UN climate talks: Good COP Bad COP

Posted on 5 Dec 2013 in

This year’s session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 19) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) took place in Warsaw from 11-23 November. COP 19 aimed to progress the negotiations towards a global climate change agreement, which the Parties are seeking to finalise by 2015 at COP 21 in Paris. The conference overran by one day, to Saturday the 23rd, with a modest outcome.

In the first few days of the negotiations, there were several strong calls for the achievement of concrete results. Developing countries in particular, drew attention to the devastation caused by typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in order to promote greater urgency. In a powerful speech at the COP opening plenary, Nadrev Saño, the Climate Change Commissioner from the Philippines, announced he would fast until the conference delivered real ambition. Several other delegates joined his initiative.

The negotiation over the following days were accompanied by a large number of side events and conferences, several of which involved businesses, which led to interesting discussions between a wide range of stakeholders. A small group from the Grantham Research Institute, including Lord Nicholas Stern, attended the second week of the negotiations and contributed to the debate as members of the delegation from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Alina Averchenkova presented the results of a study on the barriers to the implementation of Low Emission Development Strategies (LEDS) and Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) in developing countries at a side event organised by the European Commission and the United Nations Development Programme. The panel discussion also featured presentations by senior policy-makers from Chile, Lebanon, Uganda and the European Commission.

An event organised by Antoine Dechezleprêtre, in collaboration with Mines ParisTech, engaged representatives from the United Nations, the Chinese and Indian governments, and the private sector, to discuss evidence on the challenges to the international diffusion of low-carbon technologies.

Lord Stern discussed issues of ethics and climate justice at a side event organised by Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, and delivered a keynote speech about the importance of technological progress at an event organised by the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute. Lord Stern also spoke about the importance of public and private partnership at the Climate Innovation Forum organised by Climate Action. In a keynote address to the High-Level Ministerial Dialogue on Climate Finance, he cautioned that ‘government-induced policy risk’ is the biggest barrier to private investment, and called for increased support for greening development in developing countries.

Despite the busy schedule of side events and the long days of negotiations, however, the pace of progress in Warsaw was excruciatingly slow. I sensed that the conference was haunted by a sense of diminished confidence in the overall UNFCCC process, combined with lack of energy and urgency in the negotiations. Country leaders were largely absent, leaving discussions to their negotiators.

The Polish government was criticised by NGOs for high levels of corporate sponsorship and allowing a coal summit to be held simultaneously in Warsaw. The Polish Prime Minister also removed Marcin Korolec from his job as environment minister when he was midway through chairing the negotiations. News reports suggested that Mr Korolec lost his job because he was insufficiently enthusiastic about the prospects for accelerating shale gas development in Poland. Although he continued to preside over the COP, his demotion was regarded by many delegates as a sign of the host country’s lack of commitment on climate change.

A number of NGOs walked out during the last week, in protest at what they considered slow speed and lack of ambition of the negotiations. But some results were achieved.

First, the negotiations through the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) led to the ‘Warsaw Agreement’, laying the groundwork for a new treaty to be signed in 2015.

Wrangling between the Parties led the Agreement to refer to emissions reductions only as “contributions” instead of “commitments”. These contributions would be set at national level, but also subject to assessment by other participants. The exact format of this assessment has yet to be established, but will involve attempts to judge whether the contributions are fair and equitable and commensurate with the global carbon budget associated with the overall target of avoiding dangerous climate change.

The watering down of “commitments” to “contributions” has allowed a single term for emissions limits to be applied to both individual developed and developing countries. This is a positive move towards bridging the gap, (or ‘firewall’, as some have described it), which was embedded in the Kyoto Protocol, where developed countries had emissions reduction commitments, while developing countries were asked only for ‘actions’, as embodiment of the UNFCCC’s principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”.

Second, the Warsaw Agreement called for tabling pledges on emissions reductions for those nations “that are ready” to do so by the first quarter of 2015. This timetable is not optimal for the negotiation process, but may have taken account of the potential impacts on the Congressional mid-term elections in the United States in autumn 2014. Although this leaves little time for the assessment of the proposed emissions reductions ahead of COP 21, it should at least avoid entanglement with politics in the United States.

Third, an agreement was reached on finance for REDD+ forestry projects, which was arguably one of the high points of the COP, and effectively brought to a close seven years of discussion about the role of forests in emissions reductions. The Parties approved a ‘Warsaw REDD+ framework’, a series of decisions on ‘results-based’ funding and new rules on how to measure and verify the emission cuts from forest projects.

Fourth, discussions on ‘loss and damage’, although particularly contentious, resulted in some preliminary agreement. The issue refers to responses to climate impacts that cannot be prevented through mitigation and may be difficult or impossible to adapt to.

Developing countries were keen to include this as a third pillar alongside the existing mitigation and adaptation strands of the negotiation process. However, there was firm opposition from the rich industrialised countries, particularly the United States. Eventually, developed nations agreed to provide expertise and, potentially, aid to countries hit by climate-related impacts under the ‘Warsaw International Mechanism on loss and damage’, but also taking account of the existing adaptation framework adopted at COP16 in 2010 in Cancún.

An attempt to distinguish loss and damage from adaptation in the preambulatory statements to the agreement failed in the last stages of the negotiations. But developing countries obtained an agreement that the structure of the mechanism will be revised in 2016, which should provide them with a last-ditch opportunity for further progress.

Fifth, some concrete, although limited, progress was achieved on issues related to emissions measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) and on finance. New rules on MRV for developing countries were agreed. The verification scheme, known as ‘International Consultation and Analysis’, will require reports by developing countries to be reviewed by experts every two years.

Commitments of some USD 100 million were also made, in total, by countries to theAdaptation Fund, to support projects in developing countries. This is, however, a small sum compared to the proposed USD 100 billion annually which should be provided by rich countries to developing nations by 2020 to assist adaptation and the transition to low-carbon economic growth. Some of this money would be administered by the newGreen Climate Fund. Little clarity was achieved on how these sums should be raised. Developed countries, however, agreed to hold high-level ministerial dialogues every two years to discuss how they can scale up funding from present levels.

Lastly, the Warsaw talks were able to overcome some fierce divisions between developed and developing countries over the lack of meaningful leadership, as well as the backsliding on emissions reduction commitments, from some developed countries, particularly Australia, Canada and Japan.

There was a fierce row between the Climate Commissioner for the European Union, Connie Hedegaard, and the Venezuelan vice-minister, Claudia Salerno, over how national emission reduction pledges should be reviewed by other countries. China, despite showcasing a range of low-carbon initiatives at side events, remained anchored to its longstanding support for the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” during the negotiations. Nevertheless, some room for agreement was found, and although the results were not ground-breaking, they matched the expectations for this ‘technical’ COP. Connie Hedegaard commented ‘The Warsaw climate conference showed how challenging the way to an ambitious result in Paris will be. But the last hours also showed that we are capable of moving forward’.’.

Despite this progress, however, there are many reasons for concern about the UNFCCC process. The 2015 agreement appears to be developing into a purely bottom-up arrangement, lacking much needed top-down direction, with a pledge-and-review mechanism to assess national contributions. There is a real risk that these national emission reductions will not be consistent with the overall global emissions budget to avoid dangerous climate change.

The discussions in Warsaw also left some fundamental issues, such as the legal nature of the 2015 agreement, unresolved. The question of historical responsibilities for emissions was also kicked into the long grass such that, despite some changes in language, the differentiation between Annex 1 and Non-Annex 1 countries has not yet been overcome. And implementation of pre-2020 mitigation targets and actions remains vague and inconsistent with a global emissions path that would avoid dangerous climate change.

The United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has called a climate summit of world leaders to be held in New York in September 2014, outside the formal negotiating process. This would be the first gathering of all country leaders to discuss climate change since COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009. The Secretary-General’s summit should offer additional opportunities for high-level debate ahead of COP20 in Lima, Peru, in December 2014. Significantly more work over the coming two years is needed if a strong international climate treaty is to be signed at COP21 in Paris in December 2015.