Warsaw climate talks set 2015 target for plans to curb emissions

Governments around the world have just over a year in which to set out their targets on curbing greenhouse gas emissions from 2020, after marathon overnight climate change talks in Warsaw produced a partial deal.

Under the agreement, settled in the early hours of Sunday morning after more than 36 hours of non-stop negotiations, countries have until the first quarter of 2015 to publish their plans. This process is seen as essential to achieving a new global deal on emissions at a crunch conference in Paris in late 2015, for which the fortnight-long Warsaw conference was supposed to lay the groundwork.

“Warsaw has set a pathway for governments to work on a draft text of a new universal climate agreement, an essential step to reach a final agreement in Paris, in 2015,” said Marcin Korolec, the Polish host of the conference, who was demoted from environment minister to climate envoy during the talks.

The talks were characterised by discord and acrimony, and by the emergence of a new and highly vocal negotiating bloc among developing countries that forced through the watering down of key aspects of the deal.

Christiana Figueres, the UN’s leading climate official, said: “We have seen essential progress. But let us again be clear that we are witnessing ever more frequent, extreme weather events, and the poor and vulnerable are already paying the price. Now governments, and especially developed nations, must go back to do their homework so they can put their plans on the table ahead of the Paris conference.”

The conference began with an impassioned plea by the Philippines representative, Yeb Sano, for a strong agreement after the devastation of typhoon Haiyan. Sano remained fasting throughout the talks, and afterwards expressed frustration that there had not been a “meaningful” outcome.

The emissions goals, to come into force from 2020, will be set at a national level, but after they are published there will be a chance for other countries to scrutinise them and assess whether they are fair and sufficiently ambitious. At the insistence of a small group of developing countries, they will take the form of “contributions” rather than the stronger “commitments” that most other countries wanted.

These were the self-styled “like-minded developing countries”, a group that comprises several oil-rich nations, including Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Bolivia and Malaysia. Several have large coal deposits and are heavily dependent on fossil fuels, such as China and India, and some countries with strong links to some of the others, including Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Thailand.

The “like-minded developing countries” group takes the view that the strict separation of nations into “developed” and “developing”, which was set at the first international climate talks in 1992, and enshrined in the 1997 Kyoto protocol – in which developed countries were obliged to cut emissions but developing countries had no obligations – must remain as the bedrock of any future agreement. They argue that the “historical responsibilities” for climate change lie with the first nations to industrialise.

That view is firmly rejected by the US and the EU, both of which have agreed to take a lead in cutting emissions, but have also repeatedly pointed out that the tables have turned on historic responsibilities. Emissions from rapidly emerging economies such as China and India are growing so fast that by 2020, the date when any new agreement will come into force, the cumulative emissions from developing countries will overtake those of rich nations.

Martin Kaiser, the head of the Greenpeace delegation, said: “China is making big strides domestically, but not yet translating it into a willingness to lead at a global level. Historical responsibility … is no excuse for anyone to ditch their responsibilities over their current and future emissions.”

Loss and damage was one of the key rows in the early stages of the meeting, as some developing countries demanded “compensation” from rich countries for the damage they suffered from extreme weather. A compromise was reached with a new “Warsaw international mechanism” by which the victims of disaster will receive aid, but it will not be linked to any liability from developed countries.

Another success at the conference was the completion of a new mechanism to keep the world’s remaining forests standing. Called REDD+, for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation, this has been in the works for most of the last decade.

But all countries admitted that most of the preparation work for Paris still remains to be done. Politically, the battle between the like-minded group – which is separate from, but claims to lie within, the broader G77 group of the majority of developing nations – and the US and the EU will be key. For both sides, gaining support from the rest of the unaligned developing nations – some of which are highly vulnerable to climate change and are desperate for a deal, but others who are courting economic investment from China – will be crucial.

The fragile truce reached after the marathon talks in Warsaw may not even last as long as the delegates’ flights home.

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