Climate Change Negotiations in Warsaw Result in a Timeline for Agreement in 2015

Small steps toward an agreement on climate change in 2015 were made at the recent 19th Conference of Parties (COP19) talks in Warsaw, Poland over the past two weeks. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference was extremely tense, with emotions running high after the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the frustrations over slow-moving texts and the explosive new issues on the table such as “loss and damage.” The conference went a record 38 hours overtime— finally ending on Saturday night— and was marked by fasting, staged walkouts by developing countries and environmental groups, and frenzied last minute negotiations. In the end, the conference left the door open for a new agreement in 2015, but with a lot of work to be done in the coming two years.

The intense and emotional nature of the negotiations is not unusual at this stage of the game. What was meant to be an interim negotiating session whose main role was to produce a timeline from now until the final COP in Paris where a new agreement is to be struck, turned into a battle over familiar, longstanding issues that are inextricably tied to the negotiations on an eventual treaty. Ultimately negotiators were able to achieve compromises on a series of controversial issues—evidence that there is space for agreement and that political momentum is ramping up.

Hard fought compromises were made on issues such as reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD+), and loss and damage (financial compensation for developing countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change for damages they would incur as temperatures increase). Crucially, a timetable was put forward to guide negotiations over the coming two years, which was arguably the most important and anticipated outcome of the talks. Small steps were made on discussions of financial contributions to fill existing funding mechanisms like the Adaptation Fund and Green Climate Fund, although this is an area of the UNFCCC process that is among the most contentious and cuts across almost every single issue under negotiation. Here are some highlighted outcomes in four major negotiating areas:

1. Structure and timeline of the 2015 agreement

Compromise was reached on the framework for a 2015 agreement, resulting in a new text for the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) that will form the basis of negotiations going forward. The key portion of text reads: All nations should “initiate or intensify domestic preparations for their intended nationally determined contributions.” The hard-won language of “contributions” is intentionally vague and steps back from language sought by others that called for “commitments,” which would have implied mandatory actions as opposed to weaker voluntary actions. Additionally, it was agreed that these “contributions” should be ready by the end of the first quarter of 2015. The United States is among those advocating pledges be made by the end of the first quarter of 2015, while the European Union would like to see pledges on the table in 2014. The earlier countries are able to put forward pledges, the more likely a robust international review of these pledges can take place before the 2015 agreement is finalized.

Crucial language remaining in the text defines a 2015 agreement “in the context of adopting a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.” This text reflects a compromise by the United States—who would prefer an agreement that covers all countries by 2020—and large developing countries led by China and India who advocate for a clear division between countries based on common but differentiated responsibilities (or CBDR, a key founding principle of the UNFCCC). This language effectively kicks the conversation on emission reduction commitments and their legal nature down the road, increasing the likelihood for discord at Lima in 2014 and Paris in 2015. This new text also eliminated suggested language calling for a “legally binding treaty under international law,” for which the European Union was advocating and for which the United States would not be able to sign up. At this point, the legal nature of the agreement is still undecided, leaving it the most politically important decision facing negotiators over the next two years.

2. Financial contributions

Finance and financial contributions have been a central part of recent negotiations, with developing countries calling for financial contributions to existing funding mechanisms before they were willing to talk about post-2020 emission reduction actions. Several fragmented pledges for new money emerged from Warsaw. The U.S. pledged $25 million as part of a major new $280 million funding initiative aimed at slowing deforestation and stemming its effect on world carbon emissions. In this initiative, the U.S. joined Norway, the U.K. and the World Bank in launching the “BioCarbon Fund Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes.” The fund will provide incentives to developing countries that are taking steps to limit deforestation under the United Nations’ REDD+ program. Norway pledged substantially more—$135 million—and the United Kingdom pledged $120 million.

Countries also promised $100 million to top up the existing Adaptation Fund, which was set up in 2008 to provide money for poorer countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change. The Adaptation Fund was given new pledges of assistance by mainly European countries: Norway pledged $2.5 million; Sweden pledged $30.2 million; Belgium pledged $1.6 million; and Germany pledged $40.7 million (or 30 million euros). Additionally, Sweden announced a $45 million commitment to the Green Climate Fund once it “becomes operational with all the necessary arrangements and standards in place,” and Japan promised $16 billion to help developing countries reduce emissions over the next three years. Adding to the calendar in 2014, the U.K. announced that it will convene a “global summit” on climate finance next spring to build political momentum on financial issues.

3. Loss and damage

In addition to the existing mechanisms for delivering climate finance, such as the Green Climate Fund and the Adaptation Fund, calls have emerged recently for a new and separate process to assist poor countries after climate-linked losses (such as the aforementioned recent Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines). This loss and damage discussion became a seriously polarizing issue in these talks, and disagreements prompted the developing country G-77 to walk out of discussions late Tuesday night. Bilateral discussions took over late in the week in an attempt to achieve compromise between key countries, and this effort resulted in a new international mechanism. The new “Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage Associated with Climate Change Impacts” does not promise compensation for damages caused by climate change impacts in developing countries, a red line for the United States and other developed countries. The mechanism places the issue under an adaptation framework for at least three years, with a review built in for 2016. This outcome represents a hard-fought compromise between the United States, Nicaragua, the Bahamas and Fiji, and was seen as a satisfactory interim outcome for both sides.

4. REDD+

The REDD+ program covers guidelines and provisions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation, and it has emerged as one of the major success stories out of Warsaw. Negotiators reached several goals that were set at the 2010 conference in Cancun, agreeing on key text regarding scientific and technical rules, financing and a national coordination system. Additions to the text on technical issues included decisions to enforce environmental and human rights safeguards in REDD+ projects; lay the groundwork for a system to monitor, report and verify carbon emissions reductions from standing forests; establish national forest monitoring systems; institute reference levels—or base lines—upon which a country measures efforts in reducing deforestation; and create definitions for the drivers of deforestation (text on these decisions can be found here). Negotiators also agreed to text on REDD+ finance, including a clause saying that countries must show recent proof that safeguards are respected in order to receive compensation. Additionally, the United States, Norway and the United Kingdom announced the first major pledge for REDD+ since the 2009 conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, a joint $280 million to the World Bank’s BioCarbon Fund (mentioned above).

In conclusion, the Warsaw talks are best seen as the end of the first stage in a roughly three-year arc to develop a new climate agreement. In a difficult negotiation, one would not expect major breakthroughs or concessions in these early stages, nor did we see any in Warsaw. Yet plans for the coming two years were made, and, if followed, they would be an improvement in providing a more orderly discussion of commitments than has been the case in previous high-profile negotiations (such as Kyoto and Copenhagen). The loss and damage mechanism was created, but without any real substance. Provisions on REDD+ were agreed upon and should provide scope for the incorporation of forest carbon activities into national pledges. Despite these small successes, the bigger question is whether the cracks emerging between the developed and developing country parties will widen over the coming months.