UN climate talks in Warsaw: what you need to know

The aim is to forge a legally binding global climate treaty in Poland to cut carbon emissions. But it's easier said than done
Fiona Harvey theguardian.com 19 Nov 13;

What is happening in Warsaw?

It is COP19 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – or, in other words, the latest round of the ongoing United Nations talks aimed at forging a new global agreement on climate change. The talks began on 11 November but the real business – the "high-level segment" in which government ministers take part – opens on Tuesday with a short session and gala dinner for the assembled dignitaries, then the ministers get down to talks on Wednesday with the aim of finishing up on Friday evening.

Haven't we had this before? What has changed?

The UN talks have been going on since 1992, with annual conferences producing a few highs and lows along the way, but so far no comprehensive legally binding agreement. In 1997, the Kyoto protocol was signed, binding rich nations to cut their emissions by about 5% by 2012. But the US never ratified the treaty, so its impact was limited. In 2009, the Copenhagen summit ended in scenes of chaos, but it did produce commitments from all of the world's major economies, developed and developing, to cut or curb their greenhouse gas emissions – a historic first. However, those commitments only run to 2020, and are far less than the cuts scientists say are needed. In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced its most comprehensive review yet of the science of climate change, warning that the world is running out of its "carbon budget" – the amount of greenhouse gas we can pour into the atmosphere before warming the world by more than 2C, which scientists have identified as a crucial threshold beyond which many of the effects of climate change could become catastrophic and irreversible.

What is expected to come out of this year's talks?

The current goal of the negotiations is to forge an agreement, to be signed in Paris in 2015 and to come into force by 2020, that would involve substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from all the major economies, as well as commitments from poorer countries. But this meeting is just a staging point on the road to that goal – there is as yet no draft text for an agreement, no consensus on what a new deal should involve, or what legal form it should take.

That doesn't sound very interesting.

In terms of the business of this COP, much of it will be "housekeeping" – clearing the decks on various technicalities so that work can begin soon after on the draft text. But the Warsaw meeting has already provided more drama than was bargained for.

How so?

It began just two days after the most powerful typhoon ever to make landfall devastated the Philippines, with the loss of thousands of lives. Yeb Sano, leading the country's delegation, made an opening statement at the start of the discussions in which he broke down and connected the devastation wrought by typhoon Haiyan to climate change. His words had an effect on David Cameron, who also linked extreme weather to climate change.

Then, Japan came under attack for announcing that instead of aiming for a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, it would increase its emissions by 3%, saying this was necessary after the Fukushima disaster. But many onlookers feared that it would lead to further backsliding – there are doubts over what Australia's new climate-sceptic government will do about its existing agreements, and over the commitment of Canada and Russia to the talks.

What have the Polish hosts done about this?

Mostly, attract their own controversy – by giving a two-day platform at the talks to the global coal industry and highlighting the role of coal in energy generation. Coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, but it supplies most of Poland's energy, and the government takes a hard line within Europe, resisting calls for more action on emissions.

What about developing countries?

They want clearer commitments on the provision of much-needed finance to help them move to a low-carbon economy: $100bn by 2020 is the aim. Some of this will come from public funds in rich nations, but that pot is likely to be meagre, so ways have to be found to raise money from the private sector. At present, it is not clear how that will happen, or what will count towards the $100bn (£62bn).

Some developing countries also want to resurrect the issue of "loss and damage", which some interpret as compensation to poor countries from the rich for the effects of climate change, such as an increase in the number or intensity of typhoons and hurricanes. Rich countries are determined that this will not happen. The rich nations also want major developing economies such as China and India to take on more of a role in curbing emissions.

Will these disagreements jeopardise the outcome?

This meeting is still likely to end with a feel-good statement that some form of progress has been made towards the 2015 goal, but the danger is that between now and that crucial date any further upsets, backsliding, failure to agree finance or deepening rifts between rich and poor could derail the whole process. That would leave the world without an agreement on tackling climate change, which would send a poor signal to investors and let countries that don't want to cut their emissions off the hook for years to come. Against a background of still-rising emissions, that is likely to take us well beyond our carbon budget.

'Loss and damage' re-opens old wounds at climate talks
Matt McGrath BBC News 19 Nov 13;

UN climate negotiations are bogged down in a dispute over who will take legal responsibility for the loss and damage caused by climate change.

Rich countries say they will strongly resist this move.

Secretary general Ban Ki-moon opened the ministerial segment of the talks in Warsaw, Poland with a warning that the world was facing the wrath of a warming planet.

Mr Ban called on delegates to respond with wisdom, urgency and resolve.

He told delegates that climate change threatens current and future generations, referring to the recent disaster in the Philippines as an example of the extreme weather the world can expect more of.

He had recently visited Iceland and was told that it may soon be a land without ice thanks to rising temperatures.

He called on the negotiators to speed up their discussions that aim to secure a new global treaty in 2015.

However talks here in Warsaw are on familiar territory, the old divide between rich and poor countries over who has responsibility for curbing warming and critically, who will pay for the damage caused by climate change.

Many developing countries are working hard to adapt to climate change often with aid from richer countries.

But campaigners say those funds alone are not enough, because weather events are becoming more extreme and often overwhelm the steps poorer countries have taken.

This was exactly what happened in the Philippines says Dr Saleemul Huq, the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development.

"The Philippines is adapted to typhoons, the people have shelters and they went to them," he said.

"In normal circumstances you would have heard nothing about it, but in this case they died in the shelters because it was a super typhoon of unprecedented magnitude.

"That's loss and damage, you can't adapt to that."

At last year's UN talks in Doha the parties agreed that by the time they met in Poland, an "international mechanism" to deal with loss and damage should be established.

It has re-opened old wounds of division between rich and poor. The wealthier countries are fighting hard to have any legal responsibility for compensation diluted or removed. But according to Harjeet Singh from Action Aid, this time they won't get away with it.

"There is a lot of pressure on the rich countries, they recognise there is a challenge, but they are keeping their eyes closed, I don't think that will work anymore, they have to deliver," he said.

But not everyone is so sure about that. Many campaigners fear that the influx of politicians will mean a compromise deal will be done.

"I don't think we're likely to see some grand scheme materialise that addresses [loss and damage]," said Paul Bledsoe, an expert on energy and climate with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

"I think reparations is the right word, in my view it's what's being sought, on issues like slavery or war reparations, historically they have a very difficult time occurring."

Mr Bledsoe believes the most likely outcome is that the richer nations will increase their commitments on finance in return for kicking the legal mechanism into the long grass.

The scale of the monies needed to help countries adapt to climate change was underlined here in Warsaw with a report that Africa would need $350bn annually if global warming rises to between 3.5 and 4C.

The United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) report says that Africa is already facing costs of between $7-$15bn a year by 2020.

But if action to cut carbon emissions is delayed, then the total costs could reach 4% of Africa's GDP by 2100.

Ban says people feel 'planet's wrath' over warming
Alister Doyle and Nina Chestney PlanetArk 20 Nov 13;

Ban says people feel 'planet's wrath' over warming Photo: Kacper Pempel
Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP), U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk listen to Polish Environment Minister Marcin Korolec during the COP19 conference
Photo: Kacper Pempel

People around the world are feeling the "wrath of a warming planet", U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday, urging almost 200 governments to take tougher action to reach a deal in 2015 on fighting global warming.

Ban told environment ministers at climate talks in Warsaw they had a steep climb ahead to agree to cut rising greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say fuel more extreme weather.

The Warsaw talks are struggling to lay the foundations for a new global accord, meant to be agreed in 2015 and enter into force from 2020, that looks likely to be a patchwork of pledges by national governments rather than a strong treaty.

Many developed nations are more focused on spurring sluggish economic growth than fixing global warming, despite scientists' increased certainty that human emissions will cause more heatwaves, droughts, floods and rising sea levels.

Developing nations, led by China and India, insist that the rich must continue to lead while they focus on ending poverty.

"All around the world, people now face and fear the wrath of a warming planet," Ban said, referring to extreme weather events such as Typhoon Haiyan that killed more than 3,900 people in the Philippines this month.

Current pledges for curbing global warming were "simply inadequate", Ban said. "Here, too, we must set the bar higher."

He said governments needed to step up aid to help poor nations slow their rising emissions of greenhouse gases and to adapt to the impacts of warming.


No major nations have set tougher national goals for cutting greenhouse gases in Warsaw. Japan disappointed many last week by saying it was watering down goals for 2020 after closing its nuclear industry after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

A report by 49 experts in 10 nations on Tuesday said that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels will rise to a record 36 billion tonnes (1 tonne = 1.102 metric tons) this year.

"I am deeply concerned that the scale of our actions is still insufficient to limit global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels," he said.

Governments agreed the 2C ceiling in 2010 as a maximum permitted to prevent dangerous change. Temperatures have already risen by about 0.8 C (1.4F) from before the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century.

Ban said there were some signs of hope, pointing to actions by governments, business, cities and farmers to cut emissions.

Ban has invited world leaders to attend a summit at U.N. headquarters in New York on September 23, 2014. "I ask all who come to bring bold new announcements and action," he said.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, whose country has been skeptical of tougher EU climate targets, urged better cooperation.

"The match is won by the team. In order to win, players have to collaborate," he said, in a tent set up on what is usually the pitch in Warsaw's main soccer stadium.

(With extra reporting by Stian Reklev, Susanna Twidale, Michael Szabo)