Warsaw talks show growing gap between climate policy and reality

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The Third Pole, Warsaw, Poland

Global attention turns to Warsaw as the next climate summit starts in the wake of a devastating typhoon and scientists’ fresh warning of worse impacts ahead. Can governments respond now?

Developing countries are determined to stay focused on the finance issue at this fortnight’s climate talks (Image by Greenpeace)

Thousands of government representatives, climate change activists and experts have reached Poland’s capital for the November 11-22 conference of the parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). For the last two decades such meetings have been held every year – this is the 19th – but global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions has remained a distant object.

While the emissions – mainly carbon dioxide – gather concentration and warm up the atmosphere, the negotiations to reduce them are getting tougher and more complex. The chances of a breakthrough at Warsaw’s COP 19 are slim. Many delegates and observers believe it will be business as usual – poor countries blaming rich countries for putting most of the GHG in the atmosphere, while the rich countries say they now account for less than half the emissions, and no progress is possible unless at least the emerging economies agree to restrict their emissions.

This tussle is scheduled to come to a head in 2015, and the current Warsaw COP is seen as a preparation for that. En route to 2015, poor countries are hoping there will be progress on two specific issues this fortnight – there will be substantial money coming into the Green Climate Fund to help them reduce emissions and deal with climate change effects; and there will be progress on the concept of compensation from rich countries for the loss and damage they suffer as the earth warms up.

The last point has gained greater urgency as the death and destruction wrought in The Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan becomes more apparent, even as the storm ravages Vietnam and southern China. The death toll in The Philippines may cross 10,000, the same estimated number that dies in flash floods in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in India this summer.

Climate change hurts, scientists warn

While scientists have not drawn a direct correlation between storms, floods and droughts and climate change, they have warned that global warming could make extreme events more frequent and more severe.

This COP also comes weeks after scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change debunked climate sceptics and proved yet again that global warming is being caused by human activities. They also calculated how close humanity is to a path of self-destruction. Even more recently, the World Meteorological Organisation(WMO) showed how GHG concentrations in the atmosphere remain on a dangerously upward spiral.

At around the same time, the United Nations Environment Programme calculated that the promised GHG emission cuts will still remain far short of keeping average global temperature rise with two degrees Celsius, a goal that 193 governments have agreed to.

Global agreement proves elusive

Overall, the Warsaw COP is being held at a time when the gap between reality and climate policy gets wider.

The group of rich countries led by the United States has clearly said that it prefers a new agreement that will have legal force with respect to all countries, while China has said the new outcome should be under the UNFCCC, in accordance with equity and common but differentiated responsibility. Renegotiation of what has already been agreed in the 1992 framework convention is not acceptable to China, India and many other developing countries.

Negotiators looked for a middle path at a meeting this June, but it has proved elusive so far. Least Developed Countries – who contribute virtually no GHG emissions but are among those worst hit by climate change effects – are hoping the Warsaw meeting will indicate something about the modality of a future deal.

The IPCC said this September, “Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.”

The WMO report shows that between 1990 and 2012 there was a 32% increase in radiative forcing – the warming effect on our climate – because of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping long-lived gases such as methane and nitrous oxide.

These reports are timed in the hope that they will pressure governments to tackle climate change more effectively, but climate negotiations remain dominated by political and economic issues rather than science.

There may also be a new spanner in the works. Negotiators representing the Russian government were very upset during the last COP in Doha because they felt their objections were ignored and decisions taken in contravention of the UN consensus tradition. This June, delegates from Russia – backed by Belarus and Ukraine – blocked negotiations under a UNFCCC subsidiary body, raising procedural and legal issues in decision making. Now, the Russian delegation has decided to move its objections from the subsidiary body to the main COP. The effect remains to be seen, but it does not augur well.

Russia’s objections last year were to certain amendments during the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol – the only legally binding climate agreement, under which only rich countries are supposed to reduce their GHG emissions. Russian delegates were visibly upset when the chair ignored their concerns and passed the amendments.

The other spanner is not new. Host country Poland does not have a good climate record, as it has consistently opposed moves to reduce its dependence on coal. Tasneem Essop, WWF’s head of delegation during this COP, said, “The Polish government has unfortunately shown us how not to handle these important negotiations by having embarrassingly low ambitions for this meeting and by trying to package their pro-coal stance as ‘clean coal’ – something that simply doesn’t exist.”

Hundreds of green NGO representatives – who gather at every COP trying to push the negotiations forward – may take a stand strongly antagonistic to the host government. It remains to be seen if that moves the Polish policymakers or thwarts the negotiations further.

Climate finance remains hot topic

Developing countries, meanwhile, are determined to stay focused on the finance issue. Jayanthi Natarajan, India’s environment minister, told The Hindu in a recent interview that the Warsaw meeting would set a milestone on climate finance as it has always become a topic of hot debate in past negotiations, as developed nations have been pledging money to help the poorest and most vulnerable countries in every climate change meeting, but there remained a huge gap between the money pledged and provided.

The Green Climate Fund (GCF) secretariat has been established but it is yet to be decided on how the funds will be channelized once developed countries start putting the money in the basket as per their commitment.

Developed countries want the private sector to play a much larger role in financing the combat against climate change. This issue was raised at a ministerial pre-COP meeting last month in Poland. Christiana Figueres, UNFCCC Executive Secretary, said last week, “The private sector needs to act to minimize climate risk and capture opportunity.” She added that the meeting in Warsaw also needs to take decisions that will make fully operational the new institutional support under the UNFCCC for developing nations in finance, adaptation and technology. These are the GCF, the Technology Mechanism and Adaptation Committee agreed in Cancun in 2010.

It is almost sure that the issue of loss and damage will be debated, as poor and vulnerable countries have reiterated the need to set up an international mechanism to implement it. Least Developed Countries (LDCs) want an agreement on the skeleton of the mechanism on loss and damage, at the very least. Chair of the LDC group, Prakash Mathema from Nepal, said last week, “LDCs want to see a Warsaw International Mechanism on loss and damage as a legacy of COP19.”

There may be rigorous discussions over implementation of the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, but there isn’t much enthusiasm as major emitting countries like Russia, Japan and Canada – who were part of the first commitment period (2008-12) – decided to withdraw from the protocol altogether. The US has never ratified the protocol. The current targets cover only Europe and a handful of other countries, totalling less than 15% of global emissions.

Few negotiators and observers expect this Warsaw COP to come with an answer to the big question, “Will humanity work to close the gap between climate science and climate policy?” The best they are hoping for are some positive outcomes on the road to answering that question.