The UN climate conference on Monday (11 November) in Warsaw, Poland, will not save the planet but by gathering people who are committed to saving it, sharing ideas and understanding how all the pieces fit together, we can make real progress, write Harro van Asselt and Pieter Pauw.
Harro van Asselt is a research and post-doctoral fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute. Pieter Pauw is a researcher at the German Development Institute in Bonn.
"This Monday, the annual UN climate conference starts, this time in Warsaw. It’s a familiar process: for two weeks, the 195 Parties will get together, and after long and protracted negotiations, they will likely fail, once again, to save the climate. Media, civil society, and many governments will not hide their disappointment at the end of the conference.
The stakes were always high, but the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has highlighted the urgency of climate action. It suggests that in order to hold global warming below 2°C and avoid the most dangerous climate change impacts, we need to limit our total carbon emissions since the industrial revolution to a trillion tonnes by 2050. It took us 250 years to reach the first 50%. If we don’t take action, we are likely to use up the other half of the budget within 40 years or less.
Still, it is clear that Warsaw will not produce a new climate treaty. The conference is an intermediate stop on the way to a global climate agreement to be adopted in Paris in 2015. Warsaw offers an opportunity to develop rules for this agreement. The disappointing summit in Copenhagen in 2009 showed the importance of having the building blocks for a new agreement in place before any emission pledges are put on the table. In addition, there will be talks on climate finance, ‘loss and damage’ and other key topics on which it is essential to maintain and build trust among countries. And the negotiations will help keep climate change on national and international political agendas at a time when it is often eclipsed by economic turbulence.
The summit in Warsaw is therefore important in the run-up to 2015, even if it won’t result in a climate-saving treaty. In fact, even an agreement in Paris is likely to be insufficient, because it cannot go further than individual Parties are willing it to go. Success in Paris thus is closely linked to changes that will need to take place at regional, national and local levels. The United States is a case in point: in 1997, their negotiators signed the Kyoto Protocol, but Congress refused to ratify it. Without political pressure on the major emitting countries and sectors to undertake action, the results of the climate negotiations will remain limited. However, in part thanks to the climate negotiations, this pressure is increasing, with climate change now regularly being on the agenda of the G20 and the UN Security Council, and the private sector increasingly being engaged in climate action.
Another key limitation of any Paris treaty is that it will only enter into force from 2020 onwards. Postponing action until then is not only irresponsible, but will increase the costs and difficulty of curbing emissions and adapting to climate change in the future. This means it is crucial to find other ways to keep making progress.
Thankfully, there are other forms of international cooperation that can help. For instance, addressing short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs) such as tropospheric ozone, soot and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) can lead to relatively fast and easy results, with additional benefits for public health. More and more is being done in this area. For instance, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, established in 2012, has grown to 72 members, including 33 countries and the European Commission, as well as environmental, scientific and international organizations, all committed to implementing known emission reduction strategies. Tackling CFCs through the Montreal Protocol on ozone layer depletion has also contributed significantly to greenhouse gas emission reductions. Last week, parties to this agreement had a chance to make another contribution by reducing HFCs, but sadly missed the opportunity. Doing so in the near future could make a great difference.
Another short-term measure is the reduction of fossil fuel subsidies, which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates at 480-1900 billion USD annually. Reducing them could shift consumption enough to reduce global CO2 emissions by 13%, the IMF suggests. With climate change in mind, the G20 agreed in September to phase out ‘inefficient’ government subsidies. This goal can be pursued through the World Trade Organization, where subsidies for unsustainable fisheries have similarly been targeted.
These examples confirm that progress on climate change can also be made outside the climate negotiations. The UN should track those activities and link them to overarching climate objectives. In this way, the negotiations can build on actions outside of the climate treaty, with small victories in the short term building trust – and confidence – for achieving long-term goals.
Copenhagen taught us the perils of setting unrealistic hopes for a UN climate conference; now we need to learn not to be cynical, either. Climate change has to be – and is being – tackled by a multitude of forums working in concert. Warsaw will probably not save the climate, but by gathering people who are committed to saving it, sharing ideas and understanding how all the pieces fit together, we can make real progress."