Last Post from Warsaw: Climate Changing Faster Than UN Talks

Written by Louis Blumberg on . Posted in COP19

11122013 Lisa Schindler (5) COP19 Warsaw web

Editor’s Note: The COP19 global climate talks of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) concluded Saturday, Nov. 23, after the 2-week conference ran into overtime negotiating solutions to the world’s global warming problem among 192 nations. To learn more about the final outcomes, read The Nature Conservancy’s official statement. Below Planet Change shares a final dispatch from the Warsaw conference from the director of the Conservancy’s California Climate Change Program, one of our delegation’s last two representatives observing the unfolding scene of last-minute, late-night negotiations.  

(November 22, 2013 – Warsaw, Poland)  Take a deep breath.  You are part of the first cohort of human beings to breath air with 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide. So stated UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres during the opening session of COP19 two weeks ago.

I am writing on the last day of the 19th annual UN climate conference.  And like the late-November scenery in Warsaw, the treaty negotiations are drab, dank and uninspiring.  It looks like the best outcome we’ll see is incremental progress producing once again, the bare minimum necessary to keep this complex, arcane process inching forward.

Louis_Warsaw web

Despite this bleak perspective at the end of the COP19 conference , I do see some positive outcomes.  To start, we learned that President Obama’s new climate plan and report of actions announced last month has been well received and has motivated the U.S. negotiators to take a more constructive role than in years past.  And, China’s stance has continued to soften a bit, but the divide over rich and poor, developed and least developing, Annex 1 and Annex II in the Kyoto parlance, continues to be a key obstacle for progress.

Previously, countries with developed economies had pledged $100 billion annually to help developing countries reduce carbon pollution and respond to climate impacts, but no progress has been made in creating a mechanism that would produce this funding.  The U.S. and other developed countries have not been willing to commit to pay at-risk countries for “Loss and Damage” from climate-magnified risks like storm surge and rising sea levels without commitments by all to reduce emissions.

The rancor on this issue boiled over when several environmental groups walked out in protest.  The Nature Conservancy chose to stay “at the table” continuing working to convince the U.S. and European Union countries to accept responsibility to protect the most vulnerable people, those who have contributed least to the problem.

My focus at these talks, and one area where we have seen a bit of progress is on efforts to fight climate change through tropical forest conservation.  Four countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and Norway – underscored the important role that tropical forests play in this endeavor by contributing $280 million for a new forest protection fund.  And treaty negotiators found common ground in approving new rules for measuring and monitoring the atmospheric benefits from tropical forest conservation.

Protecting tropical forests is essential if we are going to succeed in dealing with climate change because about 15% of annual carbon pollution comes from forest loss and, standing forests absorb about 25% of annual greenhouse gas emissions.  So, the role of forests is advancing well, but it can’t be finished until the overall architecture of the final treaty is agreed to.

At these conferences I also spend time sharing lessons learned from California’s progress addressing climate change.  At one panel, I described the role for forests in California’s climate regulatory program and was pleased to announce that last Wednesday, the state approved the world’s first compliance-grade, carbon offsets from managed forests.  This milestone caps 12 years of my work with our partners and creates a new financial incentive for better forest management that will result in enhanced climate and other environmental benefits.

I also convened a roundtable exchange on forest and climate policy with California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Matt Rodriquez and two dozen experts from diverse perspectives including the World Bank, the Coalition of Indigenous Nations of the Amazon, the Mexican forest service, the state of Chiapas, an energy company from the Netherlands, environmental groups and more.  Real action, happening now by states like California and cities, such as Quebec, and Sao Paolo, highlighted in several side seminars was perhaps the most encouraging news at the conference.

But it’s not enough.

With polls showing strong public support for climate action, even in the U.S., and new research revealing that only 90 big firms are responsible for half of global carbon pollution, we must find some innovative, creative solutions to produce action at the scale and pace necessary to prevent the escalating climate disruption already underway.

The next critical milestone will come in September at a high-level Climate Summit to be convened by Ban Ki Moon.   The goal there is to develop a clearer pathway to produce an international treaty for final adoption in Paris, 2015.

As I depart Poland to head home to California, I’m left with the question: Will our 400 ppm- breathing generation do what’s necessary to leave a world in some way resembling the one in which civilization evolved?

Louis  Blumberg is Director of the California Climate Change Program.

Featured photo by Lisa Schindler (The COP19 logo is displayed by spotlight in Warsaw during the two-week conference that just came to a close over the weekend.)

Photo by TNC: (Louis Blumberg sports his credentials at the COP19 climate talks in Warsaw, Poland.)


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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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