The recent news that the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) — the most significant greenhouse gas contributing to climate change — in the Earth’s atmosphere hit a record high of close to 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in millions of years. Passing this threshold may make it impossible to limit climate change to a 2 degrees Celsius increase in global average temperature. While reports also tell us that limiting climate change below this threshold may still be possible, this news heightens the urgency of addressing climate change to avoid potentially devastating consequences.
One of the mechanisms to address climate change is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); in fact, the UNFCCC is the only international forum that currently exists to address climate change at the global scale.
As part of this process, a meeting of the UNFCCC subsidiary bodies took place for the past two weeks in Bonn, Germany, convening almost 3,000 people from more than 170 countries. Their task? To set the groundwork for decisions to be made at the 19th session of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) later this year in Warsaw, Poland. Further, this session represented one of only five sessions remaining before the COP in Paris in 2015, a milestone at which countries are expected to agree on a legally binding climate agreement including all countries. With the gargantuan task of shaping and designing the new agreement along with its elements and mechanisms, progress at the session was particularly critical.
Although the record carbon levels served as an unfortunate reminder of the magnitude and urgency of the crisis that we face as a global community, the pace of progress at the recent UNCCC meeting did not accelerate accordingly. By raising procedural issues, a small group of countries held back all negotiations on finance, loss and damage, national adaptation plans, and capacity-building, to name a few of the most important issues on the table.
While there was palpable frustration with the pace of progress at the session, the silver lining at these meetings was the progress made on methodologies and technical issues related to reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD+). Protecting forests, and, more generally, conserving natural ecosystems, is our most immediate and cost-effective means of ensuring the resilience of our planet and people. Providing an incentive to reduce deforestation and the associated CO2 is an essential part of stabilizing the climate and will provide other vital benefits, like plentiful flows of drinking water and the food and shelter on which millions of people rely.
At the Bonn meetings, countries came to initial agreements on key issues like how to monitor forest changes, safeguards, and the drivers of deforestation and they made important progress on the especially sticky issues of reference levels and verification of emissions reductions. We hope to see final resolution of these issues in Warsaw.
The outcome of the sessions in Bonn gives us some key cues regarding the rocky road ahead. The lack of progress on issues such as finance only reinforces the necessity for productive and constructive discussions in Warsaw that leave behind political maneuvering and allow us, as a global community, to forge ahead toward our common goal of a healthier planet and people. At the COP this November, we hope that the thousands of delegates that travel to Warsaw are able to use their time wisely by clearly defining the scope and elements of a successful 2015 climate agreement.
Now is not the time to be conservative. Countries need to be bold in their ambition to reduce emissions and scale up finance and investments toward a cleaner and sustainable future.
I wish I could say that the disappointment in Bonn was surprising, but those of us who have participated in the UNFCCC process for several years have grown to view these as inevitable. Even so, I remain optimistic that we will see progress towards a robust climate agreement in Warsaw that recognizes the importance of adaptation and mitigation that is based on preserving and protecting ecosystems and their services. It will be a rocky road ahead, but the stakes are higher than ever. So high that we can only get there through bold and ambitious commitments, ideas and positions.
Shyla Raghav leads climate change adaptation policy work at Conservation International.