January 21, 2014

Compromises weaken Warsaw climate change talks

By Kimball Cariou
Peoples Voice newspaper

            The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 19) wrapped up on Nov. 23, after heated late‑night debates and a walkout by environmental groups. Most of the "civil society" observers at the conference shared a consensus that the compromise deal struck in Warsaw will do little to help cut down carbon emissions which are driving climate change.

            Much of the conference was deadlocked in disputes between negotiators from the major capitalist countries and the developing world over the division of responsibility for cutting down emissions, and over financing to countries suffering from the impacts of climate change.

            A deal was finally reached through terminology that asks countries for "nationally determined contributions", instead of "commitments" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, during talks for a new global climate agreement to be finalized at a 2015 summit in Paris.

            The wealthiest capitalist countries have made pledges to help developing countries cope with the impacts of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, desertification, and others. But the United States blocked substantive progress in climate financing, particularly on how these countries will scale up their yearly contributions to $100 billion by 2020. The U.S. even succeeded in having private finance counted in as climate finance commitments.  

            Speaking on behalf of the G77+China group of developing countries, Fiji said "there is absolutely nothing to write home about at the moment."

            The Warsaw outcomes were met with negative reactions from the civil society groups which staged a mass walkout on Nov. 21. The walkout highlighted what they called the "serious lack of ambition in the talks", where developed countries backtracked on earlier commitments, while "dirty energy corporations" flaunted their overweening influence.

            Around 800 representatives from 13 non‑governmental organisations joined the walkout, when it became clear that the conference would not produce a timetable to ensure that targets for emissions cuts and climate finance pledges will be set in time for Paris.

            The rich capitalist countries continue to demand uniform national emission targets, while developing nations say the major industrialised nations must lead in setting targets and foot most of the bill because they have accounted for most emissions.

            The talks were also sharply divided over aid. Developed nations agreed in 2009 to raise climate aid to $100 billion a year from 2020 from an annual $10 billion for 2010‑12. But the major imperialist countries, focused on their own embattled economies, are now resisting calls to raise aid levels over the rest of this decade.

            The Warsaw conference started in early November, in the shadow of Typhoon Haiyan which devastated the Philippines. Speaking at the time, the lead delegate from the Philippines, Yeb Sano, drew tears in the auditorium with a heartfelt plea to "stop this climate madness".

            But serious progress was foiled by the complexity of finding consensus among the participating countries. Things began going badly when the Japanese government announced that it would not meet its 2020 emissions cuts target. Instead of cutting emissions by 25% below 1990 levels as previously agreed, Japan now says emissions will actually rise by 3%. Meanwhile, the Polish government, tasked with chairing the talks, came under sharp criticism for being closely tied to the coal industry. The head of the meeting was then sacked as environment minister in a Polish government reshuffle.

            Agreement on the outline framework for a "pathway" towards the 2015 Paris summit proved the most difficult aspect of the negotiations during the tense final thirty hours. This battle eventually centred on a single word in the pathway document. The text originally spoke of "commitments" by all parties. But in a plenary session, delegates from China and India said they could not accept the language.

            "Only developed countries should have commitments," said China's lead negotiator Su Wei. Emerging economies could merely be expected to "enhance action", he said.

            With time running out, ministers and advisers huddled in a corner of the hall for an hour, before agreeing to change "commitments" to "contributions". The more flexible word allows the US and EU to insist that everyone is on the same page, while also allowing China and India to insist that they are doing something different from the richer countries.

            Another key battle was over the issue of loss and damage. This was crucial for developing countries which say that money to help them adapt to climate change is insufficient to cope with extreme events such as Typhoon Haiyan. They argued for a new institution called a loss‑and‑damage mechanism that would have the financial clout to deal with the impacts of such events clearly affected by climate change.

            But in the text the new mechanism would have to sit "under" an existing part of the UN body that deals with adaptation.

            This word angered delegates from developing countries. In another moving intervention, Yeb Sano of the Philippines said, "It has boiled down to one word and I would say this is a defining moment for this process. Let us take that bold step and get that word out of the way."

            After another huddle the word was changed and the text accepted.

            But many civil society groups like Oxfam, World Wildlife Federation, and Greenpeace concluded that Sano's appeals largely fell on deaf ears.

            "Governments are not doing enough," said Oxfam's Celine Charveriat, speaking to BBC News. "We need to tell them you are not allowed to make a mockery of this process. We can't continue to watch in silence. Enough is enough."

            Executive director of Greenpeace International, Kumi Naidoo, was sharply critical of the overall handling of the talks. "The Polish government has done its best to turn these talks into a showcase for the coal industry," he said.

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