Grey Skies in Warsaw: the UNFCCC Climate Change Negotiations Enter Their Second Week

The winter skies were a dim grey as the second and final week began at the United Nations climate change negotiations in Warsaw, Poland.  Sadly, the hopes for an ambitious global effort to address the grave risks of a destabilized climate look similarly dim. 

The drumbeat of negativity is drowning out those who would put a brave face on the hopes for a strong global effort on climate.  Typhoon Haiyan has brought on a desperate response from some developing countries and NGOs, as it is being seen as a reflection of the urgency with which to address climate change. 

In the big picture, a plan was put forward two years ago in Durban to reach a new agreement on climate change by 2015, which would then enter into force in 2020.  This agreement may take the form of either a “protocol, [a] legal instrument or [an] agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all parties.” It is still unclear at this point which outcome is most likely or how meaningful the agreement might be.  Debate continues around a number of issues:  the character of nations’ commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the nature and extent of differentiation of commitments between rich and poor countries, and a process to assess and consider commitments and how to change them if they are too weak.  Another issue under discussion is whether countries should have pledges in hand by September, 2014, when Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called for a high level meeting of the United Nations in New York, and what to do if those pledges are too weak to address the problem.  But even having them in hand in time for this deadline seems increasingly unlikely.

These yearly Conference of the Parties (COP) negotiations often hit a nadir about this time in the two-week cycle, but this year is worse than usual.  Japan and Australia have emerged as the villains this year. The new Australian government has repeatedly been voted the “Fossil of the Day” by the international NGO Climate Action Network due to its refusal to send a minister to Warsaw and for undermining discussions on climate finance. And Japan sharply walked back its pledge to reduce emissions from 2005 levels by 25 percent, instead seeking a 3.8 percent reduction in emissions by 2020.  A large network of African NGOs has asked the African negotiating group to simply walk out.

Finance is seen as the main issue at Warsaw that has the potential to clear some roadblocks on the path to a 2015 agreement, but progress here has stalled also.  There was a groundbreaking commitment made in Copenhagen and implemented in Cancun to scale up financing from about $10 billion a year to $100 billion a year by 2020, but several elements are still unclear: how much of the funds should come from public or private sources; how much should go toward helping countries adapt to climate change; and how to measure and track the funds.  Adding to the lack of progress on this long term goal is the absence of concrete commitments for midterm financing to fill the gap through 2020. The least developed countries proposed early this week a midterm target of $60 billion by 2016, while the Africa Group has called for $70 billion by 2016. 

Now, the co-chairs of the ADP track (the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action) have produced a new text from which to negotiate the 2015 agreement.  Yet even this text is basic and reads like a “to do” list.  It does not set a date for when parties should put forward their pledges for emissions reductions or for scaled up finance commitments.  The new text also does not define the scope for new finance commitments, which alternatively could be addressed by Ministers releasing statements on this in the high level segment of negotiations beginning Wednesday.  The United States, United Kingdom, Norway and Germany are reported to have pledges forthcoming on finance for the protection of standing forests under the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) program, while Australia leads another group in arguing that the lion’s share of climate finance will need to come from the private sector and that there are many emerging economies that are wealthy enough to make their own pledges.  Given the recession and need for economic growth, they say, obligations or mandatory obligations from developed countries are not realistic and therefore not acceptable.

Discussions on a 2015 agreement are not progressing and are being put in jeopardy by a lack of movement on finance.  The G77+China group of 134 developing countries is pushing hard for finance pledges, saying that funding needs to be scaled up in line with what was promised through 2020 during negotiations in Copenhagen and Cancun, and that progress on this long term finance goal must be demonstrated before discussions on 2015 emission reduction commitments are allowed to continue.

In anticipation of weak financial pledges, the Climate Action Network staged a protest in the enormous national stadium in Warsaw on Tuesday, spelling out a giant “WTF?” to ask “Where’s the Finance?”  The exasperation of environmental NGOs at this point, however, is expressed in both meanings of the acronym.

Another hot topic in Warsaw concerns an interesting but difficult proposal by Brazil has been put on the table for calculating emission reduction pledges, using historical emissions based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) data.  This is based on the principles of equity and historical responsibility, central words in the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  Some countries (mainly in the European Union) feel that focusing on the one indicator of historical emissions is too narrow—there are concerns that this type of mechanism could politicize the IPCC’s work.  There are also fears that developing a new approach could delay agreement until after 2015, so Brazil’s proposal has been pushed to some sub-negotiating tracks and is currently still under discussion.

One of the most acute areas of disagreement is over a new issue under negotiation called “loss and damage.”  This issue is concerned with how developing countries are compensated for harm done by climate change that cannot be adapted to.  The issue was originally raised by the Alliance of Small Island States way back in 1989.  The issue came to the attention of the 48 least developed countries a few years ago, and they have pushed hard for it to be taken up in its own mechanism separate from the “adaptation” agenda— adversely complicating these efforts, several prominent developed countries (e.g. the European Union and United States) have indicated they would prefer loss and damage to be covered under existing adaptation mechanisms and institutions. 

So in Warsaw we wait for the skies to clear—for a ray of sunshine and hope to shine into a darkly polarized world.  Even winter days can be brilliantly sunny; it remains to be seen if any of that sun can break through to the meeting rooms of the Warsaw stadium.  The question is who has a cloud busting machine that powerful.