Understanding COP19 in 10 old sayings

The Warsaw climate conference, brought down in 10 take aways.The Warsaw climate conference was expected to be the stage for only low-key negotiations with little of the drama involved in some of the previous annual climate conference. The UK energy and climate secretary suggested for instance that one could only hope for “modest progress on modest objectives.” However discussions between key negotiating blocks soon revealed as tensed as feasible in this UN forum. While governments argued over financial transfers, timelines and the terms of a compensation mechanism, representatives from civil society added to the tension, protesting regularly against the hypocrisy of the Polish government and staging an unprecedented walk out from the talks just as negotiations heated up.

Now as the dust settles down, many issues emerge as being part of the COP19 legacy, either resulting in epic rhetorical arguments in plenaries, attracting the ire of observers or consisting of small progress forward.

First, the negotiations confirmed the status of the roadmap towards a Paris agreement, long term finance and the compensation for loss and damage as the most sensitive negotiations items.

While the previous three themes resulted in battles of “fireworks” in plenary sessions, two issues made progress allowing governments to (almost) close two discussions launched in Durban (2010).

In addition, gender and cities advocates obtained breakthroughs for their issues, bringing a much needed breeze refreshing the heavily state-centric context of the talks.

During COP19, three industrialized countries competed for the role of “climate villain of the year”, distastefully backtracking from urgently needed action.

Reflecting back on the outcomes of COP19 but also on the dominating narratives, it seems that a groundswell has displaced short-term ambition as a priority of these negotiations.


  • 1. The more things change the more they remain the same. (2015 climate agreement)

Discussions towards a Paris agreement proved disappointing as negotiators of key countries seemed to come back to pre-2009 positions.Warsaw constituting the halfway milestone on the road to the global climate agreement expected in 2015, the “Durban Platform” negotiations were expected to deliver a crucial roadmap to allow governments to enter into “full negotiations mode” towards the 2015 agreement. These discussions revealed more heated than many had expected, in particularly revealing a wide difference in the interpretation of the negotiations mandate. In the negotiations reset operated in 2011, many saw the end of the infamous “firewall” that divides countries into two categories based on the 1992 membership to the OECD. Meaningful climate action, so the argument went, could only take place in the context of action by both industrialized countries and emerging economies.

While the African group made proposals to operationalize a more subtle differentiation between the obligations of diverse countries, China, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Singapore (with others less vocal) made it clear that they read the Durban Platform differently, still expecting the 2015 to build on a black-and-white vision of today’s world – thus taking the negotiations back to the dynamics prevailing several years ago. The refusal by lead emerging economies to accept legal obligations under the new agreement led to the replacement in the final decision of the key concept of “commitment” by the much vaguer term of “national contributions”. India found itself in a particularly awkward position, vocally rejecting references to the concept of equity, despite having put all its weight for the inclusion of the concept in the 2010 compromise (I strongly encourage reading this great analysis of India’s struggle by Lavanya Rajamani, arguing that India should wield equity as a sword rather than as a shield).


  • 2. Money makes the world go ’round. (Long Term Finance)

Developed countries failed in Warsaw, once again, to provide guarantees of their intent to deliver on their promises regarding climate finance.Many developing countries had highlighted expectations that COP19 would be a “finance COP”, warning that progress on long term finance would be a prerequisite for constructive negotiations. In Copenhagen, industrialized countries committed to providing 30 billions $ of “fast-start finance” between 2010-2012, and to scale up this effort to reach 100 billions annually in 2020. While industrialized countries claim to have fulfilled their initial commitment, their failure to scale up funding since 2012 – or even to explain how they intend to reach the long term goal of 100b $ – has growingly frustrated negotiators from developing countries.

While a record of seven decisions on climate finance were adopted in Warsaw, developed countries prevented the adoption of a mid-term objective, developing countries having proposed to refer to 70 billions $ by 2016 as a mid-term objective. The current decisions thus establish a process forward but continue to lack an intermediary number. Consequently, the issue of long term finance will remain as the Sword of Damocles over the process, threatening at any point to affect the little amount of trust remaining between developed and developing countries.


  • 3. What comes around, goes around. (Loss and Damage)

The failure of developed countries to adopt adequate mitigation actions led to the continuation of discussions on a compensation mechanism.As part of the Cancun agreements, the most vulnerable countries were successful in securing a decision to consider under the convention the issue of loss and damage resulting from climate change. Developed countries having failed to reduce their emissions adequately, so the argument went, they should compensate most vulnerable nations for the ongoing impacts of climate change. After two years of technical negotiations, the same countries successfully obtained last year a mandate for a dedicated mechanism to be established in 2013. COP19 being so clearly seen as a deadline for the conclusion of these discussions, countries opposing a meaningful loss and damage mechanisms attempted to weaken as much as possible the new mechanism rather than to oppose its establishment frontally.

Consequently, vulnerable countries were successful in securing the establishment of a loss and damage mechanism in Warsaw. This mechanism lacks however the financial resources to support the communities and countries most severely affected by climate change and will therefore mainly be limited to the facilitation of exchange of expertise and to support further research. Furthermore, the US firmly resisted the adoption of the mechanism as a stand-alone instrument, obtaining that the new mechanism would be located within the frame of adaptation. As a result, any financial implications of loss and damage will compete with the limited resources currently available for adaptation (at least until the review of this arrangement in 2016).


  • 4. Money does(n’t) grow on trees. (REDD+)

Negotiators concluded in Warsaw a 6-years long negotiations to develop a framework providing incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from deforestation.When negotiations towards a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol were launched in 2007, countries agree on the importance to establish “policy approaches and positive incentives” to promote the reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries. While a political agreement was reached on the matter three years later as part of the 2010 Cancun agreements, three more years were necessary in order to discuss the details of this framework.

Thanks to additional negotiating time being available to cover this issue (due to the “great Russian freeze” preventing work on other issues), the REDD negotiations made much progress in June 2013, setting the stage for a adoption of a “Warsaw Framework for REDD Plus” which establishes a mechanism for “results-based payments” to developing countries in the context of the demonstrable protection of forests. Importantly for local communities, governments agree in Warsaw that countries should demonstrate that the REDD+ environmental and social safeguards have been applied and respected before they can apply for such funding. Finally, the US, UK and Norway provided 280 millions $ to enable the prompt implementation of the REDD+ framework.


  • 5. What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done. (Transparency of action, aka. MRV)

Countries also concluded discussions ensuring an international review process to guarantee the transparency of national climate action.In Cancun, countries also accepted that the implementation of national pledges prior to 2020 would go through an international review process – to Measure, Report, and Verify (MRV) emissions – to ensure transparency of action. The Kyoto Protocol included a much stronger “compliance mechanism” to ensure that governments would respect their national targets. As countries decided to move away from such a stringent model, the MRV framework is all that remains to provide an incentive for countries to respect their own engagement as well as to gain confidence that others are doing their share. In Warsaw, negotiators finalized some of the technical aspects of this review, allowing for its full operationalization.


  • 6. Gender isn’t just what’s between your legs, it’s what’s between your ears too. (Gender sensitive policies)

Gender advocates were successful in securing a recognition that gender sensitive climate policies requires more than counting heads at the climate talks.While the UNFCCC already acknowledged the importance of gender balance in decision making in 2001, statistics have shown that little progress has been made at the climate negotiations over the past decade. Last year, gender advocates were successful in obtaining the adoption of a “gender decision” which brought the issue back on the negotiations’ agenda. However, the 2012 decision focused primarily on gender balance, failing to address adequately to the more important issue of the need for gender sensitive climate policies (see a great blog post highlighting why gender balance is not sufficient).

The Warsaw conclusions on gender and climate change constitute a further important step forward as parties better recognize the importance of gender sensitive policies in responding to climate change as well as suggested further steps to be taken, including the adoption of a framework on the issue.


  • 7. City air makes you free. (Local governments’ actions)

For the first time, national governments accepted to consider the contribution made by local governments to the climate response.This year consisted a long expected breakthrough for those hoping to see the UNFCCC better acknowledge the major role played by provinces, regions and cities in mitigating and adapting to climate change. Up to now, and except for a small reference in the 2010 Cancun agreements to the role of sub-national governments, this message had difficulties to find an echo in the UNFCCC process, a space so strongly dominated by state-driven interests.

During COP19, the climate negotiations hosted an unprecedented “cities day” to hear from the experience of mayors and discuss opportunity to better leverage commitments from local governments (the Carbonn Cities Climate registry, despite having only recently being launched, already records over 4000 commitments from cities for short term climate action). Rachel Kyte, Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank, referred to one of the cities event as the ‘can do room at the can’t do summit. Governments consequently agreed to organize a forum on the issue within the context of the workstream on short-term ambition.


  • 8. People that live in glass houses shouldn’t throw big rocks. (Poland: an inconvenient host)

Poland hosted this year's conference with the astuteness of a wrecking ball.The country hosting the COP receives additional leverage to promote its agenda but also comes under additional scrutiny, with both its climate diplomacy and its domestic policies exposed. For two weeks, Poland thus became the centre of public attention. But instead of exercising the balanced facilitation expected, the Polish government opted for a desctructive exercise of rock throwing. From the invitation of some of the most conservative business representatives to take actively part to a ministerial meeting to the sacking of the COP president just as his role became more important to facilitate a compromise, the Polish government did certainly not run out of creativity in its attempts to scupper this year’s climate conference.

But the most damaging moves by the Polish government consisted in the sponsoring of the conference by big climate polluters and the hosting of a “climate and coal summit” parallel to the COP. Both revealing perhaps a little too obviously the level of corporate capture of this year’s conference. These two provocations acted as the proverbial straws that broke the camel’s back, contributing greatly many civil society representatives to walk out of the COP19 in the middle of the proceedings.


  • 9. You can never have a good show without a good (couple of) villain(s). (Australia & Japan backtracking)

Australia managed to overshadow Japan's severe backtracking on its climate target, deserving the title as chief climate villain of the year.While governments represented in Warsaw struggled to find new ambition for climate action among industrialized countries, Japan actually announced on the first day of the negotiations that its government had reconsidered its 2020 target and would replace the current objective of a 25 percent emissions reduction (as pledged under the Copenhagen agreement) by an increase of its emissions by 3 percent. Not even the disputed replacement of nuclear by coal after the Fukushima accidents could explain such an increase of Japanese emissions over the coming decade.

However, Australia managed to exceed Japan’s misconduct, emerging as the most obstructing actor of this conference. Firstly, the newly elected government had announced prior to the Warsaw conference a comprehensive program to dismantle all significant climate policies from its predecessor: including the repeal the carbon price, removal of support for renewable energy, dismantling of the independent Climate Change Authority and a U-turn on a long term target of reducing carbon pollution by 80% by 2050. Secondly, the Australian negotiators prevented progress on several key issues, adopting a particularly obstructive stance on climate finance for instance. Overshadowing Canada as 2013′s chief climate villain, the delegation sent by Prime Minister Abbott received the “Colossal Fossil” anti-award attributed by NGOs to the most unhelpful country at this year’s conference. Adding insult to injury, the Australian delegation faced the wrath of developing countries’ negotiators for its disrespectful attitude during the conference. The government of Tony Abbott already achieved a great blow to the reputation of Australia as a credible international actor.


  • 10. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. (Short term ambition)

COP19 witnessed a shift from prevention (short term ambition) to damage control (loss and damage), both in the political decisions adopted and in the narrative of key advocates.When the decision was adopted in Durban to postpone the entry into force of a global climate agreement to 2020, the most vulnerable countries only accepted this deal on the condition that the need for short term action remains on the agenda of the negotiation with equal attention. These countries knew only too well that the delay embedded in the Durban compromise would turn into a death sentence if governments would not succeeded in increase mitigation ambition before 2020. Judging by the outcomes of the Warsaw conference, but also by the narratives used by many actors, short term ambition seems to have been washed off the negotiating table…

I shared more thoughts on this last issue in a guest post for iisd Climate-L series. Read more here on what I perceive as the most unnoticed, yet perhaps most worrisome COP19 outcome…

  • Anonymous

    Australia sells $60bn worth of LNG to China (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2010-03-24/government-lauds-60b-china-gas-deal/378842), says exercising environmental responsibility in using said energy resources lies with China, who purchased the product. Effectively this means the Australian government’s standpoint on the issue is that if Australia sells someone an energy resource which they use irresponsibly, Australia cannot accept the burden of paying for their environmental irresponsibility in terms of emissions trading, because this would negate the socio-economic reasons for extracting and marketing fungible energy sector products in the first place. This is clearly outlined in the role of in providing affordable energy products to the world’s largest consumer in this sector.

    Meanwhile, Canada lays claim to the North Pole in the UN (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-12-10/canada-signals-intention-to-claim-north-pole/5147458), where it just so happens many unexploited oil and gas fields lay waiting.

    Perhaps it would be a greater blow to both Canada and Australia as “credible international actors” if they were to halt extraction and production of energy products entirely? If it were a lesser blow to do so than to be disrespectful of countries’ attitudes (where other governments wish to purchase cheap energy sector products at low prices and demand the burden of responsible action concerning carbon emissions lie with producers; without fully recognising their role in producing emissions with said products), it would be eminently logical to simply do that, rather than “take the heat” over refusing to halt production. Halting or slowing production of energy sector products would comparably halt or slow development such that this entire situation would be completely moot.

    Effectively the Australians and Canadians are annoyed because the attitude of countries signatory to the Kyoto protocol is effectively along the lines of: “We want you to extract, process, and deliver us cheap chemical energy, and additionally we also want you to pay for us to consume it.” The answer to that is a resounding “No.” from both governments–which ought to be completely unsurprising to everyone.

  • Sébastien

    Thank you qwiddity for your commentary.

    I disagree with your analysis of the situation in which both Canada and Australia find themselves. Firstly, to correct the facts, the suggestion by PM Harper that the country might claim the North Pole would have little relevance for this discussion as the North Pole is not expected to contain much mineral resources in itself. In the Arctic, most oil and gas resources are found closer to the coast of Canada, Greenland, US, Russia and Norway. See this article for more background: http://bit.ly/1f7jHfG

    But most importantly, the issue you raise is whether Canada and Australia should be hold responsible for the emissions related to extraction of resources that are exported afterwards. Scientists have repeated that we cannot extract all the fossil fuel resources that we are aware of, for risk of an unprecedented climate crisis. What countries and advocates expect from Canada and Australia is at least to show leadership in leaving in the ground the most carbon intensive sources of energy: in particular tar sands for Canada and coal for Australia.

    When it comes from capping the emissions of Canada and Australia, the main expectations on both countries is that they take responsibility for the emissions occurring within their national boundaries. The emissions target for both countries do not apply to the emissions resulting from the combustion of the resources in third countries, but only relate to the emissions related to extraction and transport.

    Not to mention that a large amount of coal extracted in the country is actually burned for Australia’s own energy needs: the government indicates that in 2013 coal provided 69% of the country’s electricity needs.

    It is also important to note regarding your last paragraph that Australia is a party to the Kyoto Protocol itself, hence its emission reduction target was freely accepted by its current government. In this case what other governments ask from Canada is to start with honoring its own commitment.

  • Anonymous

    You’re welcome, I found this to be interesting if perplexing reading. I certainly take with candour any disagreement you have with my analysis, as I am only explaining my very lightly researched opinion–as to why Australia and Canada are failing to honour their commitments to reduce carbon emissions to targets set when becoming signatories to the Kyoto Protocol.

    We can certainly agree both Canada and Australia export large quantities of chemical energy, and that each country enjoys claim to areas of the globe in which heady supplies of these resources lie: in the process of extraction, surveyed, and undiscovered.

    We can hopefully agree it best such resources are consumed at an optimal and even-handed rate: to promote economic development, to increase quality of life, and to prevent ecological collapse.

    It’s the ordering of such precepts concerning energy consumption which causes such consternation, loss of face and reputation. We must ever develop economically, or society risks collapse. We must consistently increase quality of life, else there we have small reason to participate economically. An environment in which to have an economy and society is taken as given; and depends utterly upon its ecology.

    One of the bigger problems with the carbon emissions analysis of Australian society is that Australia is a developed nation with a population of just under 23 million people, spread out over an area of some seven million square kilometres (for comparison, Germany has a population of almost 82M, and area of some 357,000km^2). With such distances to traverse, the transit carbon emissions alone are likely to set energy consumption figures askew. For this sort of very cursory reason as well as many others, the current Australian government in particular argues historical targets for reducing carbon emissions are unreachable. Then further, that intensifying efforts to reach those targets puts undue strain upon economic institutions without which we would have no purpose for this discussion. Even further, the current Australian administration’s outlook is that the tactic of shaming Australia’s government into taking action against its better judgement (which is that taking the action COP19 suggests will result in economic catastrophe for Australia) isn’t worth responding to in any sense other than to obstruct negotiation processes by which multi-lateral agreements for emissions targets are arrived at.

    Again, I find this unsurprising. I struggle to understand why anyone would be very surprised by negative responses from delegates representing developed nations, to presumptions their countries enjoy an “obligation and commitment” to finance climate mitigation strategies for developing nations. Because it’s one thing to say “You developed first, so it’s your responsibility to ensure everyone develops in the best way possible,” and entirely another to say “You developed first, so you must slow the pace of your current development while funding the development of others less fortunate.” All developed nations experience both of these scenarios, as all forms of exported aid slows sectors of their economies which would have otherwise benefited from the allocation of resources lost to them. It’s a good definition of acceptable loss, most especially when the application of funds save lives directly. The issue is far more complex in the case of exporting chemical energy products.

    Maybe we could ask Greece to come up with the cash for carbon offsets? I’m pretty sure they’re good for it. :)