UN talks produce a strong agreement on forest protection, but otherwise déjà vu

Around midnight on Friday, November 25 – several hours after the annual UN climate conference was scheduled to have ended – I stood in the hallway of a temporary conference center erected on the soccer pitch of the National Stadium in Warsaw, watching the scrum of the climate talks in their final hours.

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Nat Keohane is EDF's Vice President for International Climate and a former economic adviser to the Obama administration.

NGO representatives were pitching stories and sharing intelligence with reporters, negotiators were huddling in groups or dashing off to last-minute bilateral meetings, and everyone was scrounging for coffee or late-night sandwiches to power another all-nighter.

The talks appeared on the brink of failure as countries deadlocked over the core questions of which countries should be obligated to reduce emissions and who should pay for it. In the end, as nearly always happens, an agreement was reached and the talks didn’t fall apart. That has become a typical pattern at these annual UN talks.

If the scene was familiar, the headlines that came out of the talks were familiar as well: Developing Nations Stage Protest at Climate Talks (NY Times); UN presses rich nations to act on climate funds (FT); Modest deal breaks deadlock at UN climate talks (AP); UN talks limp towards global 2015 climate deal (Reuters); Climate Finance Battle Shows Expectation Gap at UN Talks (Bloomberg).

But despite the dulling sense of déjà vu that Friday night in Warsaw, there was already reason for celebration. That’s because earlier that same evening – in a break with past years – the Conference of the Parties (or COP, as the talks are formally labeled) had already held the first part of its closing plenary to formally adopt decisions on areas in which negotiators could agree.

During that session, the COP agreed on a comprehensive agreement on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) – leading to what the UN, countries, media outlets and NGOs all identified as a bright spot in the negotiations.

Forest protection remains a crucial part of the climate action toolkit

With deforestation responsible for about 15% of the world’s manmade greenhouse gas emissions – that’s more than all the cars and trucks in the world – we can’t solve climate change without saving our forests. REDD+ creates economic incentives to reward countries and jurisdictions that reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation below rigorously defined baselines.

The Warsaw Framework for REDD+ Action, as it’s formally known, sets down deep roots for REDD+, and sends a clear signal that it will continue to be a crucial tool for protecting forests and the people who depend on them, by:

  1. ensuring a rigorous, transparent framework for measuring emissions reductions from reduced deforestation;
  2. affirming that financial flows will be “results-based,” meaning that REDD+ compensation will be tied to demonstrated results; and
  3. creating a structure for forest nations to share views on the effectiveness of REDD+ implementation.

The REDD+ outcome was a “big step forward,” my colleague and EDF REDD+ expert Chris Meyer told E&E News, explaining:

We had a foundation for the house; now we have the walls, the plumbing, the electricity and the roof for REDD+.

On the issue of forest protection, at least, the UN talks did exactly what they are supposed to do: they reaffirmed work that had been done in previous years, built upon it in negotiating sessions held over the past twelve months, and made the final push to resolve key issues of disagreement in the two weeks of talks in Warsaw.

This comprehensive package of decisions provides a structure for countries to develop REDD+ programs at a national level, and take advantage of the approximately $700 million per year already pledged for REDD+ program preparation and to pilot results-based payments.

The REDD+ agreement also opens a path for the International Civil Aviation Organization and other bodies that are considering developing market-based mechanisms, whether multi-lateral, national or regional, to bring REDD+ into their systems with an imprimatur of a multilateral standard.

Beyond REDD+, little formal progress

Outside of REDD+, the talks were notable more for what didn’t happen than what did. The talks didn’t make significant progress, although they managed not to collapse.

With two years until a new agreement is supposed to be reached in Paris, countries didn’t set a clear template for what they need to announce in terms of emissions reductions targets, or when they need to announce the targets. Nor did they make much progress on the key issue of climate finance – although surprisingly constructive talks on the difficult issue of compensating the world’s most vulnerable countries for the impacts of climate change reached a compromise agreement to create the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage to address the issue going forward.

On two important but lower-profile issues, there appeared to be signs of common ground behind closed doors – but these didn’t translate into movement in the formal negotiations.

On the issue of agriculture, useful conversations occurred that could help integrate agriculture into a more holistic discussion of the role of the land sector in responding to climate change, even if no formal progress were made in the context of these negotiations.

On the critical question of how to construct an international climate architecture that promotes and supports ambitious national action through carbon markets, countries put some useful options on the table – but could not reach a decision, instead deferring further discussion until next June.

To be sure, we never expected much to happen at these Warsaw talks. They were always going to be more about headaches than headlines.

But it’s hard to escape the sense that countries spent two weeks reopening issues that we thought had been resolved and fighting the same battles that have been fought before, only to make a last-minute lunge in the final hours to finish barely ahead of where they started.

A good example is on the key question of participation. Since the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which listed the world’s advanced economies in an appendix or “annex,” the distinction between “Annex I” and “Non-Annex I” countries has been a central point of contention. Five years later, the Kyoto Protocol assigned emissions reductions only to “Annex I” countries. Eliminating the so-called “Kyoto firewall” has been a red line of the U.S. and other advanced economies, which point to the rapid growth in major emerging economies such as China and India, and the concomitant rise in their greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2011, at the UN talks in Durban, South Africa, countries declared that a new agreement, to be finalized in Paris in 2015, would be “applicable to all Parties” – a phrase widely understood to mean that the Annex I/Non-Annex I distinction would be erased. But the first draft of the negotiating text in Warsaw hardly referred to Durban and instead used the different term “broad participation.” That opening salvo didn’t last, and the final text reaffirmed the Durban agreement – but not before significant energy had gone into re-fighting that battle.

The world outside the UN talks

With little to show for their two weeks of long days and all-nighters, negotiators have left themselves a lot to do over the next two years to reach a meaningful outcome in Paris.

However, countries and other actors don’t need to wait for an international agreement in 2015 to start addressing climate change. It was clear, through events on the sidelines of the negotiations and conversations with other attendees at the conference, that cities, states, countries and regions around the world have already started moving to cut their emissions and adapt to climate change.

Some of the most interesting side events highlighted the progress made in China on provincial carbon trading pilots and explored how the Chinese experiments could learn from California’s experience in building a successful carbon market. And the Climate and Clean Air Coalition – a group of more than 70 state and nonstate partners working together to reduce short-lived super-pollutants like methane, black carbon, and HFCs – also announced important progress. Those side events were a reminder that the UN talks, while they remain important, are not the only game in town.

That’s a good thing, and a reason for optimism. Because with the damaging impacts of climate change already apparent in the United States and around the world, the world urgently needs near-term action to turn the corner on global emissions and put us on a downward trajectory toward climate safety.

Read EDF's press release on the outcome of the Warsaw negotiations: Strong agreement to protect forests highlight of UN climate talks.

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