on 23rd November 2013

Looking beyond the UN climate talks in Warsaw

Renewed ambition at domestic level urgently needed to  tackle growing climate crisis

After two weeks of wrangling at the UN climate talks in Warsaw, governments have once again failed to take the necessary action to tackle the growing climate crisis.

Even against a backdrop of extreme weather events – including the devastating impact of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and major flooding in Vietnam – countries, both rich and poor, remain at loggerheads when it comes to solving the most fundamental challenge of our time: climate change.

For people in poverty, who are already living on the front line of climate change impacts despite having done the least to cause the problem, the news from Poland is another shameful set-back, with no sign of the drastic action needed to slow global warming or address its consequences.

Instead, sea levels will continue to rise, glaciers will continue to melt and increasingly extreme and erratic weather events, which are undermining development and trapping people in a permanent state of emergency, will continue to unfold at an alarming rate.


Blocking and backtracking

So what happened in Poland? The climate talks in Warsaw were a painful reminder that a few key wealthy countries can easily stand in the way of achieving any tangible progress to tackle the causes and consequences of climate change.

Rather than working together to agree urgently needed emissions reductions targets, key countries backtracked on their previous commitments. Adding salt to the wound, they also failed to provide developing countries with much-needed confidence that sufficient finance for ambitious climate action will be made available in the coming years.

This contributed to what is widely seen as a stripping-out and watering-down of the roadmap required for a robust new climate agreement in 2015, both by some developed countries as well as by some powerful developing countries.

In short, governments are collectively failing to recognise and respond to the true gravity of climate change, and their lack of action is inflicting ever-more risks and impacts on vulnerable developing countries and their people.


Glimmers of hope

However, even amongst the gloom, there are some glimmers of hope that the needs and concerns of the world’s most vulnerable people will not be entirely dismissed in the UN process to tackle climate change.

The issue of loss and damage, which refers to the impacts of climate change that cannot be adapted to (such as widespread sea-level rise or ocean acidification) was also high on the agenda at this year’s talks.

Developing countries stood together in a remarkable display of unity to demand the creation of an ‘international mechanism’ (or process) to address the issue of loss and damage from climate change impacts. In a spirit of compromise, including by developed countries, this landmark mechanism was finally established in Warsaw.

Though it is still unclear how effective such a mechanism will be, particularly as the final Warsaw agreement failed to include many of the aspects seen as critically important by developing countries, this is still an important step towards addressing loss and damage which is already undermining livelihoods, poverty eradication and development prospects.

There was some hope on finance for adaptation too. Some developed countries did step up to the mark and promise additional funding through the UN Adaptation Fund and the Least Developed Countries Fund. Even still, these funds are still only a drop in the ocean compared to what is really needed to address climate change adaptation needs.

So what next? First and foremost, it’s time for a rapid rebuilding of trust between all governments alongside significantly increased ambition to tackle the climate crisis. This includes a collective spirit to agree emissions reductions as quickly as possible to help ensure global warming remains below 1.5 degrees.

At the same time, support for vulnerable countries to help them adapt to climate change must be ramped up immediately, especially as disasters continue to unfold.

As for the longer-term outlook, it’s unclear whether the political landscape will undergo any significant change in 2014 in favour of more urgent, ambitious climate action. The major forces that continue to undermine a rapid and just transition towards low-emission and climate resilient development are still as powerful as ever.

However, there are some early indications that the foundations of long-held resistance are shifting and that perhaps, finally, there may be a better chance of scaled-up ambition to tackle the climate crisis in the years ahead.

In March, just a few months from now, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release the next installment of its ‘Fifth Assessment Report’, this time focussing on climate impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. It is expected to show that a range of negative consequences linked to climate change are already unfolding around the world, and that, under current emissions trends, prospects for future impacts are increasingly dire.


Towards a new climate agreement in 2015

In terms of the UNFCCC process itself there is also a glimmer of hope. After two Conferences of the Parties (COPs) in fossil fuel-guzzling Qatar and Poland, the UNFCCC now turns its attention to COPs in Peru in 2014 and France in 2015, which are generally perceived as being far more progressive on climate change.

Next year’s UNFCCC intersessional meeting in Bonn will also include an extraordinary highlevel ministerial meeting during which countries have been urged to discuss how they will increase their ambition in the run up to 2020. The meeting will be a crucial step on the road to agreeing a new climate deal in 2015. Finally, climate finance will also remain high on the ministerial agenda in 2014 – right through to 2020.

Last but by no means least, Ban Ki-moon’s high-level summit, to be held on 23 September

2014 in New York in the context of the UN General Assembly, will also provide a critical moment for renewed climate action. It will be the first time heads of state and government will come together since they met back in Copenhagen in 2009 to deal with climate change and its implications for global development.


Real and tangible climate action

To ensure these political opportunities in the months and years ahead are transformed into real and tangible action, which protects the most vulnerable from the increasing scale and intensity of climate change impacts, far more public pressure will be needed.

There is still much work to do to activate people right across civil society, and within national governments, to raise their ambition and work together towards higher levels of collective action. The current groundswell, which is emerging at many levels and in many countries, must now transform itself into a wave of climate action to trigger urgent change towards low-emission and climate-resilient development.

As another storm gathers this week in India, the latest in a litany of extreme weather events worldwide, we are reminded again that there is no excuse for inaction or further delay. The time to act is now.


Sven Harmeling is CARE International’s Climate Change Advocacy Coordinator. 

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