Two weeks in Warsaw: Damage control

By Cindy Baxter 26/11/2013

home made radio studio in the media centre

home made radio studio in the media centre

Another year, another climate COP, and a few more faltering baby steps toward trying to limit global climate change. But this time coal was in charge and it showed. I’ve been to enough of these meetings to know that there isn’t going to be One Big Event that will Suddenly Save the Climate, Just Like That. This was the problem with Copenhagen, a meeting that, frankly, was never going to do the job and where expectations were too high.

But every year, as emissions accumulate in the atmosphere and new, fossil-fuel-fired infrastructure is built, and new scientific discoveries are made, the more important these meetings get.

While Warsaw wasn’t going to get a Big Deal, it was an extremely important stepping stone toward the 2015 agreement which will be the closest thing to the One Big Event we’ll have seen in at least a decade, if not longer (since Kyoto?).

As one colleague said to me on the night the talks ended: “we got some things, and we lost less than we thought we would. But it wasn’t a major breakthrough, not with the amount of damage control we had to do.”

So what did we get at the end of those frenetic two weeks?

While Governments did agree a workplan for getting to a 2015 global climate deal, a backdown in the final hours meant that everyone will only have to consider “contributions” rather than the much stronger “commitments” on cutting emissions.

Some of you may find the full paragraph interesting. It is a reflection of a 20-year dance between developed and developing country governments, with nobody prepared to put any firm commitment or legally binding anything on the table before anyone else. It’s a veritable forest of get-out clauses, committing nobody to anything:

“To invite all Parties to initiate or intensify domestic preparations for their intended nationally determined contributions, without prejudice to the legal nature of the contributions, in the context of adopting a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed legal outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2 and to communicate them well in advance of the 21st session by the 1st quarter of 2015 by those Parties ready to do so, in a manner that facilitates the clarity, transparency and understanding of the intended contributions.”

The late date for these “contributions” to be put on the table bring a whole heap of uncertainty to progress in the rest of the negotiations.

And they fully backed away from anything like strong decisions for increasing cuts in emissions before 2020, instead calling for expert input and analysis as to how the world might close the Emissions Gap. [Hint: close down coal fired power stations, switch to renewables, cut oil use – you know, those things some of us have been saying for years. We don’t need any more expert analysis. We know what to do].


On Finance, while there were some essentially procedural decisions made on how the Green Climate Fund would be set up, there’s still no sign of that money desperately needed by developing countries to adapt to climate change, get ready for more and move to a clean energy system – nor any idea of how it could be upscaled to the $100bn a year promised by 2020. Over in the Adaptation Fund Governments barely managed to scrape enough money together ($100 million) to keep the thing going, let alone start paying out the massive figures needed to help countries start adapting to the inevitable impacts.

Loss & Damage

They fudged the Loss and Damage decision, agreeing to a new mechanism to deal with this pressing issue. But the US absolutely refused to allow this to be a brand new instrument, instead insisting that it come under the Adaptation Fund set up in Cancun. At the last minute on Saturday afternoon, they agreed to make this a temporary thing, and to re-visit the decision in 2016, after the Paris meeting and, perhaps not coincidentally, after the US elections.

There is a difference between adapting to the expected impacts of climate change, and having to cope with the lasting damage caused by extreme weather events, droughts, or sea level rise it is already causing. Damage like loss of land, loss of cultures (which may well happen in the Pacific) and loss of loved ones. This is why it can’t be part of the “adaptation” framework.

Loss and Damage is about paying for the damage caused by historical emissions. I can see why the US doesn’t like it, but seriously, if the US hadn’t spend 20 years prevaricating over this issue, listening to the oil industry and climate deniers, and actually taken action, we could have been in a very different position today.

Lastly, and very much not least, the Russians managed to block any agreement on some key decisions around the Kyoto Protocol rules, decisions that mean there’s going to be another year before anyone who signed up to the second commitment period can do that.

At the beginning of these talks, I called out the coal industry and called this meeting a “Carbon COP,” and it certainly lived up to its name. We risk having such weak climate action to 2020 that coal could actually make a comeback.