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Why UN Climate Talks Are Still Relevant: Report from COP 19 in Warsaw

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Editor’s note: East Winds columnist Michael Davidson is reporting from the ground at the UNFCCC 19th Conference of the Parties (COP19) in Warsaw Poland. Read on for his dispatch from the international climate negotiations. Follow him @east_winds.

We are heading into the second week of UN climate negotiations in Warsaw (refered to as COP 19), where 194 countries are busy laying the groundwork for an international treaty hopefully to be concluded by 2015. Created under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), this would be a first-of-its-kind agreement to guide global action from 2020. A casual observer may recall similar rhetoric leading up to the Copenhagen climate summit that produced a three-page “accord” rather than the permanent treaty solution as promised. However, in Warsaw, several issues are on the table (and several others, crucially, off) that demonstrate the hardiness and progressive (though often glacial) march of multi-lateral environmental governance.


National Stadium, Warsaw, Poland (Photo credit: Michael Davidson)

Detractors of the UN climate regime will question the effectiveness of a 20+ year process that functions (or not) on the consensus between 194 members who range from climate problems to climate victims. After all, the only legally-binding outcome to date – the Kyoto Protocol – did little to slow down emissions over its first commitment period (2008-2012) and even fewer have signed up for targets in the next period. Last week, Japan scaled back its 2020 targets, following on the heels of the Australian coalition government’s announcement of intention to repeal their carbon tax, drawing the ire of virtually everyone.

At the same time, scholars have noted that outside the UNFCCC process there have been countless bi-lateral and multi-lateral initiatives such as between the US and China and the G20, and a proliferation of platforms collecting commitments from states/provinces, cities and corporations. These actors are arguably more important than many nation-states in terms of mitigation potential, yet do not have a seat at the table. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is hosting a climate summit for world leaders next year to push for greater commitments. Businesses, cities and others are expressly invited.

Nevertheless, I argue that one should watch carefully this treaty process, because despite the outward lack of progress, the UNFCCC will still help stimulate both pre-2020 and post-2020 actions on climate change. Further, it has significant implications for how the global community chooses to address other environmental issues and cross-cutting challenges such as poverty eradication.

First, the UN has exercised its convening power to leverage commitments from all major emitters, and can do this again. High expectations in advance of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 led the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) to depart from tradition and announce significant 2020 targets. They were not obligated to do so by the Convention, which created a “firewall” between industrialized and developing countries, only the former having the requirement to mitigate. Despite the failure to achieve consensus at Copenhagen these commitments stuck, and were enshrined in the official outcome the following year. The US, not a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, joined in committing to reductions.

Second, the legitimacy of the UNFCCC as the only forum dedicated to climate with official blessing from every country cannot be understated. Addressing climate change, whose costs are concentrated in a handful of industries in every country but whose benefits are diffuse and highly variable, is a classic free-rider problem, whereby one non-cooperative party enjoys the positive externalities of others’ sacrifices. A common front means greater international pressure on parties to fulfill their commitments.

Third, the UNFCCC has historically been a precedent-setting institution. Market mechanisms such as carbon offset trading were enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol, and as a result they have become a favored policy approach for domestic programs around the world. In the last several years, worries of feasibility of getting consensus have been pushing the talks toward a pledge-based system (perhaps like an iterative offer-and-review process), in lieu of the Kyoto-style top-down allocations of rights to the atmosphere. This had a defining influence on the Rio+20 Earth Summit in 2012 and will likely only increase in influence.

At the center of the negotiations has been a moral and legal debate surrounding equity: how to balance historical responsibility against current and future emissions limits. Given limited resources, in order to achieve the goal of the convention of preventing “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” there will be inevitable trade-offs between efficiency and equity. The repercussions of this decision could easily become the basis for approaches to other multi-lateral issues and, more broadly, alter the structure of development assistance aid.

So, where do the Warsaw negotiations stand? The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, the track responsible for crafting the treaty language and strengthening ambition, has released a draft decision text. It is the result of a week of tense negotiation that went late into the weekend, and is surprisingly concise. It acknowledges the tectonic shift mentioned above toward a diversity of actors and commitments and lays out basic elements of a treaty (though these will need to be filled out as the week progresses).

The state-run Chinese press have been explicit that long-term finance is the key to success at Warsaw (see, e.g., here and here). One of the commitments brought to Copenhagen was a pledge from industrialized countries to mobilize $100 billion / year by 2020 in aid to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. China wants more details on how that number is going to be achieved, including setting intermediate targets. This is particularly vexing issue since parties can’t agree on how much aid has already been distributed to meet a 2012 deadline (one analysis says the $30 billion target was reached, while developing countries claim it is mostly existing aid repurposed).

Following the disastrous Typhoon Bopha last year in the Philippines, countries and civil society rallied around a compensation scheme for “loss and damage” resulting from climate change. Typhoon Haiyan ripped through the same island chain just as the negotiations opened this year. Yeb Sano, lead negotiator for the Philippines, electrified the venue with his demand for an institutional fix (including a now worldwide fasting event and a 500k+ Avaaz petition), possibly raising the stakes for success at the conference.



Yeb Sano: the face of “loss and damage” in Warsaw. (Photo credit: IISD)

Much work still remains to convince developing countries that the evolving approaches within the UN (“offer-and-review”, voluntary commitments from subnational actors, and the gradual eroding of the 1992 “firewall” between developed and developing countries) are in their best interests. Success at Warsaw will likely hinge on industrialized countries delivering on promises of finance, while generating trust with other parties that more ambitious pledges on mitigation will follow.

Further Readings:

Michael Davidson's picture

Thank Michael for the Post!

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Veronique Bugnion's picture
Veronique Bugnion on Nov 19, 2013

Nice post! Glad you’re still optimistic. Having been at and followed these COP’s for many years, I just see lower and lower expectations … but maybe if expectations are lowered enough, the World will actually meet them? … only the climate will suffer

Michael Davidson's picture
Michael Davidson on Nov 23, 2013

More or less. This time, the developing countries thought “more”, and developed thought “less”. It looks like early 2015 is real “go-time”, though.

Michael Davidson's picture
Michael Davidson on Nov 23, 2013

I am glad you find the scientific assessment conducted by the IPCC as a quality piece of scientific research. It is unfortunate, though, you have not actually read the IPCC report. Your quotes are taken out of context and in some cases wrong (350ppm, not 250ppm, in your first example). I suggest you reread chapter 5 (in particular, 5-3). Scientists do acknowledge uncertainty in climate change impacts. Unfortunately, the uncertainty is heavily “right-skewed”, meaning that it is more likely to be much worse than benign compared to the central tendency.

For those interested, the IPCC AR5 Working Group I report can be found here:

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