Will Warsaw be a ‘pivotal moment’ for climate change?

Prospects for a deal on tackling climate change still hang in the balance, with sceptics predicting the demise of the UN multilateral system

Negotiators from more than 190 countries will gather in Warsaw for the next two weeks to try to move towards a new global deal to combat climate change. Under the spotlight will be the future of the UN’s multilateral negotiating system that, in the climate talks at least, enshrines equal status for all voices – a fact that for some explains exactly why so little has actually been agreed.

Following the agreement struck in Durban two years ago, the negotiators operating under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change have just two more years to piece together a new and comprehensive climate deal to supercede the Kyoto Protocol. Progress to date has been scant and no one can forget the fiasco in Copenhagen, in December 2009, when a new deal on binding emission cuts from the world’s biggest polluters was first supposed to have been struck.

With a stopover in Lima at the end of next year, the crunch meeting is scheduled to take place in Paris in December 2015, and while two years may seem like a long time, it is the blink of an eye in climate diplomacy, and the gap between the participating governments is, if anything, getting wider.

The end of the talks?

If those talks fail it will give even more ammunition to the already well-armed critics of the multilateral system and lead to a boom in bilateral deals that at best may marginalise the smaller, poorer nations and do nothing to tackle the fundamental causes of climate change.

“It is a pivotal moment for the climate regime. There is just a chance for a legally-binding agreement, but there is also a chance people will mess it up again,” said Nick Mabey of environmental think-tank E3G.

“If they try to stitch together something in Paris without any substance, there could be a walk-out. I think there is less chance that the big emitters – China and the US – will simply stand and shout at each other,” he added. “But attitudes haven’t really changed since Copenhagen. Only the Chinese seem to have had some serious discussions around the topic.”

While climate change sceptics, whose voices have got steadily stronger since Copenhagen, argue vehemently that the science is not settled and point to the fact that there has been little warming over the past decade, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said there is little doubt the climate is changing and humans are to blame.

It pointed out that the reason for the slower warming was that the oceans had been soaking it up instead. A new report from the World Meteorological Organisation said climate warming gases had risen by nearly one-third from 1990 to 2012 – with the rate of increase rising to its fastest recorded level in a decade last year.

“As a result of this, our climate is changing, our weather is more extreme, ice sheets and glaciers are melting and sea levels are rising,” said WMO secretary-general Michel Jarraud.

Poorer nations already suffering some of the effects of climate change but with little wherewithal to defend themselves or rebuild after floods are calling for major funds from the developed world, much of which is still either in recession or struggling out of it and therefore reluctant to delve deeply into their pockets.

The US, blamed for much of the historic atmospheric carbon that is causing the climate change, vehemently rejects the concept of liability and compensation. It also points out that China is now itself a major emitter whose emissions are growing rapidly as its still largely coal-powered economy expands rapidly.

China meanwhile is still calling for the historic blame to be recognised and acted upon, even as it builds vast numbers of new coal-fired power plants alongside its major nuclear and renewables programmes. India also wants money for its millions of poor even as it sends a rocket to Mars, an irony not lost on many.

The legacy of Kyoto

It is a far cry from the heady days in Rio de Janeiro at the first Earth Summit in 1992 which gave birth to the UNFCCC which came into force two years later.

Less than a year after that it dawned on governments that its provisions on curbing climate change were hugely inadequate and so negotiations began for the Kyoto Protocol with its differentiated statutory curbs on greenhouse gas emissions for developed nations but purely voluntary ones for all other signatories.

And such is the nature of climate discussions that while Kyoto was formally adopted in 1997 it did not actually come into effect until 2005 when Russia was finally persuaded to ratify in exchange for gaining membership of the World Trade Organisation.

Even then, Kyoto is still considered by many as severely lacking in ambition, and its differentiated membership and goals a diplomatic minefield to the extent that the US never ratified it and has spent many years actively trying to undermine it. But weak and flawed as it is, it remains the only legally-binding international climate treaty. Many developing nations are reluctant to see it replaced by a new treaty that they fear may not treat them fairly.

It is against this fractious backdrop that the new climate talks are taking place. But for Mabey, that is only part of a picture that many governments have failed to grasp. “Climate is all pervasive. If you don’t have a strong climate regime, it is hard to see how you can keep a global trade and investment regime,” he said. “It is all linked, but people still insist on thinking in silos. Without a climate deal it is easy to see an upsurge in protectionism. People must understand that linkage.”

For their part, the sceptics do not expect a solid deal to emerge from Paris, anticipating at most a form of words allowing talks to continue beyond 2015. And for them, the UNFCCC’s consensus politics is a boon as it spells inaction.

“Realistically, I can’t see a real breakthrough towards a legally-binding agreement in Paris. But I don’t expect the end of the UNFCCC, it would be too difficult and take too long to replace,” said Benny Peiser of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. “The UNFCCC’s structure is convenient for governments. It allows them to do nothing.”