Dispatches From Warsaw: Controversial Issues Threaten To Derail Global Climate Talks

CREDIT: AP Photo/Alik Keplicz

Climate activists roll a giant Globe during an environmentalist march to campaign against global warming, in downtown Warsaw, Poland.

Climate activists roll a giant Globe during an environmentalist march to campaign against global warming, in downtown Warsaw, Poland.

Climate activists roll a giant Globe during an environmentalist march to campaign against global warming, in downtown Warsaw, Poland.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Alik Keplicz

WARSAW, POLAND — Monday marked the start of the second week of the annual Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), as negotiators are slowly making progress on a developing a global agreement on climate change and contentious issues are taking up oxygen in the room.

The main objective of negotiators from around the world will be to devise a work plan for completing a global climate change agreement by 2015 — the year that countries agreed an agreement should be finalized during the 2011 climate talks in South Africa. In 2011, countries also agreed to closing the gap between their pledges to reduce emissions by 2020 and the reductions experts say are required to prevent dangerous global warming impacts, known as the ambition gap. But a few controversial issues at the talks are diverting attention and progress on the 2015 agreement and closing the ambition gap. Here is a look at the stumbling blocks.

1. A Roadmap for Climate Finance

In Warsaw, negotiators are not deviating from hard lines on finance that were drawn before the conference began. In the October statement from Brazil, South Africa, India, and China, or BASIC, “Ministers stressed that finance is key to the success of the Warsaw Conference.” Developing countries are calling for a roadmap to fulfill the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference commitment to mobilizing $100 billion annually from public and private sources for climate mitigation and adaptation by 2020.

The United States is committed to maintaining current levels of international climate finance. During a speech at Chatham House in London on October 22, Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy on climate change, said that “no step change in overall levels of public funding from developed countries is likely to come anytime soon. The fiscal reality of the United States and other developed countries is not going to allow it.”

2. Loss and Damage

Typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged the central Philippines on November 8 and killed thousands of people, has focused attention on the issue of loss and damage in the Warsaw talks. “Loss and damage” refers to repairable damage or permanent loss due to the impacts of climate change, including severe weather events and slow-onset events such as sea-level rise.

Negotiators are working into the night to set up a mechanism to address loss and damage and to agree to its primary functions. This could result in a breakthrough or a deadlock, which could grind the talks to a halt. Two questions have been particularly controversial: First, should the loss and damage mechanism constitute a third pillar of the UNFCCC in addition to adaptation and mitigation? And second, should the loss and damage mechanism include a mechanism for compensation (for economic losses) or even reparations (for non-economic losses)?

All parties agree that finance is needed to address the issue, but the idea of finance construed as compensation is divisive. Developing countries insist that developed countries owe compensation as a matter of climate justice, given that they are responsible for the majority of historical emissions. On the other hand, the topic of compensation is likely to incite discord rather than progress in the talks.

The U.S. is commonly mischaracterized as being opposed to a loss and damage mechanism under the UNFCCC. In reality, its negotiators came to Warsaw supporting a mechanism that would create a task force for loss and damage under the Adaptation Committee. The U.S. is, however, strongly opposed to language on compensation. It cites several reasons for this — namely, that conversations about blame are unproductive, language on compensation would undermine domestic support in the U.S. for the UNFCCC, and those who insist on compensation ignore the fact that developing countries will surpass developed countries in cumulative emissions by 2020. In addition, the U.S. would prefer that loss and damage not constitute a third pillar.

3. Equity and CBDR

There is common understanding and acceptance among parties that countries are in different stages of development and as such have contributed unequally to rising greenhouse gas emissions and also have different capabilities to respond to climate change. But there is no way to stop dangerous global warming impacts without action from all the major greenhouse gas emitters, past and present.

Therefore it’s significant that countries agreed in Durban that the 2015 global agreement will apply to all countries. However, countries are debating a Brazilian proposal would set emissions reductions targets based on historical emissions only. The U.S. and European Union oppose the proposal on the basis that it is detrimental to solving climate change — why should the U.S. and EU have higher targets than a country like China, which surpassed the U.S. as the largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in 2007? Or when greenhouse gases are projected to rise significantly in developing countries as their economies grow while remaining stable and declining in developed countries?

At the talks, developing countries are calling for developed countries to take responsibility for closing the ambition gap. They are also opposing looking outside the UNFCCC for action on climate change where “Common But Differentiated Responsibility,” or CBDR, is not a guiding principle. An Indian negotiator warned against shifting responsibility from developed countries.

But development is not contingent on the expansion of fossil fuel-dependent infrastructure. In fact, development will be compromised by climate change and so it is in the interest of growing economies to avoid fossil fuel infrastructure.

Looking forward at the rest of the week, there is ministerial outreach on loss and damage to build consensus underway. Progress on finance must be made during a High-Level Ministerial Dialogue on Climate Finance on Wednesday where countries will discuss how to mobilize and scale up climate finance, ensure effectiveness, and leverage private investments. Meanwhile, observers eager for progress hope these issues won’t detract from the work of building a new agreement and cooperating on reducing emissions by the end of a decade before a global agreement takes effect.

Rebecca Lefton is a Senior Policy Analyst and Gwynne Taraska is a Visiting Researcher at the Center for American Progress. They will be in Warsaw all week reporting on the talks for Climate Progress.