Warsaw climate talks: edging closer to a global deal?

Warsaw climate talks: edging closer to a global deal?

Raging bushfires in New South Wales, a newly installed Australian federal government determined to dismantle the country’s nascent carbon scheme and a high profile ‘climate refugee’ appeal in New Zealand’s High Court provide a charged Australasian backdrop to preparations for the annual round of international climate talks which take place in Warsaw in two weeks’ time.

The broad agenda for the ‘COP19’ discussions to be held in the National Stadium of the Polish capital were set in Durban, South Africa in 2011. This year’s meeting marks a critical, if less dramatic, step in the grinding process towards a new global agreement on climate change mitigation and adaptation proposed to be concluded at ‘COP21’, Paris, in late 2015.

The Polish hosts are already under fire from a number of quarters for approaching the negotiations from a unashamedly fossil fuel-friendly stance, including the posting of a brazenly provocative blog on the official Conference website talking up the transport and resource extractive benefits of an ice-free Arctic.

Environmental groups have also raised concern at the influence of an invite-only 'Pre-COP’ involving political and business leaders, but no other representatives of civil society. The criticisms have been brushed off by the organisers, Polish Environment Minister (and COP10 President) Marcin Korolec saying "We had an honest and open dialogue among the ministers, which is only possible to achieve at closed, unofficial sessions."

In Warsaw, negotiations will continue between Ministers and officials from the 194 parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change on a range of high-level principles, legal options and mundane technicalities which have been pored over at prior rounds. 

Emerging as key items for debate and potentially decisions at the coming session are  the implementation of commitments to unlock $100B per annum of ‘climate finance’ by 2010 (agreed to in 2010, but which have predictably proved challenging to translate into concrete actions) and accounting rules on emissions measurements (including, importantly for New Zealand, treatment of carbon sinks through planting and land-use changes).

But the big issue, and the one likely to attract most airtime in conference rooms and the media, is how to craft into a politically feasible form, the notoriously vague components of the 2011 ‘Durban Platform’.  Under that agreement - described at the time as 'historic', parties to the UNFCCC parties agreed to enter into a new global compact by 2015 which would draw all countries - whether 'developed', 'developing' or 'in transition' - under one umbrella instrument which coordinates and regulates emissions reductions commitments, effectively replacing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

On climate finance, in submissions filed in advance of the meeting New Zealand has gone on the front foot, highlighting both its aid and development activities in the Pacific region, as well as its leadership and support of the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases.

Another set of submissions dealing with the architecture and content of the new global  climate change agreement confirms deep, and possibly deal-breaking, divides between traditional climate adversaries including the EU, USA, China and India on fundamental aspects of the proposed regime.

China and India (to a greater or lesser extent supported by other emerging economies) are insisting that despite the Durban agreement, the historic division of countries into ‘Annex I’ (nations accepted as falling within the 'developed' category in 1992, including the USA, EU, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and 'non-Annex I' (nations categorised as 'developing' in 1992, including China, India, Brazil, Africa, Southeast Asia) should be maintained. They essentially say that the new agreement should follow the same form as the Kyoto Protocol, including legally binding emissions reductions obligations on Annex I parties, but no legally binding obligations on non-Annex I parties.

The United States has rejected this approach outright. Lead US climate negotiator Todd Stern has described that kind of binary treaty structure as ‘unacceptable to the US', going further to respond to demands for redress from advanced economies such as the US for climate change-caused damage, saying "lectures about compensation, reparations and the like will produce nothing but antipathy among developed country policymakers and their publics”.

Having announced its decision last year not the join the EU and Australia in a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, New Zealand (on this issue, at least) has run its flag up in the US, Canadian, Japanese and Russian camps. Although the content of New Zealand's submission setting out its position on the new agreement is a little less blunt than that of the US, it also supports an arrangement which applies a uniform approach to legally binding commitments across all members of the Convention.

Whether progress can be made in Warsaw remains to be seen.  Alert, no doubt, to the reticence certain to be shown by China, India and like-minded nations to capitulate to the US bloc,  New Zealand and other countries have proposed an iterative process to be played out over the next two years under which countries first discuss structure, then make tentative without prejudice indications of possible positions, followed by more concrete draft commitments.

The hope is that as pressure builds towards the Paris talks in 2015, political momentum will drive parties to some sort of consensus. To nudge the process along, UN Secretary-General ban ki-Moon is convening a high level ‘Climate Summit’ in the second half of 2014, the main focus of which will be advancing discussions on a new global climate compact.

This is all textbook international negotiating strategy. As seen in Copenhagen in 2009, unmitigated disaster cannot be ruled out. But the bitter lessons from past failures have clearly been reflected upon. Despite the brinksmanship that has characterised climate negotiations from the outset of the UNFCCC process, the combination of a slowly improving global economic outlook, increasing evidence of physical impacts of climate change and a more consultative process may just create sufficient impetus for an imperfect, but much-better-than-nothing deal in 2015.

Vernon Rive is an environmental lawyer and academic at the School of Law, AUT University.