The Climate Games Continue: Reflections on the 2013 UN Climate Change Conference

Representatives from every government in the world just concluded two weeks of discussions in Warsaw, Poland on how to collectively address climate change at the 19th annual meeting of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP 19).

Most years, the host city’s largest convention center houses the meeting’s 10,000+ participants. This year, however, Poland’s National Stadium was the venue for the dialogue, raising the question of how similar, and how different, the political exchanges are to a sports match.

flooded car in Thailand

Flooded car in Thailand, with rescue boat full of people in the background. Climate change is thought to be linked to an increase in extreme weather events like storms and droughts. (© Giedrius Dagys)

COP 19 Goalposts

There were several major issues to “score” on in Warsaw. While also addressing some smaller issues, governments were expected to find ways to advance negotiations on:

  • REDD+ guidelines for international implementation and coordination. REDD+, a system that provides financial incentives for developing countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by preventing the destruction of their forests, has been successfully implemented in many pilot projects, but requires additional guidelines and coordination to function effectively at the national and international levels.
  • Addressing loss and damage. It was decided at the 2012 COP that this year countries would agree on a mechanism to address “loss and damage,” or what to do when adaptation is not enough to address climate change impacts, such as if an island disappears due to sea level rise.
  • Provision of climate finance. Almost every issue under the UNFCCC hinges on finance — how much money is needed, who should provide it and to whom it should be given. Although some progress has been made in the past, there is no clear roadmap for scaling up the private and public sector resources needed.
  • Creation of a new climate agreement by 2015. At the 2011 COP, countries decided to negotiate a new climate agreement by 2015 that would go into effect in 2020. With little time left before 2015, governments needed to define a roadmap for negotiations and lay the foundation for these discussions in Warsaw.

The first half of the conference saw action largely as expected. There was some back and forth on the issues, and while there were no excessive delays as we had seen earlier this year in Bonn, it was clear countries knew they had the second half for their big push. However, we were pleased to see some concrete gains made, including the decision to strengthen information sharing on ecosystem-based adaptation.

Even so, a nervous energy ran through all participants as the whistle blew for the second half, as we all wondered if goals could be made, or if the meeting would end in deadlock.

Countries implementing and funding REDD+ were the first to score big. With moments remaining on the clock, agreement was reached on a package of REDD+ decisions, including guidelines for REDD+ implementation and establishment of national level coordination systems that ensure that REDD+ will be implemented strongly, transparently and in a participatory fashion. With decisions still needed on key issues, countries moved into overtime.

The Need for Teamwork

Here, we can see some similarities between the negotiations and a sports match. In both, overtime is usually where the action happens. With the exception of REDD+, all of the major decisions for the COP hung in the balance when the meeting was scheduled to close this past Friday. The pressure added by overtime could have had a positive or negative impact — either countries would be pushed to make progress, or negotiations would crack under the increased stress. Luckily, after about 20 hours of overtime, agreements were reached on the major issues of climate finance, loss and damage and the 2015 agreement.

However, also like a sports match, the better team doesn’t always win; the best ideas don’t always prevail. Since the UNFCCC is a consensus-driven process, a big goal is only possible if all players support it. Imagine if one sports team had to convince the other team to help them score, and in return had to agree to help the other team score as well!

National Stadium, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw’s National Stadium, where COP 19 was held. (© CI/photo by Kate Hanford)

This does generally make the game more fair, but sometimes less exciting, as we saw in the negotiations about the new climate agreement. It had already been decided that the new agreement will dramatically alter the current international framework to address climate change by shifting from a system of largely voluntary commitments by developed countries to a system that is legally binding and applicable to all nations, thus shifting the “teams” countries have traditionally played on when taking climate action.

While the compromise reached does reaffirm that the agreement will be applicable to all countries and lay out some next steps, sacrifices were made in terms of the requirements for both developed and developing countries under the new agreement to reach this compromise. Thus, there remains a lot of negotiating left to do to ensure an ambitious draft agreement text will be ready in time for the next COP in Lima at the end of 2014.

More Than a Game

Despite some similarities, this is where the sports analogies come to an end. When it comes to addressing climate change, there is no off-season. As the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) affirmed, climate change impacts are intensifying around the world, and are projected to worsen if we continue with business as usual.

While governments face incredible challenges in reaching agreements, consistent, ambitious progress is necessary at the international level to incite and complement actions taken at the national and regional levels. To support this, we need to move beyond the system of piecemeal financial commitments that we saw continue in Warsaw, and make much more concrete plans to scale up climate finance as soon as possible, starting with the political processes and workshops scheduled for 2014.

The urgency behind taking meaningful action cannot be understated. The truth is, our world has become a scary place when more and more countries must decide how to address the increasingly harmful impacts of climate change, such as the recent typhoon in the Philippines. As my colleague from the Philippines asked in last week’s blog, “What is the capacity of our communities, our institutions, our infrastructure, our economy to withstand and absorb the impacts of these extreme events when they have become the norm?”

That this question must be asked — not just by the Philippines, but globally — makes the successful implementation of the agreement on loss and damage all the more imperative. This is not a game, and ultimately either all of us will win or all of us will lose.

While it sometimes feels like a tiring, never-ending sprint, we need to keep doing everything in our power with the mechanisms we have to address the causes and impacts of climate change. To save ourselves — our communities, our ecosystems, our nations, our planet — we must do whatever it takes to come up with a global treaty by the end of 2014.

Kate Hanford is the manager of strategic engagement in CI’s Center for Environment and Peace. Read previous blogs from COP 19.

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