The UN Climate Meeting in Warsaw: Foundations for a 2015 Climate Agreement

Many countries are taking steps at the domestic level to address the emissions that lead to climate change, but much of the effort at the international level remains anchored to the United Nations climate change process.  While this process cannot itself create action at the domestic level, international coordination is an essential component of a global response to climate change.  By establishing goals and norms, facilitating transparency in countries’ domestic actions, and setting guidelines for action, the international process is an essential part of enabling countries to enact bolder policies within their own borders.  Past climate treaties have met with mixed success, but over the coming two years the international community is hoping to build a new, more effective governance regime.  This begins next week with the 19th Conference of Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP19).

Through a series of regular intergovernmental meetings, the U.N. process has produced a few notable treaties that seek to drive, govern, or otherwise organize the international response to this global risk.  These treaties have a mixed record of achievement.  Many hopes were pinned to the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, and though certain narrow elements of that agreement were surprisingly fruitful (e.g., the Clean Development Mechanism), it was largely a disappointment.  Hopes were raised again in 2009 for a new treaty, and although the resulting Copenhagen Accord was a reasonably solid international agreement, the meeting was largely perceived to be a failure because it did not provide a mechanism to compel international action beyond simple voluntary measures.  Despite a distinct lack of enthusiasm from some countries, negotiators decided to try again for a new treaty (or “agreed outcome with legal force”), this time with a deadline of 2015 and with broad coverage.  That gives the world’s ministries of foreign affairs roughly 2 years to achieve an outcome that has thus far been elusive.  The first outlines of this eventual agreement—or, at least, states’ opening positions—will be sketched out over the next two weeks at this year’s annual climate meeting: COP19 in Warsaw, Poland.  Although no groundbreaking decisions are expected out of Warsaw, the meeting will be an important step toward defining the structure and timeline needed to achieve the hoped-for treaty at the Paris meeting in 2015.

The importance of action on climate change is difficult to overstate; recent reports by the global scientific community underline the scope of the climate change challenge and emphasize the urgent need for a solution.  The Working Group 1 portion of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC)  Fifth Assessment Report released last month reported a carbon budget based on how much carbon dioxide (CO2) the world could emit in the future without temperatures rising more than 2°C.  The analysis underscored that the amount of carbon the world can burn without heading for dangerous levels of warming is far less than the amount of fossil fuels left in the ground, and at current rates, this “budget” would be exhausted within 30 years.  The upshot is that the quantity of carbon in the conventional and unconventional resources we already know about greatly exceeds the known ability of the atmosphere to absorb it.  Similarly, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recently released its latest Emissions Gap Report which showed that even if nations meet their current climate pledges, greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 are likely to be 8 to 12 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2e) above the level needed to have a good chance of remaining below temperature increases of 2°C by 2020 on the lowest cost pathway.  The question we have at hand, then, is what process or policies we can embrace that would lead to a dramatically faster rate of creation and deployment of new, lower-emission and higher quality technologies.  There will undoubtedly be roles for different governance levels, particularly at the national or domestic policy level, but a major issue is what kind of international agreement would best facilitate this transition.

Last year’s U.N. discussions in Doha did result in a partial streamlining of what has become a cumbersome process – multiple technical “streams” of work being coordinated with input from nearly 200 countries and many international agencies.  Last year, negotiations under an interim Ad Hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action were concluded and the Kyoto Protocol also concluded activities under its first commitment period and commenced the second commitment period, covering the eight-year gap between 2012 and 2020.  This left the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP), as the main negotiating track under discussion at Warsaw, a process that began two years ago in Durban when parties set 2015 as the deadline for a new agreement with legal force covering all countries by 2020.  Parties will have the chance to discuss the ADP again in Lima next year, before the talks conclude with a potential agreement in Paris in 2015.  A full summary of the outcomes from Doha can be found here.  

Consensus is starting to emerge on the elements that would be needed for such an agreement to be ready by 2015.  Discussions in Warsaw would be successful if they can outline a process for countries to report terms of national emission reductions and financial pledges, and a timeline for when they should be presented.  Several proposals have been put forward that call for pledges to come forward, ranging from as early as Ban Ki-moon’s United Nations Leaders Summit on climate change to be held in September 2014, to COP20 in late 2014, or as late as COP21 in late 2015.  Putting forward even tentative pledges well in advance of the 2015 deadline would leave time for international peer review of the overall level of ambition, and allow for pledges to be scaled up if necessary to ensure a sufficiently effective agreement that meets scientific parameters.  Warsaw presents an opportunity to provide clarity on both the timeline of pledges and the scope and timing of the post-2020 agreement itself.

There are a number of additional issues that will also be discussed at Warsaw, and each presents its own set of challenges.  Emission reduction pledges for both the post-2020 agreement and 2015 to 2020 gap will be discussed, with questions remaining on the level of ambition, the type of review mechanism and legal nature of compliance mechanisms.  Financial assistance remains a key issue for all parties, with pledges needed for both the long term (how to fulfill the $100 billion per year by 2020 target) and for the short term (filling the fast start gap between now and 2015).  Another big area of concern is issues of equity.  Although parties have determined a new agreement would cover all countries, it is not clear what this means in terms of commitments and how much of a challenge this would pose to the long held principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) – a principle of great importance to developing countries.  It is eminently clear, for example, that the United States does not want another treaty that divides the world into two (or more) groups and imposes different obligations on them.  Additionally, Doha saw the emergence of the loss and damage issue which is expected to make an appearance at Warsaw.  Developing countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are calling for compensation for damages they would incur as temperatures increase.

At Warsaw, parties will be outlining their opening positions for the eventual treaty.  This should include progress on defining the timeline and structure of the new agreement, and a signal as to when new pledges should be put on the table.  The next two years are crucial and countries will need to take their discussions at the international level back to their domestic constituents to define workable strategies and targets everyone can sign on to.  There is limited time left to work out a new agreement, and a negotiating text emerging from Warsaw that outlines the principles of national obligations, reporting, monitoring and ambition would enable work to begin in earnest.