Natalie Jones: Warsaw: The nature of the problem

I’ve just survived my first day at COP 19! To avoid total confusion, I thought I’d ask the simple question: what are negotiators hoping to achieve in Warsaw? Unsurprisingly, it turns out that this is actually not such a simple question. To get to the answer, we need to go a short way back into the history of the UNFCCC (don’t worry though, I won’t subject you to too many acronyms), and also to look at what science tells us.

The Science

The key figure to know is 2 degrees Celsius. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we must limit average global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This is a matter of scientific consensus. Currently, we’re heading on the path of a 3.5 - 4 degree increase above pre-industrial levels. At the end of this path lies drastic changes in ecosystems and weather, a seriously damaged global economy, and generally a not very happy human society. Even a 2 degree increase is not a place we really want to go – but it at least gives us a good chance of avoiding the worst impacts.

The latest IPCC report gave us a carbon budget: if we want a decent chance of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees, we have only 565 Gt of carbon to burn between now and mid-century.

We also know that in order to stay under 2 degrees, developed countries must cut emissions by 25-40% by 2020, and commitments are needed from emerging economies as well.

What’s the UNFCCC?

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992, but, as the name suggests, it only provided a framework – it acknowledged that climate change is a problem and created institutions to sort out the legal details later. The conference of the parties (COP) has been meeting every year since then. Now, it’s the 19th COP, and we’re still talking about how to fix the problem.

Common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR)

Despite being only a framework convention, the UNFCCC did contain some key principles. One of these principles, hotly contested ever since its introduction, is that parties each have a common but differentiated responsibility to take action against climate change. It’s subject to interpretation – most parties generally agree that it involves taking historical responsibility and current emissions into account, but there are arguments regarding the relevant time frame and the balance between each factor.

The Kyoto Protocol

The Kyoto Protocol was the first regime created under the framework convention. It created legally binding commitments for some countries – referred to as “Annex I” parties. This Annex was based on the countries which were in the OECD in 1992. However, not surprisingly, this somewhat arbitrary split has created a lot of problems. Clearly, the global emissions profile has changed quite drastically since 1992, due to rapidly emerging economies. The Annex I/non Annex I split is now at clear odds with the reality of country circumstances – but it’s been entrenched in the convention for so long that it’s quite hard to move past. 

Copenhagen … “Hopenhagen”?

Another problem with Kyoto is that it only locked in commitments for one five-year period: 2008-2012. The idea was always that the regime would keep ticking over for subsequent commitment periods, and parties set 2009 as their deadline to come to a new agreement in Copenhagen for post-2012 commitments. As we all know, Copenhagen was a huge failure. The divisions between countries could not be bridged, and no binding agreement was made to supplement or replace Kyoto.

Negotiations since Copenhagen

After the massive letdown in Copenhagen, parties have been taking baby steps to get back on track towards a solution. In Cancun in 2010, European countries and Australia accepted new legal targets for a second commitment period of Kyoto (2013-2020) – but less than 15% of global emissions are covered under the second commitment period. This clearly isn’t enough to stay within 2 degrees.

In addition, many countries made voluntary pledges to cut emissions by 2020. However, these pledges combined still aren’t enough. There’s an emissions gap, which UNEP currently estimates to be 8-13 Gt wide. If the gap is not filled by reduction commitments from countries, 2 degrees of warming becomes a certainty.

In 2011 in Durban, parties agreed to “reset” the negotiations, with the aim of delivering a new climate agreement by 2015, to come into effect in 2020. This new agreement will be legally binding on all parties.

The talks are now structured around two parallel work streams: issues related to the new post-2020 agreement, and discussions to enhance pre-2020 emissions reduction.

So ... does this COP matter, if there's nothing really happening until 2015? The answer is a resounding "yes". Although this COP is generally spoken about as not a "big decisions" meeting, we still expect to see progress on several issues, including some concrete outcomes.

Key issues in Warsaw

1.      The road to Paris

The new agreement is expected to be signed at COP21 in Paris in 2015. At the moment, steps for getting there are undecided. It’s not even clear what the agreement will look like – but the key question is where the regime will lie on the spectrum from top-down (commitments are imposed on countries) to bottom-up (countries choosing their own commitments).

At the moment, many expect that the agreement will lie somewhere in the middle. Of course, there is little chance that targets simply imposed on a country will be respected – but, on the other hand, a totally nationally defined approach doesn’t guarantee the necessary ambition. The rough idea seems to be that countries will submit or announce their pledges some time before the agreement is signed, for a review process. A key issue is whether, if the pledges were then found to be insufficient to meet scientific requirements, commitments should be compulsorily scaled-up. New Zealand, the US, and China all support bottom-up commitments, whereas the EU, small island states and the least developed countries tend to support a top-down approach.

A related question is how the burden of emissions reduction should be shared. Will the Annex system remain? The concepts of equity (including intergenerational equity, a key lobbying point for the youth constituency), ambition, and common but differentiated responsibility are key here. Ideally we could use a carbon budget approach, but Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, has dismissed this as not politically practical.

Ban-Ki Moon recently announced a high-level summit in New York in September 2014, which will provide an additional opportunity for world leaders to get their act together, announce post-2020 commitments, and raise ambition in the lead-up to Paris.

Therefore, a key aim of COP19 is to adopt a timeframe to guide negotiations in the lead-up to 2015, and particularly to specify when countries must announce their respective commitments.

2.      Pre-2020 ambition

Increasing mitigation ambition before the new agreement comes into effect is crucial, and so often overlooked – or, at least, not given enough attention. We cannot wait for the new obligations to arrive in 2020. The science tells us that to stay below 2 degrees, an immediate increase in developed countries’ pledges is needed, and emerging economies have to step up their act too. It is not clear how parties intend to address this in Warsaw.

3.      Climate finance

One of the only good outcomes from Copenhagen was that countries pledged $100b to the Green Climate Fund, which is intended to help poorer nations invest in clean technologies and climate adaptation measures. However, hardly any of this money has actually been delivered, and most was diverted from existing aid budgets. There is, as yet, no agreement about how to reach the target, but a lead on finance from developed countries could help to restore the trust of developing countries in the UNFCCC process, and provide stronger motivation for them to participate in the negotiations on new emissions cuts.

4.      Loss and damage

At COP18 in Doha countries agreed to discuss the creation of a mechanism to address loss and damage at COP19, which would essentially allow countries most affected by climate change to manage its negative impacts. Some parties phrase it in terms of “compensation”, though others (such as the USA) are deathly allergic to this term.

Loss and damage is already on everyone’s minds, as the devastating impacts of Typhoon Haiyan become clear. An inconvenient reality of climate change is that as global temperatures rise, weather like this will become much more extreme and frequent. We’re already seeing loss and damage from climate change, and it is often (though not always) is in countries which themselves did not cause the problem. Like finance, loss and damage is another potential key to the mitigation discussions.

A possible final issue …

One of the strangest things about the UNFCCC is that there are no rules of procedure about, for instance, voting. The understanding is that decisions are made by “consensus” – but the problem is, it’s not quite clear what “consensus” actually means. Last year in Doha the final negotiating text was passed extremely quickly, essentially in order to prevent Russia from objecting. Russia was, understandably, not happy with these tactics, and in the intersessional talks in Bonn this June stalled the negotiations in the SBI (one of two subsidiary bodies) for the entire two weeks over an argument about whether to add rules and decision-making to the negotiation agenda (!)

Clearly, rules of procedure would be an asset to the UNFCCC. But it’s unclear whether, and how, this saga will continue to play out in Warsaw. The COP agenda was adopted today with no problems arising from Russia, and hopefully this trend will continue.

The Polish context

Poland is unabashedly coal-dependent, and at the same time as hosting the UN climate talks the government is planning to construct several new coal plants and mines. Poland is often an obstacle in the EU to more ambitious climate policy, and we’ve seen particularly interesting tactics from its government in the lead up to this COP.

Official sponsors for the conference include fossil fuel companies, car companies, and a steel company – and while many past COPs have been sponsored by similar “dirty” companies, no other COP host has so unabashedly promoted its sponsors as “clean” and “green” when they are blatantly not. In another example of corporate capture, the pre-COP consultation, which normally includes civil society, this year only invited big business. It will be interesting to observe how these factors affect the negotiations.

Bring on the next two weeks.

P.S. For a great discussion of where New Zealand fits in all of this, check out this post by fellow Kiwi David. 

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.

For official Institute updates, take a look here.



Posted on November 12, 2013 and filed under UN Climate Talks 2013.