11 Nov 2013

Warsaw and climate change: end of the beginning?

As the Warsaw climate change meeting opens, there is already a mandate to prepare a new global warming treaty. Environmental lawyer Alistair McGlone asks whether meaningful negotiations can now start.

Warsaw climate change environmental conference of the parties (Reuters)

On Monday delegates from all over the world will be meeting at the Warsaw climate change conference. There have been so many disappointments at climate change meetings in the past few years that unqualified optimism would be a mistake.

Nevertheless, there is at least a chance that the global community might start negotiations leading to the adoption, in 2015, of the world’s most significant environmental treaty.

More action is required to tackle climate change. This has been highlighted by a series of reports released ahead of the Warsaw meeting.

In September, the fifth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued some abrupt warnings: there is greater certainty than ever that human beings are causing climate change, there are greater concentrations of greenhouse gasses than any time in the last 800,000 years, and a growing likelihood of extreme weather, flats, droughts, famine and mass migration.

The need to for action on climate change has been highlighted by a series of reports released ahead of Warsaw.

The IPCC has been joined by others. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) recently released its annual report, which showed that concentrations of the most important greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – were all at record levels in 2012.

And the UN environment programme has warned we are losing our chance to limit the global temperature rise to 2C above pre-industrial levels. Once the internationally agreed 2C limit is breached, catastrophe looms.

Framework for action

Efforts to address climate change must be co-ordinated at a global level. Action by individual states can only have a limited effect.

No matter how well-intentioned and rigorous, reductions of greenhouse gas emissions by one state may always be cancelled out by increased emissions in another. It is only when the aggregate global emissions of greenhouse gases decrease that concentrations will fall and the dangers of man-made global warming will recede.

The problem is that the international community has failed, so far, to establish a satisfactory framework for effective global action.

Only when aggregate global emissions of greenhouse gases decrease will concentrations fall and the dangers of man-made global warming recede.

At Warsaw, the parties to two international treaties, namely the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto protocol, will meet. Unfortunately each of these agreements has its flaws.

The UNFCCC was an important milestone and sets out principles for international action, but failed to set out and binding, specific and concrete requirements for individual states. The Kyoto protocol was designed to be more onerous, but has never been ratified by the United States and imposed no binding targets outside the developed world.

A new agreement is required. And at the Durban climate change conference in 2011 the first steps were taken towards a new treaty.

Much to the surprise of many commentators, the Durban meeting committed the world to a new international treaty on climate change. It “launched a process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties”. While the jargon is a little opaque, one thing is clear: all states agreed to negotiate a new, legally binding instrument.

Need for consensus

These negotiations are to take place within a special body, the clumsily named “ad hoc working group on the Durban platform for enhanced action” (ADP), which is to resume its work next week. It is supposed to pull together a “negotiating text” – the raw material for a treaty – no later than December 2014 and to have a draft legal document ready before May 2015.

That may seem plenty of time to complete the work, but bear in mind that international negotiations creep forward at a snail’s pace. The work of the ADP needs consensus, something notoriously difficult to achieve when you have a global forum.

Time is running out. A well-designed new climate change agreement could be invaluable to the world.

And the group has not made swift progress so far. In fact it has already used more than half the time available to it in “developing an understanding of concepts”, in the words of its co-chairs, who are now trying to lead the ADP into hard negotiations that will actually engage with what the prospective treaty should say.

Inevitably there will be linkages, and Christiana Figueres, the climate change executive secretary, has emphasised that there should be three goals for the participants at Warsaw: not only should there be more progress on the work on the agreement that was agreed at Durban, but also more clarity on finance (a hefty $100bn per annum has been pledged by parties by 2020) and also a mechanism for dealing with damage caused by climate change. All that will be difficult. But will it be too difficult?

There is a lot at stake. The science is clear to everyone apart from a contrarian minority. Time is running out. A well-designed new climate change agreement could be invaluable to the world.

But can states’ representatives cut through all the complexity to deliver that agreement? We will have a better idea at the end of this month after the Warsaw conference finishes.

Alistair McGlone is a lawyer specialising in international environmental isues