This commentary was originally posted as a guest article in iisd’s Climate-L updates.
Prior to the Warsaw Climate Conference, the release by the IPCC of the first part of its fifth assessment report (‘the physical basis’) was expected to frame the COP 19 discussions and provide a renewed opportunity for science to inform the negotiation process.
In late September, all governments had adopted the conclusions of a scientific report highlighting a stronger than ever confidence on the human contribution to the climate crisis. Most briefings published ahead of COP 19 set the Conference in the context of this renewed call for urgent action.
However, the landfall of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) on the coasts of the Philippines just four days prior to the opening of the Climate Conference contributed to frame the Warsaw negotiations in a different perspective, that of the devastation endured by that country.
The high human price paid by the Philippines contextualized negotiations for the establishment of a loss and damage mechanism, in which the Head of the Philippines delegation, Naderev Saño, played a prominent role. During the following two weeks, this emphasis on loss and damage overshadowed calls for preventive mitigation action.
Nevertheless, two negotiating items provided concrete opportunities for parties to address the principle of preventive action in Warsaw: short term ambition and the 2013-2015 review.
What ambition for mitigation policies during the current decade?
While the reset of the negotiations towards a global climate deal was the most crucial element contained in the Durban Platform, delegates from small islands States insisted that upcoming negotiations under the Durban mandate would consider equally the issue of short-term ambition. This spring, the UNFCCC Secretariat consequently released a comprehensive report evaluating policy options, which could contribute to increase short-term mitigation.[i] During the first negotiating session of the year, small islands States also tabled a proposal for a “technical, targeted and results-oriented” process on renewable energy and energy efficiency.[ii]
In Warsaw, however, the negotiations under this ‘workstream 2′ of the Durban Platform made very little headway. Progress on the issue of HFCs – considered by many as the low hanging fruit among short term ambition options –was blocked as India and Saudi Arabia refused to refer to the opportunity to consider the phasing out of these super-pollutants under the Montreal Protocol. The only minor progress achieved in Warsaw with regards to pre-2020 mitigation ambition was therefore the recognition by countries of the importance to further consider the role of local government in climate policy.
Additionally, negotiators from the most vulnerable countries emphasized in 2012 the inadequacy of the pledges proposed for the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and successfully negotiated a mandate to review in 2014 the level of ambition of these commitments. Parties agreed in Warsaw to the modalities of a ministerial roundtable next June that will consider options to enhance the short-term ambition of parties to the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period. While expectations from this roundtable remain very limited, the participation of ministers in such an intersessional session is unprecedented. However, very few commentaries on the state of the negotiations after COP 19 noted this event as one of upcoming milestones in the negotiations process. This lowering of pubic expectations for the ministerial roundtable undermines further the opportunity to make use of the June session to hold European and Australian Governments accountable for the level of their short-term ambition.
Defining the tolerable “dangerousness” of climate change
The Warsaw conference also hosted the second stage of the 2013-2015 review of the long-term global goal (LTGG). As parties endorsed in 2010 a goal of limiting temperature increase to 2˚C, small islands States obtained that the adequacy of this temperature goal would be reviewed, in particular to consider whether an increase of temperature of 1.5˚ C would be sufficient to trigger the “dangerousness” threshold provided by the Convention to define its ultimate objective.[iii]
In practice, the outcomes of the 2013-2015 review might not directly lead to policy changes. Nevertheless, the LTGG does serve as an important goalpost against which collective mitigation ambition is regularly assessed. The review of the LTGG also has direct implications for the short-term mitigation discussion as the 2013 UNEP gap report emphasized that governments would be unlikely to succeed in limiting temperatures increase to 1.5˚C without additional short-term mitigation action.[iv]
While the review attracted very little attention in Warsaw, it will enter in a critical phase in 2014. The report of the second and third working groups of the IPCC will feed into the review’s scientific dialogue, the working group’s focus on impacts and mitigation options increasing the policy relevance of its conclusions. Delegates will also begin to consider the relevance of the review for the negotiations towards the 2015 climate agreement.
A contextual change of focus?
Most analyses published since COP 19 highlighted progress towards the 2015 agreement, loss and damage, and long-term finance as the most important themes of the Warsaw Conference, with occasional references to REDD+ and MRV as additional take-aways. The absence of reference in almost all commentaries – including among the great majority of those provided by advocacy groups – to the issues of short-term ambition and to the 2013-2015 review – indicates a shift of priority not only among negotiators but also more broadly in the public discourses accompanying the process.
Consequent to the adoption of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage in 2013, the issue of compensation for climate damages is unlikely to come back to the forefront of the negotiations until 2016. As the finalization of a global climate agreement will take centre stage at the negotiations in 2015, the coming year offers a last opportunity for the climate negotiations to galvanize support for short-term ambition. Narratives used during the coming intersessional sessions (March and June 2014) will allow to assess whether the strong focus in Warsaw on long-term negotiations and loss and damage was conjectural, or whether actors claiming the high moral ground at the negotiation process have lost faith in the principle that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
[i] UNFCCC Technical paper (May 2013), FCCC/TP/2013/4 http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2013/tp/04.pdf
[ii] AOSIS non-paper for ADP Workstream 2 (May 2013) http://unfccc.int/files/documentation/submissions_from_parties/adp/application/pdf/adp_workstream2_aosis_02052013_.pdf
[iii] A recently published paper by James Hansen and others emphasizes for instance that a two degrees objective is inadequate to prevent long-term dangerous climate impacts. See ‘Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change:” Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature,’ James Hansen et al. (December 2013) https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/876989-hansen-plos-one.html
[iv] See for instance: The Emissions Gap Report 2013 – A UNEP Synthesis Report (November 2013) http://www.unep.org/pdf/UNEPEmissionsGapReport2013.pdf