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Looking back at the Polish Presidency of COP24 in Katowice


For two weeks in December 2018, Poland was the beating heart of multilateral diplomacy. COP24, the annual diplomatic meeting on climate change, took place in Katowice, the capital of Silesia. Stakes were high, especially for the Polish Presidency.

The multilateral framework to fight climate change

Scientifics have established a long-time ago that human activities influence climate. Governments set up an international framework to help the fight against climate change in 1992, called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The 197 signatories meet annually at a Conferences of the Parties (COP) to assess progress and enhance actions. It is within this framework that the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement, and now the “Katowice texts” were negotiated.

The COP would generally take place in Bonn, Germany where its secretariat sits, unless a country volunteers to host it. The host country should come from one of the five regions officially recognised by the United Nations, on a rotating basis: Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Central and Eastern Europe and Western Europe and Others. Poland has repeatedly been the only country to volunteer to host the COP from Central and Eastern Europe Region. This is why COP14 (Poznań), COP19 (Warsaw) and COP24 (Katowice) took place in Poland.

Not all the COPs have the same agenda or importance. Only some of them made it into history. It is during COP3 in Japan that the Kyoto Protocol was signed and hence the first common framework for limiting global warming emissions agreed. Observers still refer to COP15 in Copenhagen as a massive drawback as the world failed to agree on a new climate change treaty. Finally, COP21 was a landmark meeting as this is where the Paris Agreement was negotiated. At the end of last year, it was clear that COP24 would be an crucial meeting: negotiators were tasked with finalising the “rulebook” (the rules needed to implement the Paris Agreement) before turning to 2019, the “ambition” year.

COP24’s agenda

The world agreed on new rules to curb greenhouse gas emissions in Paris back in 2015. Negotiators settled to contain global warming to 2°C while aiming for 1.5°C. In order to do so, parties must, among others, pledge to limit greenhouse gas emissions. However, parties can freely decide how ambitious they should be. In return for this flexibility, member states agreed to reconvene and to take stock of the overall level of ambition every five years. COP24 was about finalising the procedures underpinning this new framework.

It is not an easy task. At COP, all decisions are taken by acclamation. This means that there must be a passive consensus among all parties to agree on texts. This is a formidable diplomatic challenge for at least three reasons: administrative and diplomatic capacity to engage, awareness of urgency to act and the developed vs developing countries/world divide. There are many fault lines in climate negotiations, and it is the role of the Presidency to navigate them skilfully.

While any delay in agreeing on the rules underpinning the Paris Agreement are damaging, a failure at COP24 would have been ever more dramatic. Since World War II, international relations have been organised around multilateral forum. Cooperation among Nations however came under attack recently. The United States’ isolationist agenda and President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement (still on hold) put extra pressure on negotiators to succeed. The regime agreed in Paris needed COP24 to succeed: a failure would have only provided more ammunitions for isolationist forces. It might not have been a critical blow, but the success gave a boost of confidence into the resilience of the system, the capacity of parties to compromise and move together.

The Polish Presidency

The negotiations at COP are chaired by the UNFCCC Secretariat until the Presidency takes over, usually during the second week of COP. The Presidency’s role is to broker a deal to be brought to plenary, in front of all the parties, and request their consent. It is an almost impossible job, and the Presidency is expected to run a tight ship: some countries would exploit a weak Presidency to block any progress or create confusion. In particular, the petrol-exporter countries are always looking for a good excuse to slow down the progress.

In this regard, the Polish Presidency sent mixed signals:

  • The decision to hold the COP in Katowice, the heart of the coal region of Silesia, raised many eyebrows. Miners welcomed delegates with protests, while the Polish pavilion was proudly selling coal-based cosmetics. Several companies active in coal extraction and exploitation were official sponsors of the COP. During COP, Katowice was the second most polluted city in Europe.
  • Polish President Andrzej Duda, during his opening speech, claimed that the country did not plan to fully give up coal – a necessity according to science, and a terrible opening message for a climate change conference. The Minister of Energy Krzysztof Tchórzewski repeatedly disagreed with the Environment State Secretary (the chair of the COP); he even announced the opening of a new coal mine the week before the conference began.
  • Every Presidency wants to make a lasting impression on history. Beyond the very complicated task of the rulebook, the Presidency has also drafted a statement on just transition, a declaration about Forests for the Climate and launched a partnership on electromobility. Although hailed as successes, the signatory base for these different initiatives presents a mixed picture, and they could have drawn the focus away from the rulebook.

It is under these difficult circumstances that the negotiations took place, under the chairmanship of Michał Kurtyka, Secretary of State for the Environment. The negotiation process was not unlike the other COPs: some drama (recognition of the IPCC report on 1.5°C) and a delay of more than a day after the official closing date later, the plenary agreed on the ‘Katowice texts’. It was necessary to get an agreement, and the Presidency got one. Unfortunately, it is not a complete package and the most politically complicated issues around carbon markets were pushed back to the next COP. But enough was agreed to move on and pivot to raising ambition.

The Polish Presidency delivered, despite difficult circumstances. Some of them are outside of the Presidency’s control, but some of the difficulties could have been avoided. The ambiguous – at best – attitude of the rest of the government vis-à-vis the talks made every task harder for the State Secretary. This was not necessary – and it is not a beginner’s mistake. With three COP Presidencies in less than ten years, the Polish diplomatic service has more experience than any other country on the planet to deliver a successful outcome. And it did, but it could certainly have been more ambitious, less dramatic and, at the end of the day, more rewarding for skilled diplomats if the government had adopted a more constructive approach.


The progress made on the rulebook allows for a new chapter to (almost) start. The next COP will be organised in Chile in January 2020 with the outstanding issues from COP24 (mostly carbon markets) on the agenda. Before that, the United Nations Secretary General has called a Summit on 23rd September 2019. This is the next major diplomatic moment during which countries are expected to showcase “a leap in collective national political ambition” and “massive movements in the real economy”. The completion of the rulebook has cleared the road to a discussion on ambition. The question therefore is: will Poland be a trouble-maker in Europe’s climate policy (as in the past), or has the prestige and positive reputation derived from the COP Presidency shifted the attitude of the government?

Photo credit: Quentin Genard