Global Climate Talks Open in Warsaw, as Scientific Call for Action Grows Insistent

Written by Duncan Marsh on . Posted in Act, The Wonk Room

Photo Nov 11, 9 21 37 AM Delegates entering COP19 Warsaw opening day web

Editor’s Note: Today marks the opening of the 19th annual global climate talks, known as the Conference of the Parties (COP19) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). For the next two weeks, diplomats and government officials will be joined in Warsaw by activists, scientists and NGOs, such as The Nature Conservancy, which is sending a delegation of 20 climate policy experts, to seek consensus on solutions to the global climate challenge facing us all. In today’s post, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of International Climate Policy, Duncan Marsh, and Regional Managing Director in Europe, Sascha Müller-Kraenner, offer some context as the conference gets underway.

Against the stark backdrop of compelling new reports on the science of climate change, representatives from the world’s governments began to gather today in Poland’s capital of Warsaw, to discuss a new global treaty to reduce greenhouse gases. The COP19 talks and related events are being held in a Warsaw soccer stadium through Nov. 22, by when progress will be due on an agenda leading to an agreement by 2015.

It’s clear that this annual summit of environmental leaders and ministers in Warsaw cannot be business as usual – or another global summit with words and no action. COP19 in Warsaw has to produce results.

Here’s why.

Climate change is no longer a disputed area of science. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an advisory body to the United Nations, now reports that the level of certainty about the human causes of climate change is at least 95%; to put things in perspective, this is the same level of scientific certainty that smoking cigarettes may lead to lung cancer.

Perhaps most threatening, however, is that despite increasing awareness of the climate problem, global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase at or above the highest projections of previous IPCC reports. After two decades of talks, the world simply has not yet faced up to the climate change threat.

Yet the IPCC report released in September suggests there is a limited “carbon budget” of the emissions we can send into the atmosphere if we are to keep climate change to what are considered safe levels. It is conceivable to hold temperature increases below 2 °C, but action must be taken immediately.

To accomplish this, emissions must peak by 2020 and then reduce by 3% each year for the next 50 years or so. We will need to pursue low-carbon pathways by sharply limiting the fossil fuels we burn in the coming decades and enhancing natural systems such as tropical forests that remove carbon from the atmosphere.

In light of this scientific imperative, Warsaw needs results that can lay the foundation for negotiating an ambitious, strong and flexible global agreement in 2015, when another summit of global environment and climate ministers will be held in Paris.

Photo Nov 11, 9 46 31 AM COP19 Warsaw stadium Lisa Schindler web

This is what political leaders assembling in Warsaw should agree on:

First, they must emerge from Warsaw with a clear plan and timeline to reach a global climate deal, set to conclude in Paris, in autumn 2015. This plan should aim for an agreement that is ambitious but sufficiently flexible to ensure active commitment by all major greenhouse gas emitting countries to significantly limiting carbon pollution, while respecting the “common but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities” of developed and developing countries.

Second, the global Green Climate Fund, which was already announced at the ill-fated Copenhagen conference in 2009, should finally be put into operation. Developed countries should also demonstrate their intent to sustain or increase climate funding for the next two years until an agreement in 2015 to establish a pathway to generating the agreed goal of at least $100 billion in public and private financing for low-carbon, climate-resilient development annually by 2020.  (These funds provide support to countries vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and to assist countries’ transitioning to low-carbon pathways. Not only is this important in order to show continued commitment and good faith to developing countries, but we all have a stake in accelerating the pace with which each nation can move to low-carbon development.)

Meanwhile, countries all over the world must prepare for reducing emissions at home and, for developed countries, for providing essential assistance to vulnerable developing countries. After all, international negotiations will go only as far as domestic political processes allow. Negotiators must also understand that not all international climate action flows through the UN, nor should it. The Warsaw and Paris agreements should embrace parallel partnerships for action, and provide guidance on common accounting rules to increase transparency of countries’ efforts.

Achieving the above outcomes in Warsaw should help countries to stop seeing the negotiations leading to Paris as a protracted struggle between different camps of developed and developing countries, blaming each other for failure to act and negotiate responsibly, but rather as nations sharing the same large boat. For the occupants of this boat we call Earth will either learn to swim, or sink, together.

Leadership should come from Poland and other European countries: Europe has to decide on ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals and reform its carbon market. Leadership should come from emerging economies like China, India or Brazil, who are gradually shifting, if in spurts, toward choosing low-emission pathways to prosperity. Leadership should also come from Washington; the US government should accelerate a shift from fossil to renewable energy sources at home and work with partners to frame an international climate deal for the world.

During the opening session, the delegate from the Philippines, reeling from massive typhoon Haiyan that devastated his nation over the weekend, called sharply for action on climate change. People in coastal communities worldwide affected by increasing storm surges, farmers falling victim to droughts, and the people who live in the world’s shrinking forests, can testify, that the impacts of climate change can already be felt today. What the world is now hoping for is political leadership.

Warsaw is only a step towards a new global climate deal in 2015. But that first step has to be made, if the world’s climate, and the people who depend on it, should be given a fair chance.

Duncan Marsh is Director of International Climate Policy, and Sascha Müller-Kraenner is Regional Managing Director, Europe. Both are representing The Nature Conservancy at the COP19 climate talks in Warsaw, Poland.

Featured Photo by Lisa Schindler (Delegates and participants to the COP19 climate talks in Warsaw climb the steps to the National Stadium soccer venue where the conference is being held.)

Inset Photo by Lisa Schindler (A wide angle view of National Stadium, the COP19 venue in Warsaw, Poland.)

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