One step forward, two steps back

Countries want to do little to keep global average temperature rise to below 2oC. The Warsaw climate talks have exposed this. A report by Uthra Radhakrishnan and Indrajit Bose

By Indrajit Bose, Uthra Radhakrishnan
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015 | 08:46:23 AM

One step forward, two steps back

The Philippines’ negotiator, Nadarev Sano, opens the UN climate conference at Warsaw with an emotional speech linking climate change with cyclone Haiyan that hit his country

Expectations were minimal from the UN climate talks that wrapped up in Warsaw on November 23. The talks in the Polish capital did not betray expectations. The takeaways from the Conference of the Parties, or COP19, included mechanisms to address crucial—and contentious—issues related to climate change such as loss and damage and forest-related emissions. But with no financial commitments from industrialised countries, these mechanisms offer only sops.

Such decisions serve as a warning—inaction will cost the world. But at the Warsaw climate talks, it appeared that countries want to do little to keep global average temperature rise to under 2°C, beyond which the effects of climate change become irreversible. The difference between developed and developing countries is also close to being erased. Both developed and developing countries agreed on the bare minimum to keep the 2015 deal in sight.

Bumpy road to climate deal

During the climate talks in Durban in 2011, it was decided that the world would work out a new deal by 2015 to avoid a 2°C rise in temperature above the pre-industrial level, and would implement it in 2020. The deal would be “applicable to all”, and would be under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The responsibility to work out this deal was accorded to a working group called ADP, acronym for Ad hoc Working Group on Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. At Warsaw, ADP was tasked to set up a basic framework for the 2015 deal. But the outcome was a far cry from it.

Central to the disagreement was the question whether major developing countries like India and China should undertake voluntary “action” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or come on board with rich countries and take up binding “commitments” to do so. Both developed and developing countries eventually agreed on the word “contributions”.

Three cyclones hit India’s eastern coast in two months in 2013. The Warsaw climate talks offered no respite to the affected communities

It is now left to the countries to begin their homework and return in 2015 to tell the world, what they will “contribute” to limit the temperature rise. This, some analysts say, removes the longstanding division between developed and developing countries over emissions reduction targets. But herein lies the problem. The word “contribution” signals the voluntary nature of the agreement, meaning every country will now have an option to propose whatever emissions reduction target it wants. Worse, there is no clarity on how these contributions will be reviewed to assess whether they are adequate to keep global temperature rise below the critical 2°C threshold.

Besides, there was no consensus on when these contributions should be submitted. While the EU wanted countries to finalise their contributions by September 2014, the US postponed this to early 2015. The timeline of contributions is, therefore, vague and the question of whether these subscribe to equity and fairness has been left open.

This leaves too many questions for countries to answer in the forthcoming climate talks—in Lima in 2014 and in Paris in 2015—and casts doubt over a timely deal.

  • Developed countries attempt to erase the difference between them and developing countries in the 2015 climate deal
  • Developing countries’ “contributions” to reduce emissions made comparable to that of developed countries
  • The “contributions” do not subscribe to the principles of equity
  • Developed countries ignore calls to increase pre-2020 emisson reduction targets
  • Loss and damage not granted separate identity; still under Adaptation framework
  • Mechanism instituted to address the issue, without clarity on financing
  • These mechanism will get guidance from institutions under UNFCCC
  • No mention of tackling slow-onset events, like sea level rise and ocean acidification

Another important agenda of the ADP discussion at Warsaw was to revise the pre-2020 emissions reduction targets of rich countries. The UNEP Gap Report, released in November this year ahead of the climate talks, shows that there is a gap between the amount of emissions countries had pledged to reduce in Cancun in 2010 and the amount they need to reduce to stay within the 2oC threshold. The report pegs the gap at 8-12 giga tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions. India, China and other developing countries, who have pledged to reduce more emissions than their industrialised counterparts by 2020, have been repeatedly saying that it is up to the rich countries to close this gap by increasing their emissions reduction targets for 2020. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), rich countries should reduce 25-40 per cent below 1990 levels for the world to stay under the 2°C threshold. But none of the rich countries pay heed to this. Their current targets for 2020 add up to 10-15 per cent below 1990 levels. Worse, Australia and Japan announced at Warsaw that they would reduce their pre-2020 targets (see ‘World Gets A Yellow Card’, Down To Earth, December 1-15, 2013).

“Lack of initiative by developed countries in the pre-2020 period will be the biggest impediment to get an ambitious deal for post-2020,” says Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of Delhi non-profit Centre for Science and Environment.

Another UNEP report, Bridging the Emissions Gap, which was released in 2011, has influenced much of the debate on pre-2020 ambition. It has identified options that have maximum potential to close the “giga tonne gap”. These include curbing emissions from hydrofluorocarbons, commonly used as refrigerants, and from the aviation sector. Many of these options are covered under UNFCCC, but are increasingly being discussed in fora outside it. Such initiatives have been seen as a burden shifting tactic employed by developed countries. So, countries like India have long argued that such complementary initiatives should be voluntary and be above and beyond what is being done under UNFCCC. But it is yet to be decided how and where such measures will be accounted.

Activists protest inaction by world leaders at the climate talks in Warsaw, Poland

Sops for loss and damage

A mechanism for loss and damage—assistance for countries hit by global warming impacts such as frequent cyclones and rise in sea levels—was a key agenda of the Warsaw climate talks. The concept holds rich countries liable for their historical share of emissions, responsible for a warmer world. It also highlights the irony that poor countries have emitted the least amount of greenhouse gases but suffer the worst impacts of global warming. This is the reason, since climate negotiations began some two decades ago, developing and poor countries have been demanding financial aid and technology transfer from rich countries to develop in a sustainable manner. But rich countries have showed poor willingness for such assistance. Lack of sufficient and timely reduction in emissions pushed the world to talk about adapting to climate change. Now, the world has moved “beyond adaptation”.

This forced the small island nations and least developed countries, who bear the maximum brunt of exteme weather events, to reintroduce the concept of “loss and damage” into international climate negotiations in Cancun in 2010. But the issue managed to elude a concrete decision all along. During the climate talks in Doha last year, in a last minute surprise, developing countries convinced developed countries to take a decision on “loss and damage” at the Warsaw climate talks.

The countries discussed the issue at Warsaw and agreed on the “Warsaw mechanism on loss and damage”. It was dubbed as a political victory for developing countries. But the text fell short of what is needed to address the urgency of the situation.

Evolution of REDD+

image2005: COP 11, Montreal

A coalition of nine rainforest nations, headed by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica, calls for attention to the growing threat of deforestation, which was contributing to a fifth of emissions. This paves the way for a two-year consultation process, reducing emissions from deforestation

image2007: COP 13, Bali

Countries decide that forest degradation should be given equal importance. The second ‘D’ in the REDD refers to this. It set timelines for developing the design for a post-2012 REDD mechanism before CoP15 at Copenhagen

image2008: COP 14, Poznan

The idea of REDD graduates to REDD+ because of pressure from countries such as India to give equal importance to other issues like sustainable management, conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks

image2009: COP 15, Copenhagen

Safeguards for exploitation of indigenous communities emerge as contentious issues. In the Copenhagen Accord there is no provision for indigenous rights

image2010: COP 16, Cancun

It marks the official entry of REDD as UNFCCC-enabled mitigation mechanism. This means deforestation, degradation, conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks and sustainable management of forests are now officially linked with reduction of GHG emissions. The sticking point is ensuring environmental and social safeguards. Financing of REDD another gray area

image2011: COP 17, Durban

A joint work programme under the subsidiary bodies of the UNFCCC is initiated for the coordination of support for the implementation of REDD+ projects. Countries discuss the need to establish new institutions under UNFCCC

image2013: COP 19, Warsaw

Agrees on a REDD+ framework

The text makes note of the fact that climate change impacts in some cases “cannot be reduced by adaptation”, yet it places the mechanism on loss and damage under the Adaptation Framework. This is against the demand of developing countries who wanted loss and damage as a separate pillar, alongside mitigation and adaptation.

The text also fails to link the issue of loss and damage to the low ambition levels of developed countries. Earlier, it was believed that the “loss and damage” mechanism could be used as a stick to get rich countries serious about their climate actions and show more ambition. After all, the fifth assessment report of the IPCC states that a warmer world will play host to not just extreme events but also slow-onset events such as sea level rise and ocean acidification, leading to loss of fish catch, crops and livelihoods. This will fuel distress migration. But none of these issues finds a mention in the text.

A delegate takes a nap on the last day of negotiationsWhen countries began deliberating “loss and damage”, the G-77 and China, a group of 133 developing countries, came to the table with clear demands of what the mechanism should entail. They proposed two windows under the mechanism, one was technical and the other, financial. The role of the technical window was to assess issues such as data gaps, non economic losses, slow-onset events and long-term impact assessment. Based on these assessments, the affected countries would receive financial assistance from developed countries. But the final agreement focuses more on the technical aspect. During the negotiation, developed countries such as the US and Norway made it clear that the issue of compensation or liability in any form was a red line for them. This was despite the fact that typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines just ahead of the talks and provided the context for the loss and damage issue at the Warsaw climate talks.

Not many analysts are disappointed with the outcome. Some say the mechanism will help further the understanding of best practices, challenges and data gaps, and coordinate the work of other organisations addressing rehabilitation, migration, disaster risk and reduction. “Such understanding of issues is a real concern and needs to be addressed,” says Harjeet Singh of Action Aid, who has been following the issue.

Yet another reassuring aspect is that an executive committee has been set up with membership from trans-disciplinary bodies under UNFCCC such as the adaptation, finance and technology committees to oversee and guide the work of the mechanism. This ensures that the mechanism has a steering committee to take things forward and does not remain an empty institution. The mechanism will also be reviwed in 2016.

A lot remains unanswered nevertheless. For example, it is not clear how much money will figure in the new mechanism or how developing countries will access the money. It is now up to the developing countries to ensure that the developed countries provide financial and technical support so that communities are able to cope with their loss and damage. The battle has just begun.

Green signal for REDD

The only saving grace of the COP19 was ways to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation, popularly called REDD+. The mechanism aims to provide monetary incentives to forest communities for protecting forests, which are major carbon sinks. Eight years after it was first put on the negotiation table, countries at Warsaw decided on seven of its key areas (see ‘Evolution of REDD+’).

The decisions, titled the Warsaw Framework for REDD-plus, form the bases on which REDD+ projects would be carried out in future (see ‘REDD+ holds out hope’). But the decisions came after long and fierce debates between developed and developing countries. Central to these debates were issues of safeguarding the rights of indigenous and forest-dependent communities, finacial mechanism for REDD+ projects and adopting a market (for instance, forestry credits) or non-market (funds established by countries) route to finance them.

REDD+ holds out hope
The Warsaw Framework for REDD plus encompasses seven decisions on reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation as well as forest conservation and sustainable management. A snapshot of the decisions

Results-based finance
This is an approach where payments are made after communities establish that they have reduced emissions by protecting forests. The funds, provided to developing countries, should be new, additional and predictable, emerging from a variety of sources such as public and private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources. It also calls for the Green Climate Fund to play a key role to collectively channel adequate and predictable funds, and lays down rules for developing countries seeking to obtain and receive results-based payments

Monitoring, Reporting, Verification rules
Under the MRV rules, any project would be measured against the forest reference emission levels expressed in tonnes of CO2-equivalent a year. Countries must report this in their biennial updates to UNFCCC. Verification would be done by a team of technical experts with representation from developed and developing countries

The decision on coordination requires countries to set up a national entity or a focal point to coordinate with the UNFCCC Secretariat and the Subsidiary Body on Implementation, a technical body under the UNFCCC, and support the implementation of project activities

National monitoring
The decision also outlines, among other things, that development of national forest monitoring systems for the biennial monitoring and reporting requirements should be guided by the most recent IPCC guidelines

Developing countries are required to provide a summary of information on how all the safeguards—knowledge and rights of indigenous people and local communities, their full and effective participation, conservation of natural forests and biodiversity and no conversion of natural forests, for instance—are addressed throughout the implementation of the activities

Reference emission levels
The decision says that developing countries can voluntarily submit reference emission levels, and gives out the scope and procedure for technical assessment of the emission levels after they are submitted, including the composition of the assessment team

Drivers of deforestation
The decision recognises the importance of non-carbon benefits for the long-term sustainability of the implementation of activities and encourages developing countries to take note of existing information on addressing the drivers of deforestation and forest degradation

One of the contentious issues was the decision on institutional arrangements, which hit a roadblock over the question whether a new REDD+ institution should be established at the global level, or a national-level institution, also called the focal point, would be in charge of REDD+ projects. The Coalition for Rainforest Nations wanted an international-level institution because that would ease access to funding and help reduce administrative costs. But other countries did not agree to this; they favoured maintaining flexibility and diversity in the channelling of donor funds. It was finally decided that Parties would establish a national entity or focal point for REDD-plus; these focal points would meet annually with UNFCCC subsidiary bodies.

The decision on result-based finance (payments to communities after they establish emissions reduction through REDD+ projects) too saw heated arguments among countries, central to which was the issue of sources of finance. Brazil and Bolivia wanted a provision of predictable sources of finance from developed countries. They also wanted exclusive mention of UNFCCC’s Green Climate Fund, meant to assist developing countries with climate change adaptation and mitigation projects. But Australia took a contrary stand and said that the objective of the Convention was not welfare transfer, but to achieve a safe climate. Australian negotiators said obligations for new, predictable and reliable finance are not realistic, because it is not the responsibility of only developed countries to provide finance. The final text, though, finds mention of the Green Climate Fund as well as “predictable sources”.

Countries were also divided over market and non-market references in the negotiating text. China did not want any reference to new market mechanism in the text. Brazil made it clear that to ensure environmental integrity, forestry credits (emissions reduced through REDD+ projects) must not be used as offsets towards mitigation commitments by developed countries. For the Philippines, the issue of safeguarding communities was non-negotiable. But for Indonesia, the aim was to scale up finance, including market mechanisms. “In Warsaw we were taken by surprise with Brazil’s position. Brazil said (carbon) credits could not be used as offsets in mitigation targets of Annex I (developed) countries. Our position has been a mix of market and non-market approaches,” said an Indian negotiator.

Civil society has been against any market initiative with respect to REDD+ projects and has been demanding that the co-benefits approach to REDD+ are duly acknowledged. The reason is forests not only play a crucial role in storing carbon, but also provide ecological and community benefits.

According to John Lanchberry, principal adviser on climate change to the Royal Society for Protection of Birds in the UK, the contentious issue of market versus fund debate has largely gone away for the time being because there is no market at present and there will not be one before 2020. “In the meantime, countries agree that funds could be both bilateral, as most are at present, or come from the Green Climate Fund when it gets going. Views on markets, however, remain much as before, with Papua New Guinea and the Coalition for Rainforest Nations in favour, and Bolivia against,” says Lanchberry, also with the Climate Action Network’s REDD working group.

Similarly, the issue of indigenous people’s rights has been a bone of contention since the land and resources of indigenous people and other forest-dependent communities constitute a large proportion of forested areas likely to be targeted by REDD+. Indigenous peoples’ groups have protested against the refusal of some UNFCCC parties to recognise their rights. “The decision at Warsaw is good because now we have adequate safeguards for forest-dependent communities,” the Indian negotiator said.

But will there be enough money to finance REDD+ projects? Analysts say the magnitude of funds to implement REDD+ projects successfully would be to the tune of billions of dollars a year. To expect all of it to come from developed countries is not a realistic proposition. However, whether it will be market or non-market approach is left open. There is mention, though, that recognising non-market approaches would incentivise sustainability of long-term activities under REDD+.

Essentially, the framework agreed to at Warsaw puts in place a rulebook for REDD+ projects being carried out under different jurisdictional levels in countries. How forest communities will grapple with the ground realities is, however, not yet clear. One of the major issues has been the high cost of technological equipment for showing that deforestation has been avoided. This typically involves satellite imagery or high-quality images to capture the ground results. Predictable and sufficient funds will be key to overcoming these barriers. For this, the US, UK and Norway have promised US $280 million.

For the first time, says Lanchberry, the money moves away from projects towards results based finance. “It’s interesting.”

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