Warsaw climate talks: Roadmap to nowhere?

The COP19 Warsaw climate talks reached agreement a week ago. Governments claim they have agreed a roadmap to solving global warming by 2015. In reality, delegates again ignored the urgent warnings from scientists and merely agreed to keep talking.

In my earlier post about COP19, I talked about the close involvement of the coal industry. This came under greater scrutiny as the talks progressed. 27 scientists released a statement rebutting the claim by the host Polish government and the World Coal Association that “high efficiency coal” is a climate solution. UN climate chief Christiana Figueres told the coal industry conference in Warsaw that the industry must leave most of its reserves in the ground, close old power plants, and capture and store carbon from any new ones (though she insists there is still a place for coal). An NGO called Corporate Europe Observatory pointed out there is a 2005 treaty protecting health policy-making from the tobacco lobby, and argued climate policy-making should similarly be protected from the fossil fuel lobby. The Polish government also received a second “Fossil of the Day” award from the Climate Action Network, and was hammered by protesters.

Coal isn’t the only fossil fuel industry the Polish government is in bed with. Near the end of COP19 Poland sacked its Environment Minister, Marcin Korolec, because he was dragging his feet on approving shale gas development. He was replaced by the pro-shale Maciej Grabowksi, though Korolec was allowed to continue as President of COP19.

Over the weekend bisecting the conference, 3,000 people protested against the lack of progress. Over 700,000 signed a petition started by Filipino delegate Yeb Sano, who fasted throughout COP19 as a protest. And on the penultimate day, Thursday 21 November, NGOs including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, WWF, Oxfam, ActionAid, and the International Trade Union Confederation walked out in protest, a move unprecedented in climate talks, because the negotiations were achieving nothing. WWF said in a statement:

[O]rganizations and movements representing people from every corner of the Earth have decided that the best use of our time is to voluntarily withdraw from the Warsaw climate talks. Instead, we are now focusing on mobilizing people to push our governments to take leadership for serious climate action.

However, the groups who walked out will return for COP20 in Lima, Peru in December 2014 and COP21 for Paris in December 2015.

COP19 was scheduled to conclude on the evening of Friday 22 November, but as has become common practice in climate talks, the talks dragged on into the night and grew increasingly angry and frustrated. By Saturday morning, final decisions had been agreed on some issues including deforestation, but the main arguments – over loss-and-damage, finance, and a roadmap to agreeing a post-2020 regime at COP21 – remained unresolved. Sano continued to fast.

Late Saturday afternoon delegates gathered for the final meeting of the summit, a forum usually used for rubber-stamping texts rather than negotiating the basics. Some had not slept for several nights and one developing country delegate said she did “not trust myself to make sensible decisions”. As the clock ticked, delegates revised the roadmap text and adopted it, then adopted the finance text, then revised the loss-and-damage text and adopted it. The conference was finally closed at 9pm Saturday. Sano broke his fast when the COP concluded, though he said it “did not come out with the kind of outcome I thought would have been meaningful.”

So what were the outcomes, when you strip away the spin?

Going backwards on pre-2020 ambition

Negotiating topic name: Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) Workstream 2

Negotiating topic purpose: Launched in 2011 to raise the ambition of countries’ (mostly voluntary) pre-2020 emissions reduction pledges

What I wanted from Warsaw: Pre-2020 ambition treated as the central issue of the talks, and pledges strengthened ideally by enough to be consistent with halting and ultimately reversing the rise of atmospheric CO2 (which involves cutting global emissions toward zero)

What Warsaw delivered: Not only did delegates again postpone raising ambition until next year, but some countries are backtracking from or failing to implement the inadequate existing pledges they made in 2009.

Discussions about ambition have become more heated than ever, with poor countries rightly accusing the rich of behaving “irrationally and unacceptably”.  As a Chinese delegate put it: “They talk about ratcheting up ambition, but rather they would have to ratchet up to ambition from zero ambition.”

The decision covering pre-2020 ambition begins by acknowledging the scientific conclusions of the IPCC AR5 and the urgency of cutting emissions, but fails to immediately do anything about it. Paragraph 4 merely “resolves to enhance ambition in the pre-2020 period” – a resolution already made at COP18 and COP17. To this end, the decision urges countries which have not yet made pledges to do so, urges rich countries to implement their existing targets, urges rich countries to revisit their targets, urges rich countries to “periodically evaluate the continuing application of any conditions associated with its [target] with a view to adjusting, resolving or removing such conditions”, urges rich countries to increase assistance to developing countries, and urges developing countries to implement their pledges and consider further action. All these “urgings” might be more credible if the world’s governments weren’t currently going in the wrong direction.

More promising is paragraph 5, which has some similarity with the small island states’ proposal of identifying and sharing those policies and technologies with greatest potential to cut emissions, only it is phrased much more vaguely. It also invites countries to voluntarily cancel international offsets. Further activities to raise ambition will be considered at COP20. The small island states are hoping this workplan will be a game-changer by showing the world’s governments that climate action is achievable. But negotiators have to stop just talking about it and get on with the job.

Behind the talk, ambition is actually going backwards. Japan renounced its voluntary pledge, Australia backtracked on its conditional targets, and New Zealand weakened its pledge. Australia, Canada, Japan, and New Zealand are set to increase rather than cut emissions; Australia and Canada in particular are making a point of flouting their responsibilities. Meanwhile, the EU has yet to ratify the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, despite being its major remaining participant. According to Climate Action Tracker, backtracking is outweighing positive moves from the US and China, so the ambition gap is widening instead of closing. All this reveals what should have been obvious: we can’t rely on a system of voluntary pledges to even be implemented, let alone to be ramped up to a level adding up to what is necessary.

Going nowhere on loss and damage

Negotiating topic name: Warsaw international mechanism for loss and damage

Negotiating topic purpose: Agreed in 2012 to be launched at COP19 to compensate poor countries for climate change for impacts that are beyond adaptation

What I wanted from Warsaw: Progress on a loss-and-damage mechanism (as long as it will not bankrupt developed countries), with liabilities ideally being paid by fossil fuel companies

What Warsaw delivered: Delegates agreed to establish a mechanism for loss and damage, but it remains unclear whether it goes beyond adaptation and what it will entail.

Loss-and-damage was a matter of great contention between rich and poor countries, with the poor demanding a new mechanism to compensate for losses beyond adaptation and the rich fearing potentially unlimited compensation claims.

Australia received two Fossils for blocking progress on loss-and-damage: trying to go back on what was agreed in Doha, opposing G77 proposals on non-economic losses and permanent losses, opposing strongly worded decision text, blocking any promising avenue of agreement, and delaying negotiations through procedural measures. In the middle of the second week, Australia’s obstructionism led the G77 to walk out of loss-and-damage talks. They accused Australian delegates of acting “cavalier” and “insensitive” about a matter of life and death by giggling, eating snacks, and wearing T-shirts. Of course, nobody really cares about the clothing worn by delegates – the point is these things unintentionally symbolize Australia’s attitude. Tuvalu accused Australia of “a turn-back to the days of climate change denial”, and said if climate talks do not agree a loss-and-damage mechanism then Tuvalu will seek compensation through the courts.

Loss-and-damage was the final issue to be settled at COP19. By Saturday afternoon, a draft decision text had been produced, but the core debate, on whether loss-and-damage would be part of adaptation or a separate mechanism to compensate for impacts beyond adaptation, remained unsettled. In the final hours of the conference, Filipino delegate Yeb Sano pleaded for the decision to be reworded to place loss-and-damage outside the Cancun Adaptation Framework as advocated by G77, instead of “under” it as the US wanted. In the end, G77 settled for retaining the word “under” in exchange for adding a preamble acknowledging it “in some cases involves more than, that which can be reduced by adaptation”, clarifying the potential impacts to which it could apply, and requiring a review of the mechanism in 2016.

The final decision “Establishes the Warsaw international mechanism for loss and damage, under the Cancun Adaptation Framework… to address loss and damage associated with impacts of climate change, including extreme events and slow onset events, in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change”. The mechanism will research climate change risk management, strengthen communication between institutions, and enhance support to address loss and damage including finance, technology, and capacity-building. Further details are yet to be negotiated.

Going backwards on finance

Negotiating topic name: Green Climate Fund (GCF)

Negotiating topic purpose: Launched in 2012 to provide finance for climate change mitigation and adaptation in poor countries

What I wanted from Warsaw: The Fund filled with at least the promised amount of money

What Warsaw delivered: In what was supposed to be the “finance COP”, delegates decided to keep talking about finance, while the level of climate finance actually flowing to poor countries has fallen dramatically.

The $10 billion per year delivered during 2010-2012 was supposed to be a “fast start” in ramping up to at least a promised $100 billion per year by 2020, yet climate finance pledges have fallen by 71% since last year. The Africa Group and Least Developed Countries wanted rich countries to provide $60-70 billion per year by 2016, but most developed countries have been reluctant to contribute any finance let alone a specific amount by a specific date. The EU announced it would spend 15 billion euros on climate aid over seven years, but that will come out of existing foreign aid and developing countries reasonably want extra funding.

Australia opposed the entire concept of climate finance despite it having already been agreed years ago, describing it as “not realistic” and “not acceptable” and even rejecting a finance position paper prepared by its Umbrella allies. Meanwhile at a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM), in a move The Australian described as “historic”, Australia and Canada refused to support a statement in a communiqué supporting the GCF. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott explained this is because: “We are committed to dismantling the Bob Brown Bank [the Clean Energy Finance Corporation] at home so it would be impossible for us to support a Bob Brown Bank on an international scale.” Brown is the former leader of the Australian Greens and has nothing to do with the GCF. Abbott’s justification raises the question of what’s different about Abbott’s proposed Emissions Reduction Fund – perhaps that the money will go to polluting companies instead of renewable energy.

The final decision merely underlines the urgency of delivering finance, reaffirms the promise of $100 billion per year by 2020, and “Urges developed country Parties to maintain continuity of mobilization of public climate finance at increasing levels from the fast-start finance period”. A smaller Adaptation Fund has been filled with only the bare minimum requirement of $100 million. A related decision calls for rich countries to make “ambitious and timely” contributions to the GCF by December 2014. No specific amounts or dates are mentioned other than the vague “increasing levels”. Meanwhile, Nicholas Stern says more than $500 billion per year is needed for developing countries and nearly $1 trillion per year needs to be spent on climate worldwide.

Inching toward post-2020 global action

Negotiating track name: ADP Workstream 1

Negotiating track purpose: Launched in 2011 to negotiate by 2015 “a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties” (whatever that means) to begin in 2020

What I wanted from Warsaw: Implementation date brought forward and significant clarification of how the future regime will work

What Warsaw delivered: Delegates agreed a rough timeline for negotiating the post-2020 regime by 2015, but so far it is shaping up to be unimpressive, and it’s hard to get excited about anyway because of the long time delay.

In Warsaw it became clear the divide between rich and poor countries, papered over in 2011, remained wide. The most important players were the EU, led by Denmark’s Connie Hedegaard, and the Like-Minded Developing Countries, spearheaded by Venezeula’s Claudia Salerno. The EU (with cautious support from some developing countries) wanted a clear roadmap calling for post-2020 targets to be revealed by early 2015 through a pledge-and-review process. However, despite being an EU member state Poland reportedly delayed and watered down the EU’s proposed timetable. The US would accept the EU timetable if poor countries also did. The LMDCs (particularly China, India, Saudi Arabia, and Venezeula) resisted any timetable because they want more ambition from rich countries before they will be prepared to make any concrete commitments or even discuss what they should be. India and several other LDMCs even blocked a paragraph that would have required negotiating how to equitably divide up emissions cuts among all countries. Hedegaard accused some developing countries of “backtracking” on the 2011 agreement that the post-2020 regime would be “applicable to all”, while Salerno accused Hedegaard of negotiating through the media.

During the final meeting on Saturday evening, China and India rejected the ADP draft decision, saying only rich countries should make binding “commitments” to cut emissions and emerging economies should merely “enhance action”. The US responded angrily that they were going back on “applicable to all”. Agreement was finally reached in a last-minute “huddle” of delegates, in which China and India secured two key changes to the roadmap text: “commitments” was changed to “contributions, without prejudice to the legal nature” and “those in a position” to make commitments was changed to “those who are ready”.

The final decision “requests” that negotiators accelerate work on the 2015 agreement on post-2020 action, and sets out the following timetable:

  • Paragraph 2(d) decides to “urge and request” rich countries support poor countries in preparing for commitments “as early as possible in 2014”.
  • Paragraph 2(a) decides to “request” delegates begin work on a draft negotiating text at the next ADP meeting in Bonn in March 2014.
  • Paragraph 2(c) decides to “request” negotiators identify by COP20 in December 2014 the information countries must provide about their contributions.
  • Paragraph 2(b) decides to “invite all Parties to initiate or intensify domestic preparations for their intended [a word hinting they may be open to change] nationally determined contributions, without prejudice to the legal nature of the contributions [for the post-2020 regime] towards achieving the objective of the Convention [preventing dangerous human interference with the climate] and to communicate them well in advance of [COP21 in December 2015] (by the first quarter of 2015 for those Parties ready to do so) [transparently]”.

These add to other milestones previously agreed in COP18:

  • By April 2014, countries in the Kyoto Protocol (including Australia) are requested to submit information on raising their pre-2020 ambition.
  • In June 2014, a ministerial roundtable will be held for countries in the Kyoto Protocol where each party “may” raise its ambition toward at least 25-40% below 1990 by 2020.
  • In September 2014, world leaders will convene for a summit hosted by UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon to raise ambition.
  • No later than COP20, negotiators will consider elements for a draft negotiating text on the post-2020 regime.
  • Before May 2015, negotiators intend to make available a negotiating text on the post-2020 regime, so the final deal can be signed and sealed at COP21.

There is still no clarity on what the post-2020 regime will look like.

The ever-growing focus on post-2020 targets is disturbing because 2020 is far too late to wait, especially for something that may not even be what we were promised. We need to make rapid emissions cuts now. A very small silver lining is that the schedule has not (yet) slipped even further into the never-never, as some had suggested it might.

Going sideways with carbon markets

Negotiating topic name: Clean Development Mechanism (CDM); New Market Mechanism (NMM); Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD)

Negotiating topic purpose: Various operational and proposed carbon market mechanisms allowing countries to meet their domestic emissions targets by buying international offsets (CDM is the main Kyoto Protocol offset mechanism, NMM is a promised future market mechanism under negotiation, REDD is a forestry scheme which may or may not be used to offset emissions elsewhere)

What I wanted from Warsaw: A shift in focus from international offset mechanisms to cutting emissions domestically, because of the myriad problems with emissions trading

What Warsaw delivered: Delegates expanded the CDM; delayed NMM talks; and agreed on REDD rules with as yet unclear implications.

Delegates agreed to allow countries without binding targets under the Kyoto Protocol to access offsets from the CDM (as New Zealand failed to achieve last year). This means there is no longer any financial incentive for countries to remain in the Protocol. Delegates rejected the more sensible proposal to introduce a floor price.

NMM negotiations were postponed until June 2014 because poor countries (rightly) refused to advance the process unless rich countries take on stronger targets – a rare postponement which I see as a positive.

Agreement was reached on a set of rules for REDD, but it’s not very clear what any of it means. The decision does not settle even the basic question of whether or not REDD will actually cut emissions or merely generate offsets to sell to carbon markets.

Advancing carbon markets is not moving forward on climate action. Emissions trading was never intended to cut emissions, merely to minimize the cost of doing so. If carbon markets are badly designed (as they usually are), they are steps backward, and even if they work as they are supposed to they are merely steps sideways.

Australia’s anti-climate agenda exposed

In the space of a fortnight, Australia utterly trashed its international reputation. The new Abbott government was slammed by almost everybody for being “anti-climate”. The Marshall Islands described Australia as a rogue nation, inviting Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to visit the islands to see the impacts of climate change there (Bishop did not respond). And unsurprisingly, the Climate Action Network awarded Australia this year’s “Colossal Fossil” award.

Australia played a blocking role on the most important issues of ambition, loss-and-damage, and finance, and kept repeating its position as if “on a loop”. The Australian delegation seemed most interested in intellectual property. And although Australia had promised to promote talks outside the UNFCCC between major emitters, its recently outlined G20 agenda contains no mention of climate or energy.

Australia’s only public comment at the talks was a two-minute speech by climate change ambassador Justin Lee (shorter than any other delegation’s). Lee claimed Australia accepts the science, but said it would only take action that is “fiscally and economically” responsible. His only mention of action before 2020 was this:

Australia will unilaterally reduce its emissions by 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020.  Australia will review its climate change policy in 2015, considering further action and targets on the basis of comparable real global action, in particular by major economies and trading partners, and progress on the new agreement.

Lee’s speech was delivered on the same day that the Australian House of Representatives passed legislation to repeal the carbon tax (the bill is yet to face a hostile Senate).

According to Renew Economy, Australians at COP19 were bombarded with the question “What the hell is going on down there?” The world apparently perceived Australia as constructive under Labor (though personally I don’t think Labor was really very constructive either). The new Australia made the US look constructive by comparison, and even a Bush-appointed American negotiator saw Australia’s position as extreme.

If you think Abbott will be embarrassed by all this, think again. The anti-climate government will wear the world’s condemnation as a badge of pride. Besides, the feedback wasn’t all negative. Canada has clearly taken heart from Australia’s obstructionism. And the fossil-fuel-funded denialist Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) said:

The model for the world right now should be Australia. Australia gets it. Scientifically they get it, politically they get it and particularly when it comes to the United Nations, they get it. They are pulling out of this, they are repealing their carbon tax and Canada seems to be intrigued by what Australia is doing. Australia gets it – they have realised what the United Nations is doing here today. Viva Australia – let’s hope the world follows Australia’s model.


This is the climate movement’s darkest hour. The global climate talks have descended into a farce: sponsored by the coal industry, obstructed by major players, ambling along without any end or even any achievement in sight.

One of the most depressing parts of humanity’s annual cycle of procrastination on the climate crisis is that after the latest COP fails to achieve much, 195 government spin machines kick into action to sell the outcome as a step forward. This time the main justification is that Warsaw laid out a “roadmap” to a new regime. To me it looks like a roadmap to climate catastrophe. COP19 “urged” a lot of actions from governments, but few are actually doing much. I only feel an urge to scream.

The climate talks have gone on my entire life, yet despite the negotiators’ constant claims they are making progress, the situation has deteriorated at an accelerating rate. Global fossil fuel CO2 emissions have risen by 61% since 1990 and 2% this year (with most of the recent growth in China). The Earth is headed for a catastrophic >4°C global warming by 2100, plus potentially large feedbacks and post-2100 warming. If we allow anywhere near that level of warming, humanity faces a very uncertain future.

The message coming loud and clear from Warsaw is that we cannot rely on UNFCCC negotiations to solve climate change. The talks have long since been sabotaged by the fossil fuel lobby, indirectly through its stranglehold on the domestic politics of most countries, and now directly through its sponsorship of the process itself. Instead of democratic government by the people for the people, we have undemocratic government by the corporations for the corporations. People power is urgently needed to counter corporate power. We must demand radical climate action from our governments.


1 ping

  1. It gives me great pleasure to nominate you for the versatile blogger award.
    See here.

    For all the work you do.

    • Sam Rendell on 4 January 2014 at 11:00
    • Reply

    I agree with you, but people are too scared of the short term economic and social impacts on their lives of changing their behaviour and accepting the financial cost of climate change action. They are scared that the economy will suffer if action is taken on climate change. People also don’t see climate change as affecting them and the future effects seem far away. Therefore we need to make people more aware of the danger of climate change so that they demand action. But maybe people and society will not change until resources become scarcer and they have to pay more and people are forced to accept changes in their lifestyle. When energy becomes more expensive people will turn to alternatives and climate change will become bad enough that people will be forced to take action. The trouble is that this may be too late.

  1. […] the upper end of Australia’s emissions target range; snubbed then played an obstructive role at Warsaw climate talks; refused to contribute to a global climate fund; left climate off the agenda of the upcoming G20 […]

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