Warsaw Climate Change Talks: Is it Time to Move in a Different Direction?

The November 2013 climate change negotiations in Warsaw made headlines around the world when the Philippines linked Typhoon Haiyan to the failure of the international community to take effective action on climate change.  The head of the Philippines delegation, Naderev ‘Yeb’ Saño, received a standing ovation after an emotional address in which he pledged to fast for the duration of the 19th Conference of Parties (CoP), until ‘we stop this madness.’ This extreme action demonstrated the urgency of the issues presented at the CoP, and a desire among many of the delegations to take concrete action in Warsaw to effect profound change on the climate. However, despite Saño’s action, the madness has not been stopped.

Image courtesy of UNFCC, © 2013, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of UNFCC, © 2013, some rights reserved.

The 19th meeting of the CoP had several issues on the agenda, most significantly plans to replace the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol. Despite the constant warnings about the threat of a warming planet, countries still struggle to reach consensus decisions in the current international system. Is it time to move away from the classic bureaucratic model of the UN and seek a solution that is truly in the best interests of our planet? More importantly, what would an alternative system look like?

The Conference of Parties is the governing body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an annual meeting that allows states to evaluate progress on the global goal to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. The UNFCCC was negotiated at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, and marked a significant step towards taking accountability for anthropogenic harm to the climate. The legally non-binding UNFCC seeks to negotiate specific protocols to set national limits of greenhouse gas emissions and provide incentives for reduction programs.

Most famously, the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC sought to set internationally binding emission reduction targets, while focusing on the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility, – in other words, the ‘polluter pays’ for damage to the climate system. The division between Annex I (developed) and non-Annex I (developing) Parties of the Convention created a dangerous precedent for responsibility to rest solely on developed countries. This was further enshrined in the ‘loss and damage’ funds legislation created at the last round of climate change talks in Doha in December 2012.

The issue of the divide between developed and developing nations and the appropriation of emissions reductions targets continued to be pervasive at Warsaw, with the Group 77 of developing countries and China walking out of the negotiations in reaction to the refusal of many developed countries to accept full responsibility for climate change. There was fierce opposition from China, India and Venezuela, among many other developing countries, who bitterly opposed signing an agreement to curb their emissions before the next CoP in Paris in 2015, and fought to replace the wording of the pathway document from the ‘commitments’ of parties to a more ambiguous and flexible ‘contributions’.[1] While the arguments to divide responsibility between historic and more recent emitters are valid, it seems irresponsible to argue over definitions of responsibility while our climate continues to be devastated by the onslaught of largely unregulated greenhouse gas emissions. While it is incredibly difficult to balance largely new economic development with the normative pressure of ecologic consciousness, it is not in the best interests of our planet to give in to developing countries demands’ that they get a ‘free pass’ on polluting. Rather, as set out in the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, it might be a more practical solution to create a scheme to have developed countries partially fund much-needed emission-reduction projects in developing countries, while the latter slowly begin to allocate more funding to these important schemes.

The talks in Warsaw were tainted by a general sense of lack of commitment to pursuing climate goals. The Polish hosts, who controversially held carbon industry talks in Warsaw at the same time as the conference, were accused of placing their dependence on coal, which provides 90 per cent of Polish energy, before their duties under the agreement. The industry meeting demonstrated the fundamental problem of environmental agreements: the difficulty of balancing the immediate requirements of the national economy with environmental commitments that will lead to long-term benefits. Despite international pressure to solve the global climate crisis, many states falter on their commitments in light of the alternative of cheap and (for now) readily available fossil fuels.

The problems in Warsaw were compounded by the announcement of the Japanese delegation that Japan would not meet its 2020 emissions target of cutting carbon dioxide levels by 25 per cent below 1990 levels. The Japanese estimated that their CO2 levels would actually rise by 3 per cent over 1990 levels, owing to the continuing fallout of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of March 2011. In the midst of public backlash against nuclear energy, almost all of the 50 nuclear reactors in Japan have been shut down for safety or maintenance checks.[2] Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stated that the previous target, created under the Democratic Party, had been “totally unfounded”. If the targets are meaningless, how can we say that the current system is working towards creating a better planet? What are the incentives to make a change? The system as a whole requires better incentives for countries to make meaningful reduction commitments and to adhere to such commitments.

We must question whether the UNFCCC system is really working towards a cleaner planet. Despite international pressure to address climate change that has been a huge part of global consciousness for the last thirty years, the super Typhoon Haiyan and other increasingly violent storms have shown that we are moving further towards a point of no return for our climate because of an inadequate system to curb greenhouse gas emissions. As shown by the walkout in Warsaw by many developing nations, as well as many by the NGOs present at the conference including Greenpeace, Oxfam and the WWF, the process of dealing with climate change needs to be fundamentally revised in order to have a concrete impact on the planet’s future health. Should responsibility to reverse climate change be focused through smaller, community-oriented grassroots projects instead of this large and apparently inefficient method? The current system does not offer enough concrete incentives for countries to set aside their immediate concerns about economic growth for the broader and long-term interests of the international community. As Christina Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, stressed during the closing press briefing of the conference, there is a crucial disconnect between ‘the urgency of the science’ and ‘an international policy evolution process that is necessarily a gradual and progressive process.’[3]  Ultimately, the issue lies in individual nation-states taking responsibility for their own carbon impact and keeping to the targets set by the UNFCCC, while focusing on the primary goal at hand: minimizing our adverse impact on the planet to leave it for future generations to come.


[1] ‘Last-minute deal saves fractious UN climate talks’, BBC News, 23 November 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-25067180, accessed 22nd of November 2013


[2] ‘Japan slashes climate reduction target amid nuclear shutdown’, BBC News, 15 November 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-24952155, accessed 22nd of November 2013


[3] ‘Warsaw Climate Change Conference’ , United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 23 November, http://unfccc.int/meetings/warsaw_nov_2013/meeting/7649.php, accessed 22 November 2013


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