As Urgency of Action Is Higher Than Ever, Expectations for U.N. Climate Negotiations in Warsaw Are Low

Published Nov 12, 2013

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has low expectations for the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP 19) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations taking place from November 11-22 in Warsaw, Poland.

“Never have the stakes been higher with expectations so low,” said Alden Meyer, the director of strategy and policy at UCS who has been involved in international climate negotiations for more than 20 years. “As report after report documents, we’re not doing anywhere near enough to curb emissions. We don’t expect the Warsaw climate summit to change that – but it must lay the groundwork for much greater ambition over the next two years.”

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim recently stated, “Scientists agree that countries’ current …emission pledges and commitments would most likely result in 3.5 to 4°C warming. And the longer those pledges remain unmet, the more likely a 4°C world becomes….” A recent report from the U.N. Environment Program finds that the gap between what countries have pledged to do between now and 2020 and the much greater level of effort needed to prevent more than 2°C of warming is larger than ever. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) working group one report for the fifth Climate Assessment released in September concluded that as average global temperatures increase, the risk of extreme consequences also intensifies, including global sea level rise, wildfires, flood and drought. The science is clear: the world must act now if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

According to Angela Anderson, director of the Climate and Energy Program at UCS, negotiations in Durban in December 2011 resulted in a “breakthrough.” They launched the Durban Platform, with two negotiating tracks. The first track, or work stream one, calls for a more comprehensive climate agreement to be negotiated and signed by the Paris climate summit in late 2015 and to take effect in 2020. The second track, work stream two, calls for countries to pursue more aggressive emissions limitation strategies between now and 2020. Negotiators in Warsaw must keep the process launched in Durban on track. “The single most significant thing countries can do is offer bold climate action pledges,” said Anderson.

“The Warsaw meeting must lay the foundation for the work needed over the next two years to make the 2015 Paris deal possible,” said Meyer. “Specifically, ministers need to agree on the process and timetable for countries to put forward meaningful emission reduction proposals, and for a full and meaningful review of those proposals against the overall level of ambition needed to meet the temperature limitation goal. They must also make progress on climate finance, adaptation, and technology cooperation issues in Warsaw.”

In addition, countries will be discussing ways to fairly measure the relative level of climate action by different countries, taking into account capability and responsibility, in order to avoid perceptions that some countries are ‘free riding’. A number of developing countries, along with non-governmental groups, are calling for development of an ‘equity reference framework’ of criteria and indicators to use in assessing countries’ proposals when they are put forward. 

Polish Leadership

When the UNFCCC last met in Poland in 2008, coal was the dominant source of electricity in the United States. Today, coal accounts for just 42 percent of U.S. electricity production, as increased use of natural gas and renewable energy have contributed to the shutdown of a growing number of the oldest, dirtiest coal generating plants. While many U.S. power producers are pursuing smart energy solutions that lessen their reliance on fossil fuels, Poland has vigorously resisted the move away from coal.

Many are questioning Poland’s leadership of this meeting based on actions and statements from the Polish government supporting a continued reliance on coal. The Polish government is supporting an international coal and climate summit to be held during the second week of negotiations. And a manifesto – endorsed by Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister Janusz Piechociński – will be presented at the summit claiming “there is a misconception that the use of coal is incompatible with meeting the challenge of climate change.” Carbon dioxide emissions from coal combustion are, in fact, the largest contributor to climate change.

The UCS report “Ripe for Retirement” found that not only is coal a major source of carbon and other harmful pollution in the U.S., it is becoming increasingly uncompetitive compared with cleaner generation sources especially after including costs of retrofitting plants with modern pollution controls. According to the report, as much as 18 percent of the country’s coal generating capacity should be considered for closure because the electricity it produces will be more expensive than energy from lower cost natural gas or wind power. Much can be said about the role of the United States in the U.N. negotiations, but domestically, investments in natural gas and renewables are offsetting reliance on coal and reducing emissions. However, it is important that the U.S. avoid the climate risks of an overreliance on natural gas, as UCS’s "Gas Ceiling" report points out.

Financing the solution

Determining how to increase funding for the U.S. and other industrialized countries to help developing countries reduce their emissions by ramping up clean technologies and reducing deforestation, as well as adapting to the rapidly mounting impacts of climate change, is another charged issue on the table in Warsaw. At the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, President Obama and other developed country leaders set a goal of ramping up climate finance from the current level of $10 billion a year to $100 billion a year by 2020. Developing country negotiators in Warsaw will be looking for more specifics on how developed countries plan to meet this pledge. As part of this effort, Poland has invited finance ministers to a special meeting in Warsaw, but there’s no certainty about which finance ministers will attend and which issues, if any, they can agree on.

An equitable solution

Another hot-button issue in Warsaw will be how developed countries can assist developing countries that are exceptionally vulnerable to a changing climate in coping with the loss and damage they face as a result of climate change. Negotiators must grapple with the fact that even if emissions were to plummet tomorrow, the impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities will continue to mount, particularly in small island states and least-developed countries.

“The disputes about loss and damage nearly brought down the whole house of cards at last year’s meeting in Doha. In the final hours of the meeting, countries papered over their differences and agreed to kick the can down the road a year to Warsaw,” said Meyer. “The U.S. and other developed countries are leery of their potential liability for substantial climate-related damages resulting in large part from their past emissions. But the Alliance of Small Island States and other developing countries will be demanding a specific plan of action to mobilize greater funding and capacity to help them deal with the increasingly unavoidable impacts of climate change, and they won’t accept putting this off for another year. This will be an issue to watch in the closing days and hours of the Warsaw summit”

Reducing emissions from deforestation

Treaty negotiators will discuss the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation plus pro-forest activities (REDD+) program that helps developing countries reduce their emissions from tropical deforestation, which are responsible for about 10 percent of global warming pollution. REDD+ policies financially reward developing countries for reducing their deforestation rates. REDD+ has been tested in Brazil, with Norway as its sponsor, and the program proved highly successful. Brazil aims to reduce Amazon deforestation by 80 percent by 2020. With the successes from REDD+, deforestation in Brazil could be reduced to zero and well before 2020.

“The trial phase is very encouraging, and we’re close to implementation, but no cigar,” said Doug Boucher, director of UCS’s Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative and director of climate research and analysis. “Negotiators must hammer out metrics issues for REDD+ so that we’re comparing apples-to-apples. This process is slow going because the REDD+ metrics concerns are similar to the metrics sticking points negotiators face with the 2015 global climate agreement.”

In order for REDD policies to be strong, specific metric factors must be considered to ensure that real emissions reductions are made, including measuring, reporting and verification (MRV). At past meetings, negotiators have determined the start point threshold, known as reference levels, to establish the emissions level before starting REDD+. In Warsaw, they will debate the verification process, which confirms the results. There was much progress made in negotiating verification at the June meeting in Bonn.

“We’re optimistic that REDD+ could be a bright spot at the Warsaw COP. The verifications decisions are the last major technical detail left to determine. With all the process made over the summer, negotiators can and should solidify these decisions to move the process further – and then they need to find the money.”

The question of who will provide funding to help developing countries reduce their deforestation rates and where the funding will come from is also up for discussion. Additionally, negotiators will likely pass decisions that address various drivers of deforestation, and finalize protections for indigenous communities and biodiversity under a prospective REDD+ anti-deforestation plan.

Technology sharing to reduce emissions and enhance adaptation

“The most surefire way to sharply curb global warming emissions is by deploying clean energy technologies to communities across the globe now,” said Rachel Cleetus, senior climate economist at UCS. “The ‘technology mechanism’ established at the Cancun COP is an important way of encouraging countries to share technology and know-how to reduce emissions and to cope with the impacts of climate change.”

With the major parts of Technology Mechanism (TM) now up and running, negotiators must focus on the steps that will lead to implementation. The Technology Executive Committee (TEC) and the Climate Technology Center (CTC) have developed work programs to help create a knowledge base and facilitate the sharing of policy and technology expertise. An international network of institutions connected to the CTC will also shortly be operational. There are many decisions to be made before developing countries can both begin installing clean energy technologies and using technology to adapt to the impacts of climate change already underway.

In Warsaw, negotiators must offer a mandate to design a Global Technology Action Program, informed by the needs identified by developing countries, that would help these countries access resources to navigating a low-carbon pathway, and ensure that the Green Climate Fund include provisions to fund the Technology Action Plan implementation in developing countries, prioritizing least-developed countries. These decisions also include providing an adequate, stable source of funding for the TM to continue to deliver on its workplan and ensuring equitable attention to deployment of technologies that will help developing countries cope with the impacts of climate change.

Where possible, it will be important for negotiators to find agreement on funding and resolve schisms between developed and developing countries on an appropriate intellectual property rights regime that encourages innovation while not stifling the rapid diffusion of clean technology. At the same time recent technology cooperation agreements among major economies, such as bilateral agreements between the US and China and actions in the Major Economies Forum, signal that progress and cooperation are indeed possible and can work to the benefit of all. The private sector could also play an important role.

Reducing climate emissions from agriculture

“With agriculture accounting for about 30 percent of all global emissions, reducing emissions from the agriculture sector is a vital element in the fight against climate change, said Pipa Elias, UCS’s lead on REDD+ and agricultural issues. “Climate change is threatening food production for the world’s most vulnerable countries, and these are often the same places where food insecurity is already problematic.”

The Durban talks marked the first negotiations where agriculture was on the agenda, and for this reason, the agriculture discussions lag behind other work streams. In addition to relative newness of agriculture negotiations, these conversations are also hindered by political maneuvering from some large developing countries that are hesitant to commit to reducing emissions from agriculture out of fear that such negotiations might result in trade or production restrictions. These countries must realize that financial consequences are minimal compared to the impacts of climate change.

Thus far, the U.N. climate talks have focused on the science of adaptation and mitigation, and the synergy between them. In June, countries decided to have a workshop on agriculture issues during the first week of the Warsaw meeting. The workshop should establish steps for countries to support farmers who are sustainably producing agricultural goods and ensure climate change does not threaten their livelihoods.

“The urgent need for climate action is increasingly obvious. The typhoon that devastated the Philippines just last week, which was one of the most powerful storms ever recorded, is only the most recent reminder of what’s at stake if we don’t act,” said Meyer. “While the expectations for the Warsaw COP are fairly low, the decisions made at this meeting are crucial for securing a deal in Paris in 2015.”