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COP 19: Different Strokes?

Robert Stowe's picture
Harvard Environmental Economics Program

Robert Stowe is Executive Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and Co-Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, both University-wide programs based in the Harvard...

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  • Nov 28, 2013

UNFCCC COP 19The Nineteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-19) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ended on Saturday, November 23, with the 195 parties to the Convention (194 countries plus the European Union) making modest progress toward a new international agreement that will be concluded at COP-21 in late 2015—in Paris—and that will become effective in 2020. There was the usual intrigue, delay, last-minute wrangling over text, and fears that the negotiations would collapse, but again the UNFCCC process displayed resilience and will survive at least until the next round. For a flavor of the last hours of the negotiations, see the photos on IISD Reporting Services’ COP-19 home page (scroll down a bit).

The 2015 Durban-Platform agreement

The 2015 agreement—the primary focus of COP-19—was mandated by a decision of COP-17 in Durban, South Africa in late 2011. The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action calls for the parties to “…develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties…” The last four words were at the root of the commotion in Warsaw. Since the Rio Convention in 1992, which launched the international climate-negotiation process, developing countries have striven to differentiate themselves from industrialized countries with regard to the stringency of the commitments each group takes. The Kyoto Protocol of the Convention has been the principal manifestation of this differentiation. Developed-country parties to the Protocol have quantified, economy-wide emissions-reduction commitments, and developing countries have no emissions-reduction commitments whatsoever. In contrast, the Durban Platform agreement, whatever legal form it ultimately takes, will be “applicable to all parties”—a sharp break from past.

Almost as soon as the metaphorical ink was dry on the Durban Platform, the major-emitting developing countries began to say they hadn’t really meant it.[i] The battle to maintain the legal “firewall” between developed and developing countries, with regard to requirements for mitigation commitments, was re-joined in earnest in Warsaw. Todd Stern, the United States Special Envoy for Climate Change, was quoted as saying, “It was somewhat astonishing to hear my good friend from China to say commitments apply to only developed country parties; I feel I’m going back in a time warp.”[ii] 

The larger developing countries argue that developed countries are responsible for the bulk of historical greenhouse-gas emissions and therefore should have primary responsibility for reducing current and future emissions. If recent trends are taken into account, however—emissions have been growing rapidly in China, the world’s largest emitter as of approximately 2011, and in other developing countries—the cumulative-emissions lines will cross sometime in the next ten years or so.[iii] The developing countries are on surer footing with regard to emissions-per-capita, which remain much larger in the industrialized countries—yielding fairness, or “climate justice” arguments that were used in Warsaw to some effect.

Each country will voluntarily submit a set of emissions-reduction actions, which will be appended—in a manner to be determined—to a core 2015 agreement putting forward responsibilities of the central UNFCCC institution (as one possible example, monitoring and verification of compliance with those self-determined actions).[iv] Therefore, there is a great deal of room for differentiation with regard to the submissions themselves. The larger developing countries clearly intended to maintain differentiation with reference to the legal status of commitments. Doing so, however, was an explicitly-stated red line for the United States and other industrialized-country parties and would have resulted in a breakdown in the talks. In the end, the parties finessed the issue by striking the word “commitment” throughout the negotiating text and replacing it with “contribution.” (You and I may ask how this actually helped, but then we are not diplomats.)

(Details on the decisions of COP-19, with regard to the 2015 agreement and related matters, may be found in the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions’ [C2ES’] report here.)


There was intense debate at COP-19 about financing[v] of mitigation and adaptation and of possible compensation for “loss and damage,” from either extreme weather events[vi] or slow-onset environmental changes (major examples being sea-level rise or reduction in rainfall over time) due to climate change. In both cases, industrialized countries would provide the funding, and developing countries would receive it. Leaving aside the intricacies of the debate (which stretches back decades and, of course, is not limited to the issue of climate change), I suspect that the industrialized countries are willing to recognize need and address it, within their means. However, they are reluctant to institutionalize major financial flows as a matter of right, based on their being responsible for most historical emissions or because they have much higher per-capita emissions. The developing countries, on the other hand, are intent on doing just the opposite. The do not wish to receive charity, but rather what they perceive as just compensation and support that is owed. Thus, the financial dimensions of the negotiations at COP-19 were also about differentiation.

A subset of developing countries were adamant that financial support should be in the form of government-to-government flows and were equally adamant in their opposition to using markets to direct capital flows to low-cost mitigation opportunities—most notably through emissions-trading systems and related offset-crediting mechanisms. (China, which is experimenting with cap and trade domestically and is generally supportive of market-based approaches to mitigation, was not among them.) Progress toward agreement on how to incorporate market mechanisms into the 2015 agreement stalled in the end, much to the disappointment of, among others, the many progressive corporations that participated on the sidelines of the COP and who advocated for expansion of emissions trading.[vii] This is despite such mechanisms playing an important role in the Kyoto regime. We saw here an ideological differentiation between countries committed to—or at least open to—market systems and private sector capital flows constituting a portion of financial support for mitigation—and those that did not.


Though flying below the radar and perhaps not as important as the central negotiations on the 2015 agreement, COP-19 did complete a landmark agreement—in the form of a set of COP decisions—on reducing emissions from deforestation, which constitute 10-20% of total global emissions, depending on one’s assumptions and how one treats the significant uncertainties involved with measuring these emissions. As the C2ES report referenced above observed, “Of particular note was the adoption of guidelines for forest countries to develop ‘reference levels’ against which their efforts to reduce deforestation will be measured, a key step toward qualifying for increased funding. Norway, the UK, and the United States pledged a total of $280 million for [forestry] efforts.”

A curious political scientist—of which I am one—might wonder why he forestry agreement fared so well at COP-19, while other aspects of the negotiations did not. Firstly, the forestry discussions were close to the finish line before COP-19 even started, based on previous COP discussions. Perhaps the well-delineated institutional structure of the forestry regime allowed some developed countries to feel comfortable that financial support would be used effectively. Perhaps the technical nature of the issues kept negotiators focused on the task at hand. In any case, for reasons that would require more research to better understand, the salience of ideology and differentiation was less pronounced in the forestry discussions than in the Durban-Platform negotiations proper.


COP-19 was a transitional conference, as was COP-14 in Poznan, Poland in 2008 (the year before Copenhagen. And speaking of Copenhagen, the two Polish conferences were also similar in being very well organized.)  The delegates in Warsaw did what they had to do—advance the preparations for the agreement to be concluded in Paris in 2015. Perhaps their most important achievement, however, was to resist backsliding into a rigid and inflexible legal notion of differentiation among countries and pave the way for a more nuanced approach[viii] to accommodating nations’ “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”[ix] Most importantly, such a nuanced approach may provide the flexibility required for parties to ratchet up “ambition”—the extent of their emissions reductions—over time. But that is a story for another day.



[ii] Quoted in Ewa Krukowska and Alex Morales, “UN Plan Charts Path to Climate Agreement Limiting Pollution (1),” Bloomberg Businessweek, November 23, 2013.

[iv] Daniel Bodansky, “The Durban Platform: Issues and Options for a 2015 Agreement,” Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, December 2012; Ottmar Edenhofer, et al., “Identifying Options for a New International Climate Regime Arising from the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action,” Harvard Project on Climate Agreements and Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change Policy Brief, October 2013; Erik Haites, et al., “Possible Elements of a 2015 Legal Agreement on Climate Change,” IDDRI Working Paper 16/13, October 2013.

[v] The most comprehensive and insightful report on climate finance is by a Climate Policy Initiative team, led by Barbara Buchner: “The Global Landscape of Climate Finance 2013,” October 2013.

[vi] Though no specific weather event can be attributed to climate change, except in a statistical sense.

[vii] See, as one important example, International Emissions Trading Association, “Making the Links at COP 19: IETA Policy Priorities & Events for the Warsaw Negotiations,” November 2013. (Disclosure: I have collaborated with IETA during the last two COPs.)

[viii] Lavanya Rajamani, “Differentiation in the emerging climate regime,” Theoretical Inquiries in Law, Vol. 14, pages 151–172, January 2013;Harald Winkler and Lavanya Rajamani, “CBDR&RC in a regime applicable to all,” Climate Policy (online only at this writing), October 2013.

Robert Stowe's picture
Thank Robert for the Post!
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Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Nov 27, 2013

Along with protecting forests, I believe there was a similar agreement to reverse desertification (protect water).

Not turning the Earth into a polluted parking lot is common sense. Creating international laws, penalties, money transfers, etc., only interferes with honest climate efforts.

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