The most recent round of the United Nations climate change negotiations began early the morning of November 11. After a marathon final session that lasted more than 24 hours, talks concluded at nearly 9 p.m. on Saturday the 23rd. This dramatic finish has become an almost yearly occurrence of governments rocking all Friday night and partying every (Satur)day. With so much activity late in the game, observers might reasonably have expected a lengthy set of agreements to step up the fight against climate change. Or, at the very least, confirmation that Saturday night’s alright for fighting when nations can’t agree.
Instead, based on the reactions from many participants, the final agreements said more about the state of negotiations by what they left out than what they included. To be fair, these negotiations were not intended to reach a final decision on major climate change issues. Warsaw was built as a step toward agreement on a new climate change treaty at negotiations in Paris in December 2015. A successful agreement in Paris depends on countries making commitments to reduce their carbon pollution. Putting their cards on the table as early as possible would help even more. It would leave more time to assess if the commitments will be enough to stop dangerous and potentially runaway levels of climate change. And to negotiate stronger commitments if not.
Rather, governments, particularly the wealthiest and most polluting, spent all of Warsaw showing each other their best poker faces, with no new commitments pledged. Governments did manage to agree to state their commitments “well in advance” of Paris. They did not, however, clarify when exactly that would be.
Success in Paris will also depend on adequate financial support for climate action—in particular, support from wealthy countries to poorer nations for climate mitigation and adaptation. Governments did manage to pledge over US$100 million to replenish the Adaptation Fund for developing countries. But these funds will be money for nothing if the damages from climate change accelerate. And wealthy nations made little progress in how to achieve their promise of at least $100 billion in annual support by 2020. The Green Climate Fund, the home for much future adaptation and mitigation support under the negotiations, remains essentially empty. The Fund’s final press release from Warsaw was notable most for what it did not mention: any commitment of cash.
Not all negotiations left Warsaw in such dire straits for combating the industrial disease of carbon pollution. Progress was made on the forest protection system known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD+). Decisions included technical agreements on reporting and verifying emissions from deforestation, and were supported by over $280 million from the United Kingdom, Norway, and the United States. Agreement was also reached on a means to address loss and damage. This is the term for climate damages that cannot be prevented by even aggressive mitigation, and cannot be adapted to.
Negotiators agreed to a last-minute set of mechanisms for increasing knowledge transfer, planning, and support for these impacts. No explicit funding was pledged. With the damage in their hearts still fresh from the ravages of Super Typhoon Haiyan, many developing country delegates called the decision weak. They succeeded only in forcing the negotiations to consider strengthening the loss and damage mechanism in 2016.
In all, many in civil society left Warsaw wishing that negotiators would have at least met each other halfway on key issues like mitigation and finance, while also recognizing that halfway isn’t good enough in the face of worsening climate change. While some took a more optimistic view of the negotiations, all agreed, as Worldwatch noted earlier in the talks, that much work still remains to keep the planet out of a climate danger zone. Negotiators will have plenty of opportunities for this next year, with at least two interim sessions, a fall summit overseen by the UN Secretary-General, and the next major climate talks in Lima, Peru, in December. With time running out for an agreement, those negotiations promise to be more rock concert and less piano recital than Warsaw.