masagos said later:
"Singapore is glad to have played a role in advancing complex negotiations in formulating these rules. Our negotiating team drawn from across many Ministries has, over the last three years, negotiated skilfully and worked very hard with other players big and small to develop the rules - called the Paris Agreement Work Programme or the Katowice Rulebook.
"Indeed, Singapore co-facilitated two key negotiating tracks - Mitigation (reducing greenhouse gases) and Markets (trading carbon credits). In the last few days, I was also honoured to have been invited by the COP President to co-facilitate the Ministerial negotiations on Mitigation, which remained contentious then, along with my Norwegian counterpart, Ola Elvestuen."
A deal on the rulebook is seen as a key test of global resolve on fighting climate change right at a time of increasingly extreme weather and a number of major scientific reports warning that the world has very limited time left to make deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions to avoid more severe damage to economies and livelihoods.
Small island states and other most vulnerable nations say the rulebook is vital but greater action is needed globally to cut emissions. Rising sea levels and stronger storms risk wiping some nations off the map.
But increasingly, climate change is affecting all nations, scientists say, meaning a global agreement is vital for everyone.
Among other things, the rulebook provides greater clarity for future climate action in three key areas: Finance, transparency, and the process of increasing collective global ambition to limit warming.
In terms of finance, the rulebook signalled a commitment from rich countries to contribute funds to help poorer nations reduce their emissions and adapt to the impacts of the changing climate.
Countries also agreed to begin a process starting in 2020 to set a new finance goal that goes beyond the already pledged US$100 billion (S$137 billion) a year by 2020. The aim is to increase that amount from 2025.
The Paris pact had outlined a broad architecture in which all nations pledge to do their part to combat global warming based on their own national plans, which could include reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels, preventing deforestation or speeding up investment in renewable energy.
Under the current UN framework, developed and developing countries have different transparency mechanisms for the measurement, reporting and verification of these pledges.
But the rulebook includes a new framework, called the Enhanced Transparency Framework, which would, from 2024, subject all parties to the same reporting, measurement and verification standards. However, developing countries will get the necessary support to do so, in terms of finance and capacity-building, for example.
Such a framework will also provide the basis for countries to ratchet up their pledges every five years. This increase in collective ambition to curb global emissions was a key feature of the Paris Agreement.
Ms Melissa Low, a research fellow at the Energy Studies Institute at the National University of Singapore who attended COP24, said: "This common transparency framework will ensure that all countries adhere to a single set of guidelines. It also ensures that developing countries would get the support they need to do so."
Added Ms Low, who has attended eight UN climate conferences: "By levelling out the differences, it would be easier to assess where the world is at reaching its climate targets, and help to ensure that collective ambition to achieve this is gradually increased when the pledges are updated every five years."
The 133-page rulebook was adopted following multiple delays in the final plenary session, which was pushed back almost 10 times from noon on Friday to 2pm on Saturday afternoon. It finally began at about 9.30pm local time (4.30am on Sunday, Singapore time).
There was a palpable sense of relief among those gathered at the conference venue when the Katowice Rulebook was adopted half an hour later, with the audience rising in applause.
But, as Ms Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary for the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change, said: "No one is entirely happy with this rulebook, but it is an important step."
One sticking point - about how carbon emissions should be accounted for - remained unresolved at the final plenary session due to objections from Brazil, and was tabled for discussion at next year's COP in Chile.
The crux of the issue is whether developing countries should be allowed to "double count" their credits for emission reductions, which are sold to other countries to help them meet their own emission reduction targets. Each credit represents a tonne of CO2.
The Paris Agreement had provided for a new kind of tradable offset known as Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcomes. This means that once a country sells the credit to another country, it should be retired from the seller's inventory, and not used to offset the seller's emissions.
But Brazil wants developing countries to be granted a grace period which will allow them to do both - sell the credits, and also use the sold credits to count toward their emissions reduction, with the caveat that they will make adjustments at a later date.
Because the UN climate talks work on the basis of consensus, and no agreement has been reached on this issue, discussions have been postponed to next year.
But Mr Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, said the postponement does not affect the overall robustness of the rulebook.
He said: "The market mechanisms weren't going to start until the end of 2020 anyway, so we have two more years to get it right. It's better to get it right than get it quick, and that's what we decided to do here."
Another issue that observers have taken issue with was the lack of response to the science of climate change, as highlighted in the IPCC report released in October.
The IPCC report had laid out scientific evidence that showed the differences in human-caused climate change under a 1.5 deg C global warming scenario versus a 2 deg C one. It found that half a degree of warming could have significant impact on many countries - condemning economies and ecosystems to deadlier weather extremes, and resulting in habitat loss, falling crop yields and ever higher sea levels.
The report also said the world could reach the 1.5 deg C threshold as early as 2030, and to limit warming to that level would mean cutting CO2 emissions by nearly 50 per cent in 12 years, something that would require unprecedented changes to societies.
But Saudi Arabia, the United States, Russia and Kuwait had refused to back a proposal from almost 200 other countries to "welcome" the report, insisting that it should only be "noted", a more passive stance on how the October report by the IPCC should be reflected in ongoing climate negotiations.
Said Ms Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International: "The science came in and said: In a 1.5 deg C warming world, these are the impacts, this is how to get there, and there was no proper response from countries to say we hear that, and we're ready to do more."