How rich countries dodged the climate change blame game in Warsaw | Graham Readfearn

The steps in Warsaw towards a new global climate change deal looked more like shuffling of feet

After sitting through the final week of the United Nations climate change negotiations in Warsaw, one thing has become abundantly clear.

Rich countries are desperate to avoid taking the blame for the impacts of climate change on nations with a lot less money but an awful lot more to lose (like their entire country, for example).

More specifically, the developed countries won’t let any statements slip into any UN climate document that could be used against them in the future.

The 19th “Conference of the Parties” meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which ended a day late on Saturday, was supposed to be a stepping-stone towards a new global deal to cut emissions.

By virtue only of the fact that the meeting actually went ahead and that all the countries have agreed to turn up again in Peru next December, it was a stepping-stone of sorts.

In the grander scheme of stuff, the “steps” taken in Warsaw looked more like uncomfortable shuffling of feet with the odd stumble forward.

Loss and damage

One decision from Warsaw was that the UNFCCC will set up a new branch (mechanism in UN speak) to deal with “loss and damage” from climate change.

That is, to provide some sort of help to poorer countries for dealing with the impacts of climate change “including extreme events and slow onset events”.

It seems to acknowledge that one-off “extreme weather events” can be linked to human-caused climate change (read: burning too many fossil fuels).

This new “loss and damage” branch can be seen as an explicit and formal recognition that impacts from climate change are inevitable.

One observer at the talks described “loss and damage” as the UNFCCC’s “third leg”. The first leg is mitigation, when countries cut emissions and issue targets.

The second leg is adaptation, when you make advance preparations for the impacts of climate change that are already locked in (building sea walls, cyclone shelters or developing hardier varieties of food crops – that sort of thing).

But what the agreed text conspicuously avoids is any suggestion that contributions made by developed countries should be worked out based on their overall contribution to the 40% increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution.

In short, this would be seen as an admission of liability and rich nations do not want a court case.

New deal in Paris

Meanwhile, a second key decision extracted like blood from the concrete and steel of the venue in Warsaw (a sports stadium) was aimed at building momentum for a global deal to come into force in 2020 to cut emissions.

The UNFCCC “parties” (almost 200 countries) agreed to go back home and “initiate or intensify domestic preparations for their intended nationally determined contributions” to whatever deal might be brokered in Paris in 2015.

Countries will be able to start putting their “contributions” to cutting emissions on the table from April 2015 – these “contributions” might be targets but could be other efforts to keep emissions down.

But the text of the agreement makes clear that whatever nations do offer, this will be “without prejudice to the legal nature of the contributions”.

When it comes to offering even a broad outline of what a new Paris deal will look like, the decision from Warsaw leaves the door not so much open as swinging wildly on its hinges.

As the document says, a deal requiring action from 2020 could end up being “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force”.

So pretty much anything, then.

One observer in Warsaw, Mohamed Adow, from the charity Christian Aid, explained: “In agreeing to establish a loss and damage mechanism, countries have accepted the reality that the world is already dealing with the extensive damage caused by climate impacts, and requires a formal process to assess and deal with it, but they seem unwilling to take concrete actions to reduce the severity of these impacts.”

Australia criticised

During the two weeks of talks, observers were consistently blaming Australia for slowing the process down.

Climate Action Network International, which has a membership of more than 850 different non-governmental organisations, gave Australia four “Fossil of the Day” awards and the overall “Colossal Fossil” for the meeting.

Other groups, including the likes of Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth, took the unprecedented step of simply walking out with a day still to go (the proper noun Australia was being constantly uttered as the group members filed out).

The Warsaw talks exposed just how incompatible the Abbott Government’s rhetoric on climate change is with what’s already agreed under the UNFCCC.

For example, Prime Minister Tony Abbott says publicly that he accepts human-caused climate change is actually a thing. But has recently denied that, for example, it can play a role in increasing the risk of severe bushfires.

Yet the “loss and damage” agreement, which Australia agreed to by consensus, implies extreme weather events are associated with climate change.

Tony Abbott’s rhetoric

Also take Mr Abbott’s recent characterisation of the UNFCCC’s Green Climate Fund as an international “Bob Brown’s Bank” (Bob Brown is the former leader of The Greens in Australia).

Mr Abbott has said this is something that it would be “impossible” for his government to support.

At the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo, Australia joined Canada in insisting on a footnote to the official communiqué, which said the two countries could not support a Green Climate Fund.

But as John Connor, CEO of Australia’s The Climate Institute pointed out in Warsaw, the government’s reservations are a little late.

The Green Climate Fund, which will be tasked with managing financial contributions made through the UNFCCC, already has a board and a secretariat.

Hell, there’s even an Australia civil servant on the list of board members.

Connor said: “The Government needs to reconsider its withdrawn support for the Green Climate Fund if it takes rainforest protection seriously.”

One of the other decisions made in Warsaw relating to forestry projects – agreed to by Australia – also explicitly acknowledged the role of the Green Climate Fund in administering finance.

Australia also remains a signatory to a number of UNFCCC documents – including the Copenhagen Accord – stating an intention to keep global warming below 2C. Some scientists in Warsaw say we’re more likely heading for 3 – 4C or more, unless very deep and rapid cuts in emissions can be agreed.

Given that the Paris agreement won’t even come into force until 2020, this 2C guardrail now seems too greasy to grab.

Even the UNFCCC acknowledges in decisions made in Warsaw that there’s a “significant gap” between current emissions pledges and the chances of staying below 2C.

As UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres put it during the final press conference, what was agreed in Warsaw “does not put us on track for a two degree world.”


Graham Readfearn © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.