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Carbon Brief Staff

Carbon Brief Staff

25.11.2013 | 3:00pm
ScienceWarsaw climate talks offer glimpse of progress, but defer major decisions
SCIENCE | November 25. 2013. 15:00
Warsaw climate talks offer glimpse of progress, but defer major decisions

After 30 hours of deadlock and sleep deprivation, delegates at the Warsaw climate talks finally struck a deal – and it was all down to changing the wording. A fortnight of negotiating encompassing hunger strikes, walkouts, and standoffs ended as delegates hammered out a deal in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Countries meet annually to discuss climate goals as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In recent years, governments had agreed to commit to a new global deal by 2015 to reduce emissions. The Warsaw negotiations were intended to mark out a ‘pathway’ to that deal.

So how successful were they, and what still needs to be decided in the run up to the Paris summit in 2015?

From “commitments” to “contributions”

Early on Sunday, delegates agreed on a pathway – the ‘Warsaw roadmap’. The upshot is, any 2015 deal is likely to be more flexible than its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol. The meeting’s chairs described the Warsaw agreement as a “compromise”, reached thanks to an an eleventh hour change of wording.

The Warsaw negotiations were fractious from the start, with faultlines emerging over how to share responsibility for emissions cuts between developed and developing nations. In the Kyoto Protocol, economically developed countries – with a longer history of emitting greenhouse gases – are expected to make firm “commitments” to cut their emissions. In contrast, developing countries were expected to take less stringent “actions”, recognising their need to develop as well as their shorter emissions track record.

In contrast, delegates agreed in Warsaw that all countries would instead make “contributions” towards international efforts to cut emissions.

It’s currently unclear whether those contributions will be more or less stringent than the cuts previous deals required. But the wording change is significant as it blurs a “20-year-old distinction between the obligations of rich and poor nations”, as Reuters notes.

The announcement that a deal had been reached was met with cheers in the conference hall, climate news website, RTCC, reports. The BBC says the compromise has allowed countries to save face. It says the US and EU can insist everyone is on the same page, while China and India can claim they are doing something different from the richer countries.

The compromise allowed the talks to end on a note of success, even if the detail of who is going to cut emissions – and by how much – is yet to be decided.

Loss and damage

New but related arguments erupted over whether or not developed countries should compensate the least economically developed nations for the impacts of extreme weather events. Some progress was made on the issue of so-called ‘loss and damage’ compensation, but not everyone was happy.

The Warsaw talks began on a sombre note:  just before they commenced, Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines. Head of the country’s delegation, Yeb Sano, linked the devastation caused to climate change, and vowed to go on hunger strike at the talks until progress was made.

Ultimately, delegates agreed to set up a compensation mechanism – to be known as the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage. Under the agreement, countries will receive some aid if hit by natural disasters but developed countries won’t be considered liable, and the fund won’t start functioning until 2020, the Guardian reports.

Saleem Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development in the UK, and a delegate for Bangladesh, said the loss and damage decision was “a major breakthrough”. The EU’s climate commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, said ” congratulations” were owed to developing countries for securing the deal.

But the deal isn’t everything Sano and his allies were hoping for. The new fund will fall under the umbrella of existing mechanisms to help developing countries adapt to climate change – something Sano explicitly lobbied against.

They are concerned that adding the Warsaw mechanism to the UNFCCC’s adaptation strand potentially restricts what developed countries could claim aid for. That sticking point was overcome by delegates agreeing to review the wording of the mechanism in 2016, after a new global deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol has been finalised.

What next?

The Warsaw roadmap requires governments to submit their emissions reduction plans to the UNFCCC by March 2014. Policymakers will then scrutinise the plans to see if they fairly reflect the burden different countries should shoulder for emissions cuts. The level of ambition reflected in those plans will go a long way toward setting the tone for the 2015 talks.

Jonathan Grant, director at consultancy PriceWaterhouseCoopers, argues this pragmatic approach could lead to more realistic targets. Some negotiators believe “numbers were plucked out of thin air at Kyoto and the lack of realism in those targets subsequently led to problems with implementation”, he says.

But allowing countries to set their own targets could mean countries give themselves an easy ride. Japan angered delegates in Warsaw by announcing it was abandoning its previously agreed targets for a new goal which would effectively allow emissions to rise three per cent. Under new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, Australia is also rolling back on its commitments, and didn’t send a minister to the Warsaw talks. So early signs aren’t promising in some quarters.

Not all participants want to row back ambition, however. The EU is committed to ambitious emissions cuts: currently committed to a 20 per cent reduction in 1990 levels. What’s more it  and has offered to increase this to a 30 per cent cut if other countries agree to binding targets.

The US and China are also making promising noises, compared to their previous intransigence. The Warsaw deal reflected the wishes of US envoy, Todd Stern, to allow national governments to have more say over setting their climate goals based on what they consider realistic, the New York Times says. That’s potentially good news, as having the world’s two highest emitters on board would significantly strengthen a 2015 deal.

Limping on

So there were “scraps” of good news to come out of the climate talks, according to environmental commentary website, Grist. Among those scraps was early agreement on how countries might go about setting new goals in 2015, and establishing that ‘loss and damage’ should fall under the UNFCCC’s remit (in principle, at least).

Nonetheless, there is a fear that the Warsaw negotiations may have “simply postponed tough decisions for another few months”. Commentators expect arguments over responsibility for global emissions cuts, in particular, to bubble to surface once again when the national plans are submitted next year.

Jennifer Morgan, director of the World Resources Institute’s climate and energy program said negotiators in Warsaw “delivered just enough” to keep the climate talks on track heading towards 2015. But that’s pretty much par for the course for a system notorious for deferring decisions – and action – as long as possible.

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