Warsaw Climate Talks Outcome: Lowering Commitments, Not Emissions

UNFCCC-logos11Everyone agreed on the need to act, but the willingness to take action was absent in Warsaw. Talks verged on lowering commitments and ambitions to reduce emissions. Developed countries that have consumed more than their share of climate space, refused to commit to higher emission reduction targets commensurate to their responsibilities and levels recommended by the UN scientific panel on climate change, unless developing countries accept binding commitments.

Developing countries – especially emerging economies – refused to agree on a framework binding them to strict commitments to cut carbon emissions. They insisted that only developed countries should have firm commitments while emerging economies are expected to “enhance action” supported by finance and technology. They want industrialized countries to act first and meet their commitments and provide assistance to developing countries in making a transition to low carbon economies.

Developed countries argued that the deal struck in Durban in 2011 required all major economies, including emerging economies, to commit to bringing down emissions in line with scientific advice, and this was not being adhered to. Developing countries challenged that these commitments were contingent on developed countries playing their role and providing climate funds and clean technology at concessional rates, and that this was not happening. Most developing countries maintain that since the Durban decision was under the UN Climate Convention, the responsibilities to reduce emissions remain differentiated.

For developing countries, historical emissions and the principle of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR) are non-negotiable pillars to ensure that climate justice and equity is maintained during climate negotiations. They seek that any new post-2020 agreement has to come under the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change on common but differentiated responsibilities rather than rewriting or ignoring it. Developed countries were against keeping any such reference and this almost led to a breakdown of the talks until a compromise was worked out to replace “commitments” with the more flexible term “contributions”.

The negotiating parties ultimately agreed to go back home and initiate or intensify domestic preparations for their intended “nationally determined” contributions to reduce emissions without being legally obliged to do so. Countries ready to do so will submit clear and transparent plans by the first quarter of 2015. The plans will be assessed by other countries to determine if they are ambitious and fair, and whether they will be collectively effective in preventing climate catastrophe.

As the emissions reduction goals that will come into force in 2020 will not be decided centrally, but set at the national level, it remains to be seen how these contributions will evolve. They may end up as binding targets in the 2020 framework and take the shape of a new protocol, or simply an agreed outcome to reduce emissions with legal force.

No Interim or Long Term Financing

In the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, developed nations committed to mobilize US$100 billion a year by 2020 to fund actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change in developing countries. So far there has only been a trickle of funds. Developing countries want to see a roadmap on how the funds will be raised. But developed countries have resisted demands to put firm commitments on how they plan to fulfill this pledge. Their position did not change during the Warsaw talks and this obviously failed to earn the trust of developing countries.

Developing countries want the Green Climate Fund to be the major climate finance entity under the climate convention and all funds for adaptation and reducing emissions to be routed through it. But there has been no clarity forthcoming on when the Fund will be capitalized. The operational implementation of the fund, initiated three years ago, has failed to materialize.

Developing countries also want richer countries to provide interim financing between now and 2020 to meet climate challenges and keep up the momentum until 2020. Developing countries asked for US$70 billion in aid by 2016, but this demand was rejected by the developed countries. Ultimately, no new financing was committed during the talks except replenishment of funds for the Adaptation Fund and adoption of the work programme for results-based financing for reducing emissions from forest-related / REDD-plus activities. Instead developed countries were simply requested to prepare biennial submissions on their updated strategies and approaches for scaling up finance between 2014 and 2020, complemented by a decision to hold a similar schedule of high-level ministerial dialogues on finance.

Developed countries know that financing is needed urgently by developing countries, and they use it as a tool to pressurize developing countries to make firm commitments to cut emissions. Putting conditionality on financial assistance by linking it up with commitments does not make it assistance any longer. Instead it becomes payment for services rendered. However under the climate talks, richer countries are required to provide financial assistance and this should be free from conditionality. More so, if we apply the principle that polluters should pay for the climate damage. Any financial flows should not be treated as charitable assistance but as compensation. However, many poorer countries with urgent need for financing to adapt and compensate their citizens for loss and damages succumb to the pressure and accept conditions – creating fissures between groups of developing countries while freeing developed countries from their obligations.

Recognizing “Loss and Damage”

One of the few positive developments from the Warsaw talks was the “Warsaw International Mechanism” to provide leadership, improved coordination, expertise and technical assistance, and possibly financial support to help developing nations cope with loss and damage from extreme events such as heat waves, droughts and floods, and creeping threats such as rising sea levels and desertification. This was one of the few areas where developing countries were “Agenda Setters”. They put in a lot of efforts and coordination in pushing the issue through and have it accepted within the framework of the Climate Convention.

But the success was limited. Developing countries wanted loss and damage to be separate from existing structures of mitigation and adaptation. But developed countries did not consider “loss and damage” issues to be separate from adaptation issues. They firmly opposed any new funding beyond the planned US$100 billion a year from 2020 but were open to diverting adaptation funds to these issues. A compromise was worked out and the talks recognized that “loss and damage in some cases involve more than adaptation” –  a significant departure from the earlier practice of only recognizing mitigation and adaptation as the two major elements to tackle climate change.

On one hand, the new “loss and damage” mechanism is an explicit and formal recognition that impacts from climate change are inevitable. But on the other hand, countries are unwilling to take concrete actions to reduce the severity of these impacts.

Forum Shopping and Power Asymmetries

Due to better research and analytical capacity available within developed countries, different strategies are tried to make poorer countries accede to the demands of the richer ones. For instance, a proposal was put forth by the US to phase out even non-ozone depleting refrigerants under the Montreal convention. This was a devious way to shift forums and bring new commitments under the Montreal protocol from UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, since the principle of differentiated responsibilities and equity are not enshrined there. Fortunately some of the developing countries saw through it and were able to block it.

Developing countries are also more watchful against unilateral trade measures or trade measures disguised as climate change action that are pushed by richer countries to spur their private sector.  The rise of the South means that many of the emerging powers are able to resist prescriptive policies dictated to them by the North.  But power asymmetries still remain as richer countries are to shift responsibilities on poorer countries using tools of financing, better research and strategic capacity, and forum shopping.

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Vikas Nath is the Associate Director, Future UN Development System (FUNDS) Project. He can be reached at vikas.nath@gmail.com

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