The Warsaw Climate Negotiations, and Reason for Cautious Optimism

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The Nineteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-19) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came to a close in Warsaw, Poland, on Saturday, November 23rd, after what has become the norm – several all-night sessions culminating in last-minute negotiations that featured diplomatic haggling over subtle changes to the text on which countries were finally willing to agree.  The key task of this COP was essentially to pave the way for the negotiations next year at COP-20 in Lima, Peru, as a lead-up to the real target, reaching a new international climate agreement at the 2015 negotiations in Paris to be implemented in 2020, when the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol comes to an end.  If that was the key objective, then the Warsaw meetings must be judged to be at least a modest success – the baton was not dropped, rather it was passed successfully in this long relay race of negotiations.

Before going further, I would like to acknowledge something else about COP-19 in Warsaw, namely the excellent logistics.  Anyone who suffered through the disastrous logistical arrangements for COP-15 in Copenhagen will not take this for granted.  Perhaps ironically, in the years I’ve been participating in these annual events, the two best organized conferences (in terms of logistical arrangements) were the two Polish COPs – COP-14 in Poznan in 2008 and COP-19 in Warsaw this year.

As I have written in many previous essays at this blog, the challenges standing in the way of an effective international climate change agreement are numerous and severe.  A brief historical account is necessary to explain the significance of what transpired in Warsaw.  However, if you’re familiar with international climate policy, particularly the history of these international negotiations, I suggest you skip the next section and move directly to “Issue #1:  Making Progress toward a Post-Kyoto Agreement.”

Some Historical Background to Place the Warsaw Talks in Context:  the UNFCCC, the Berlin Mandate, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Durban Platform

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (the first “Earth Summit”) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, contains what was to become a crucial passage:  “The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.” [emphasis added]  The countries considered to be “developed country Parties” were listed in an appendix to the 1992 Convention ­– Annex I.

The phrase – common but differentiated responsibilities – was given a specific interpretation three years after the Earth Summit by the first decision adopted by the first Conference of the Parties (COP-1) of the U.N. Framework Convention, in Berlin, Germany, April 7, 1995 ­­– the all important Berlin Mandate, which interpreted the principle as:  (1) launching a process to commit (by 1997) the Annex I countries to quantified greenhouse gas emissions reductions within specified time periods (targets and timetables); and (2) stating unambiguously that the process should “not introduce any new commitments for Parties not included in Annex I.”

Thus, the Berlin Mandate established the dichotomous distinction whereby the Annex I countries were to take on emissions-reductions responsibilities, and the non-Annex I countries were to have no such responsibilities whatsoever.  This had wide-ranging and profound consequences, because it became the anchor that prevented real progress in international climate negotiations.  With 50 non-Annex I countries coming to have greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries, the distinction was out of whack within a few years.

But, more important than that, this dichotomous distinction meant that:  (a) half of global emissions would be from nations without constraints; (b) the world’s largest emitter – China – would be unconstrained; (c) aggregate compliance costs would be driven up to be four times their cost-effective level, because many opportunities for low-cost emissions abatement in emerging economies were taken off the table; and (d) an institutional structure was perpetuated that made change and progress virtually impossible.

The dichotomous Annex I/non-Annex I distinction remained a central – indeed, the central – feature of international climate negotiations from COP-1 in Berlin in 1995 continuously until COP-15 in 2009, when hints of possible change first appeared.  The Copenhagen Accord (2009) and the Cancun Agreements (2010) began a process of blurring the Annex I/non-Annex I distinction.  But this blurring was only in the context of the interim pledge-and-review system established at COP-15 in Copenhagen and certified at COP-16 in Cancun, not in the context of an eventual successor to the Kyoto Protocol.  Thus, the Berlin Mandate retained its centrality.

Then, in December, 2011, at COP-17 in Durban, South Africa, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action was adopted.  Under some interpretations, it essentially eliminates the Annex I/non-Annex I (or industrialized/developing country) distinction.  In the Durban Platform, the delegates decided to reach an agreement by 2015 that will be applicable to all countries by 2020.

Rather than adopting the Annex I/non-Annex I (or industrialized/developing country) distinction, the Durban Platform focuses instead on the pledge to create a system of greenhouse gas reductions including all Parties (what matters, really, is all key countries) by 2015 that will come into force by 2020.  Nowhere in the text of the decision were phrases such as “Annex I,” “common but differentiated responsibilities,” “distributional equity,” “historical responsibility,” all of which had long since become code words for targets for the richest countries and blank checks for all others.

By replacing the Berlin Mandate, the Durban Platform opened an important window.  National delegations from around the world took on the challenging task to identify a new international climate policy architecture that is consistent with the process, pathway, and principles laid out in the Durban Platform, namely to find a way to include all (key) countries (such as the 20 largest national and regional economies that together account for upwards of 80% of global carbon dioxide emissions) in a structure that brings about meaningful emissions reductions within an appropriate timetable at acceptable cost, while remaining within the overall framework provided by the UNFCCC, including the celebrated principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.

Issue #1:  Making Progress toward a Post-Kyoto Agreement

In Warsaw, the negotiators were tasked under the Durban Platform track (the so-called “ADP” track) to develop a work plan of substantive topics and a related calendar that will lead to the development of the text of an agreement of a new comprehensive policy architecture that can be discussed at COP-20 in Lima one year from now and then subject to final consideration and adoption a year after that at COP-21 in Paris.  This they did, and in the process they identified six components for the new architecture:  mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology development and transfer, capacity-building, and transparency of action and support.  Some of these are more necessary than others, but it was this package that generated agreement in Warsaw.

The actual agreement in Warsaw could only be achieved through carefully negotiated text.  The delegates’ obligation is to eventually adopt “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties…”  In truth, the phrase “under the Convention” is not necessary, because any decision by the UNFCCC is under the Convention, and therefore it is the case that any agreement produced under the Durban Platform is still subject to the UNFCCC principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.”  But the large emerging economies tend to view the phrase “under the Convention” as supporting the dichotomous distinction of, on the one hand, commitments for Annex I (industrialized) countries to reduce emissions, and, on the other hand, no obligations for non-Annex I (developing) countries, who would take actions only voluntarily and only with financial assistance from the Annex I countries.  The same set of large emerging economies insisted that if they were to be included in the agreement, then the word “commitments” must be replaced by “contributions.”

It is looking increasingly likely that the 2015 agreement will take the form of a hybrid architecture, combining:  (1) a bottom-up system of national commitments (sorry, national contributions) that arise from – or are at least consistent with – national policies and goals; plus (2) top-down, centralized management of oversight, guidance, and coordination, with an eye to increasing ambition over time.  At the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, we outlined such a hybrid international climate policy architecture four years ago (“A Portfolio of Domestic Commitments: Implementing Common but Differentiated Responsibilities”), and we explored it further just last month in a new report (“Identifying Options for a New International Climate Regime Arising from the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action”).  In Warsaw, we co-hosted and participated in two sessions that explored these ideas in considerable detail (you can learn more about that here; we will soon place all of the slide decks from those sessions at the Harvard Project web site).

Issue #2:  Loss and Damage

As I predicted at the conclusion of last year’s climate negotiations (COP-18) in Doha, Qatar, the issue that held the greatest potential for blowing up this year’s talks in Warsaw was the topic of “loss and damage,” which the delegates agreed to put on the agenda for discussion this year at COP-19.  The phrase “loss and damage” is typically understood to refer to the range of damages and loss associated with climate change impacts in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.  Discussions about potential international policy in this realm frequently bring up thoughts about who should pay for such loss and damages, presumably those most responsible for climate change.

Since climate change is a function not of current emissions, but of concentrations, responsibility for damages is presumably correlated with cumulative emissions.  Hence, the industrialized countries, in particular, the United States, worry that negotiations on “loss and damage” would soon raise the specter of unlimited legal liability.

The link is less direct than one might think, however.  First, there is the global commons nature of the problem, meaning that climate change cannot be linked to emissions from a specific country.  Second, there is the highly stochastic link from climate change to changes in weather patterns, so that no specific weather incident – whether Superstorm Sandy in New York, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines – can be deterministically linked with global climate change.  These two scientific realities mean that moving from “loss and damage” to legal liability would be a long and perilous road.

But this is a very important issue in the climate negotiations for many developing countries, in particular, for the small island states that are most at risk.  Hence, it should not be surprising that this area of discussion – in some ways only a sideshow of the primary talks on reducing emissions and the risk of climate change – almost caused the talks to collapse.

In the end, the delegates agreed to finesse the topic by creating the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, which does not mention liability or promise compensation, but rather states that this is a topic to be discussed further at future meetings, and under the general topic of adaptation to climate change.

Issue #3:  Finance

Those are two – the Durban Platform, and Loss and Damage – of three major issues that were considered in Warsaw.  The third was “finance,” that is, the question of when and how the industrialized countries will meet the commitment they made at COP-15 in Copenhagen in 2009 to begin delivering $100 billion per year of financial assistance to developing countries in 2020 to help with mitigation and adaptation.  Not surprisingly, there was little or no progress on that front.  More about this in a future essay.  For now ….

The Path Ahead – Any Reason for Optimism?

Given my description above of the debates and “resolution” regarding the major issues, is there any cause for optimism regarding the path ahead.  Regular readers of this blog will know that I tend to see the half-full glass (or one-tenth full glass) of water, and in this case I think there really is cause for cautious optimism regarding the path ahead.

This is based upon a singular reality – the growing convergence of interests between the two most important countries in the world when it comes to climate change and international policy to address it, namely, China and the United States.

First of all, the annual carbon dioxide (CO2) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of these two countries have already converged. Whereas U.S. CO2 emissions in 1990 were almost twice the level of Chinese emissions, by 2006 China had overtaken the United States.  We are the world’s two largest emitters.

Second, as I explained above, cumulative emissions are particularly important, because they are what cause climate change.  Any discussion of distributional equity in the climate realm inevitably turns to considerations of historic responsibility.  Looking at the period 1850-2010, the United States led the pack, accounting for nearly 19% of cumulative global emissions of GHGs, with the European Union in second place with 17%, and China third, accounting for about 12% of global cumulative emissions.  But that is changing rapidly, because of the fact that emissions are flat to declining throughout the industrialized world, but increasingly rapidly in the large emerging economies, in particular, China.  Depending upon the relative rates of economic growth of China and the United States, as well as many other factors, China may top all countries in cumulative emissions within 10 to 20 years from now.

Third, China and the United States both have historically high reliance on coal for generating electricity.  At a time at which U.S. dependence on coal is decreasing (due to increased supplies of unconventional natural gas and hence lower gas prices ), China continues to rely on coal, but is very concerned about this, partly because of localized health impacts of particulates and other pollutants.  Importantly, both countries have very large shale gas reserves.  U.S. output (and use for electricity generation) has been increasing rapidly, bringing down CO2 emissions, whereas Chinese exploitation and output has been constrained by available infrastructure (i.e., lack of pipelines, but that will change).

Fourth, in both countries, sub-national climate policies – cap-and-trade systems – are moving forward.  In the case of the China, seven pilot CO2 cap-and-trade regimes at the local level are under development, while in the United States, California’s ambitious AB-32 cap-and-trade system continues to make progress.

Fifth and finally, there is the reality of global geopolitics.  If the twentieth century was the American Century, then many observers, including leaders in China, anticipate (or hope) that the twenty-first century will be the Chinese Century.  And, as I was quoted by David Jolly in the New York Times as saying, “If it’s your century, you don’t obstruct, you lead.”

Conclusion

There was no fundamental setback in Warsaw to the stream of work that needs to be accomplished in Lima in 2014 in preparation for an agreement to be reached in Paris in 2015 under the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.  This, combined with the reality of increasing convergence of Chinese and U.S. perspectives and interests, leaves me cautiously optimistic (or perhaps, just hopeful) about the path ahead.

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You can view and listen to an assessment of the Warsaw negotiations in a discussion in which I participated on the PBS NewsHour on November 27th, moderated by Judy Woodruff.

For other summaries and analyses of Warsaw’s COP-19 climate conference, I recommend:

Carraro, Carlo.  “COP19:  Between Weak Commitments and Tiny Successes.”  International Center for Climate Governance.  November 27, 2013.

Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.  “Outcomes of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Warsaw.”  November, 2013.

Stowe, Robert.  “COP-19:  Different Strokes?”The Energy Collective, November 27, 2013.

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7 Responses to The Warsaw Climate Negotiations, and Reason for Cautious Optimism

  1. Pingback: The Warsaw Climate Negotiations, and Reason for Cautious Optimism | An Economic View of the Environment | Clearing House for Environmental Course Material

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  3. CG Dong says:

    Interesting to hear from what Mr. Wu said: devil in the details; loss and damage; trust issues. All of these seem to be realities we have to accept. I am thinking of a three-group picture: OECD, growing economies, and vulnerable countries. This is more consistent with common but differentiated responsibilities. A successful framework should include elements of not only broad foundation, but also committed technology transfer, smart financing, and good supervision.

  4. Pingback: The Warsaw Climate Negotiations, and Reason for Cautious Optimism | Veille énergie climat

  5. Ed Reid says:

    Professor Stavins,

    I do not share your cautious optimism, nor even your hopefulness.

    As you stated above, the hypothesized climate effects of increased CO2 would be a function of atmospheric concentration. We know that the atmospheric concentration of CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. However, we do not know the ideal atmospheric concentration of CO2. We do know that the current concentration is less than ideal for plant growth and crop yields. We also know that there is no proven causative link between increased CO2 concentrations and any real or perceived adverse impacts of climate change, though many have alleged such links.

    The issue of stabilizing and reducing atmospheric CO2 concentrations is a function of emissions rates and rates of change of emissions rates. The first, unavoidable step in stabilizing atmospheric CO2 concentrations must be halting the increases in emissions rates, particularly since the incremental facilities responsible for these increased emissions rates would be expected to be in service for 40-60 years. Only then would it make sense to shift the focus to reducing existing emissions rates. This approach would also minimize the exposure to economic dead loss resulting from the early retirement of long-lived emitting facilities.

    I share CG Dong’s three-group image, though perhaps I view it slightly differently. I see the OECD as the developers and implementers of advanced energy and emissions control technologies; the developing countries seeking free access to those technologies through technology transfer mechanisms; and, the “vulnerable” countries seeking the non-existent profits from the transfer of the advanced technologies to the developing countries. I am not able to perceive this as a likely platform for agreement.

    With regard to the issue of “contribution” vs. “commitment”, I am reminded of the example of the breakfast of eggs and bacon: the chicken contributed, but the pig was committed.

    The issue of “Loss and Damage” would appear to be particularly difficult, especially in the absence of any real, documented loss and/or damage. Even in the event of damage resulting from an event which was not unique in the history of the world, either in incidence or intensity, it would be important to know whether the expected “reparations” would be based on the total loss, or on some imputed fraction of the total loss attributable to CO2-induced climate change. It would seem to me that it would be very difficult to assess “reparations” for damages which have not yet occurred and might never occur.

    Dealing with all of these issues becomes even more complex as the result of the current 17 year long “hiatus” is global warming, despite continued rapid increases in CO2 emissions and atmospheric CO2 concentrations. The reported global surface temperature anomalies, based on “adjusted” temperature records, continue to diverge from even the least catastrophic of the future climate scenarios produced by the climate models. This certainly calls into question the likelihood and potential magnitude of the climate catastrophes which might produce the “loss and damage” of concern; and, this, the magnitude of the potential “reparations”.

  6. M. Goldberg says:

    Dear Professor Stavins,

    thank you for the interesting (and quick) review of the Warsaw conference. Although it is early to draw conclusions about the general direction of the negotiations or national developments at this stage, I wanted to highlight an important gap in your analysis:

    Under issue 1#, you correctly refer to the evolution of terminology around “commitments”/”contributions”. However, there is no reference to the fact that governments were requested to “initiate or intensify” the preparation of their “initial contributions” for the 2015 agreement and communicate those by the first quarter of 2015. This means that governments are asked to start preparing their post-2020 reduction plans at home, and share them with the world in early 2015. Given that only few governments (notably the EU) have a specific process in place to develop such contributions, this request hits a significant gap in global climate policy.

    In my understanding not many governments are ready for this yet, and there are lot of questions related to the types, timelines and other characteristics of the contributions. If responses to this request are lame (which would not come as a surprise), they are likely to trigger significant finger-pointing in 2015 and reduce the possibilities of success in Paris. I see this request as a lithmus test for the collective capability of governments to take strong decisions on climate change.

    In addition, although you correctly wrote that the major emerging economies agreed to replace “commitments” with “contributions”, they also highlighted that the initial contributions should not “prejudge the legal nature of the contributions”. This would imply that the debate about the nature of the commitments (and associated questions related to differentiation) will continue next year, and the year after, etc., etc..

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