Fiddling with the ‘firewall’ while Earth burns – making sense of COP19

The 19th conference of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change ended in Warsaw on Saturday.   Last-minute concessions produced a limp agreement.  A Copenhagen-style train-wreck has been avoided.

It is 21 years since the Framework Convention undertook to stabilise global emissions to save the planet from dangerous climate change.   Emissions have increased since then from 38 billion tonnes to 50 b.   Warsaw continues on that same path..

The main outlines of the COP 19 conference are:

–     An undertaking to prepare for ‘contributions’ for the post-’20 global agreement to be agreed by 2015; India and China refused to accept the word ‘commitment’;

–     A mechanism for loss-and-damage that would assist vulnerable countries to protect against extreme impacts;

–     A breakthrough on forestry with ‘results-based payments’ system to encourage developing countries halt deforestation and increase afforestation (REDD+).

Is this enough to call Warsaw a success?  If ‘success’ is defined as the short-term avoidance of failure, then perhaps.  If it is defined as achieving what is required for the long-term goal, the answer is no.

Consider the perspective.   We are, in late-2013, on the cusp of the global challenge that is climate change – the pivot between two stages.

–       The period 1992 to 2012 was Stage 1.  Stage 1 was the identification of the global challenge (UNFCCC – stabilisation of gases to prevent dangerous climate change) with preliminary action towards the global solution (Kyoto 1 – binding obligations on the North to cut while the South would report and curb).

–      Stage 2 was meant to be 2013-50. This would be a global agreement with legal commitments to quantitative targets applying to all.  Planning for Stage 2 commenced in ’07 (Bali) and was meant to last 2 years for signing in ’09 (Copenhagen). This failed, badly.

–      The second attempt at Stage 2 was 2010-11, culminating in the Durban Platform of Action (DPA). This is intended to see four years of negotiations (2013-15) for signing in ’15 (Paris).  Call this Stage 2 / Take 2.

–     With Warsaw under the belt and two years after DPA, we are half-way through Stage 2 /Take 2.

Are we making progress?  Not fast enough.  The sheer complexity of multilateral negotiations continues to thwart this kind of planning.  Take mitigation which is the highest priority. Doha was meant to make progress on the elements of a global agreement – a package of indicative criteria for achieving equity in the ‘burden-sharing’ of emission cuts.  This proved too much and was kicked down the road to Warsaw.  Essentially, Warsaw has kicked it down the road to Lima next year.

Why is it all so intractable? What are the main fault-lines?

It is about how materially rich we all aspire to be, and how we compete for the planet’s resources.  Some 195 sovereign national interests competing in traditional 19th century fashion.  The fault-lines are these:

–        Whether the rich North has done enough in cutting emissions to enable the developing South to increase emissions, as their economies grow, but at a slower rate, all within the goal of stabilising and then reducing global emissions. The South says the North has not done enough.

–        Whether, in a related context, the North has acknowledge responsibility for historical emissions (77% of emissions 1750-2000), since that is what has caused climate change to date. Such an acknowledgement has implications for ‘burden-sharing’ in the 21st century. The North refuses to make such an acknowledgement.   It points out that by 2020 the South will eclipse the North, not only in terms of future emissions but also in terms of accumulated ‘historical’ emissions (1750-2020).  So, for the negotiations over the post-’20 global legal agreement, all bets are off.  The principles of equity and CBDR (common but differentiated responsibilities), enshrined in the ’92 Framework Convention, are redrawn.  They form the political football of the negotiations at the cusp.

–         These tensions play out in more or less uniform fashion in each of the thematic contexts: mitigation, adaptation, financing, loss-and-damage, technology transfer.  Each work-stream, each subsidiary body, suffers them alike.  The distinction between North and South over the obligation to cut emissions is the so-called ‘firewall’, the fault-line of traditionally-perceived interests between the two major global camps.  It may be vanishing in recent years, but the extent to which it should influence current negotiations depends on your time-perspective: 1750 to 2100, 1750 to 1990, or 2020 to 2100.

This analysis, of course, is simplified and the dynamics on the floor and in the rooms are more complex and nuanced.  Neither the South nor the North speaks with one voice.  There is, in fact, a bewildering array of groups and overlapping sub-groups that intone a muted cacophony into the microphones. The G77/China, the like-minded group, BRIC, ALBA, ILAC, EU, UG, EIG, AOSIS – the acronyms reflect a mosaic of resentment and grievance, obduracy and antagonism, that hovers like an I-cloud over the common interest of climate stabilisation.

A pack of 195, or even half that as is often the case, cannot write up a common platform.  So it is usually left to the co-chairs of each body to try their hand at a draft.  This they do with varying degrees of skill before laying it before the delegates who proceed to strip it bare of flesh before wandering off home, reporting that they have punched above their weight.  Pretty much every final draft is a skeletal carcass, devoid of substance, left to lie on the parched veldt of the UN plenary floor.

This is what has happened, for example, to the mitigation negotiations produced by ADP work-streams 2 & 3. The difference between draft version 1 (2nd Monday, 10:00 hours) and draft 4 (2nd Friday, 05:45 hours) was between day and night – puns aside.  The Annex to version 1 identified a link between pre’20 and post-’20.  It identified what it called ‘common threads’. It spoke of enhanced action on mitigation; of the ‘character of commitments’, the nature and extent of differentiation, of arrangements for commitments ex ante. – 27 bullet-points in all.  Version 4 had whittled this down to 10 bullet-points with little substance left.

So the idea is that where delegates negotiate their differences to the detriment of the text, the ministers, being the political leaders carrying the mandate, come in and talk up the commonalities, bridge the disagreements and forge a common platform.  But that is not the reality.  Ministers come in, hold private bilaterals and regionals, and speak in public plenary at the high-level segment.  But the HLS is not causally connected to the diplomatic negotiations.   It is closer to a Parisian salon than a New York bargaining exchange.

And so the disconnect between aspiration and achievement continues over the fate of the planet.  Warsaw forms another moment in time.  I observed at the beginning that the dynamics were different here—more low-key with perhaps more space for a serious focus on the part of delegations.  I think this was indeed the case, but it proved to be inadequate to breaking the negotiating deadlock.

In my last post, I shall seek to analyse why.

8 Comments Posted

  1. Identifying ourselves as a “developed” country may be a bit overoptimistic, but then we call a goat track through the mountains State Highway 1… but those uses of “we” clearly refer to all the developed nations. No Royal We.

    The “We” in “We are here” also has a pretty clear meaning, as in New Zealand the country and its collective population. That we don’t all agree is really irrelevant to the point being made. – No Royal We.

    Then there is the “We” that we are talking about with respect to the nations that are trying to get climate change to actually be addressed… clearly not a Royal We.

    Basically Gerrit, you have elected to attack this point on the basis of a deliberate misunderstanding of what was said… and you continued that below the line. I never once used a royal “we” and you very well know that despite the nature of your attack.

    If the planet is unfit for our children to use it is destroyed for them… and by extension through time, for us. Humans are the species I belong to and as a result I REFUSE to be complicit in your suggested suicide pact… “One could argue that “we” should destroy the habitat so that the planet can regenerate”

    There is not enough “money” or more importantly, resources to rebuilt every time “we” damage the infrastructure that “we” have built.

    The way we do things now? Absolutely true. Because we DO print money from thin air, and that is what every government on the planet is doing, more or less, through their recourse to borrowing from banks.

    Sustainability requires use of LESS, requires zero-growth policies that almost nobody in any developed nation (outside the Greens) can currently accept.

    As for “culling” what needs doing has more to do with not growing.

    Reducing poverty and increasing education so the population control that goes with those two things is more effective. As we all do eventually die, the problem is significantly self-correcting.

    In 30 years most of the boomers will be gone and if we’ve tamed the growth in the poorer countries that should be enough reduction in demand to allow the CO2 free energy supply to handle a lower but still acceptable standard of living for all of us… without the loss of our civilization. Might not work everywhere, but many places it has a good shot.

    …and more people will die as climate gets worse. The sooner we force the “developed” world to act, the fewer will be hopelessly out of luck.

  2. BJ,

    That is an awful lot of royal “We” references. Who is the “we” that shuts down an economy? And how?

    An economy will be present whenever two people want to trade, barter or swap. You cannot take away an economy.

    Someone has to start SOME-where and WE are HERE!

    And that is the problem not a single green organisation will address. Too many “we” people.

    How do “we” (the royal “we” again) cull around 5 billion pesky humans?

    That is the elephant that needs addressing. Does anyone even address the issue?

    No not now, not ever.



    1. We DO nothing but destroy the planet we all live on and we do it shamelessly.

    2. We REFUSE to pay for the damage we are doing.

    The planet will not be destroyed, the planet will shape itself to whatever the “we” humans do. We can only destroy the habitat humans need, not the planet, that will self regenerate (as it has done always) again and again. One could argue that “we” should destroy the habitat so that the planet can regenerate and start a new cycle of regeneration.

    As for paying for damage, that is easy, print some more money, add some more naughts to the balance sheets, just create it out of thin air.

    There is not enough “money” or more importantly, resources to rebuilt every time “we” damage the infrastructure that “we” have built. There are simply too many humans with too much infrastructure, to rebuilt it time and again.

  3. Gerrit – there are two aspects to this. They make up the example of the developed world.

    1. We DO nothing but destroy the planet we all live on and we do it shamelessly.

    2. We REFUSE to pay for the damage we are doing.

    We then REFUSE to negotiate on either of thing 1 or thing 2 until the folks we just stole a working planet from toady up like nice docile slavey beings and do exactly what we SHOULD have done and do it before we do anything that might inconvenience our carving off another slice of the future to feed our excessive consumption.

    If I lived in one of those countries I’d be thinking in terms of a global strike/embargo. No more raw materials, no more trade, no more ANYTHING TO DO with the BAU bastards in their Porsches on the road to the Hamptons.

    Break the planet? We can break the economy before it gets worse. Just shut it all down. No more oil, no more rare-earths, no more food exports, no more imports of manufactured goods, no more money transfers, no more access to stock markets, no more foreign owners taking out money, no more of the rape and pillage of the planet. This would be up to China, but if they decided to do it, that WOULD be it. Wall Street would be raining bankers again and I hate to say it but it’d probably be the best thing that could happen to the planet.


    If we did ONE of the first two we’d have a leg to stand on and the folks who just walked out would be a lot more willing to talk and cooperate with us… but we aren’t doing ANY “co”-operating we want it all our own way (so it seems).

    So I don’t blame them a bit… you can spin it any way you like, but the pain we’re in and which is getting worse is not the doing of the people who are taking the worst damage.

    We have to act OURSELVES if there is to be a start towards a solution. Someone has to start SOME-where and WE are HERE!


  4. umm….. Gerrit. The cost of remedying extreme weather occurrences does fall on the voter and tax payer.

    The PAYE tax payers, and those who have to spend all their income on GST rated goods, that cannot dodge taxes, including the paperboy!

    I seem to remember us paying recently for, tax payer funded, help to NZ farmers for droughts and storms. And now to the Philippines.

  5. It is time to give up any hope of an international agreement. It probably was not going to happen anyway. That is not how progress is made. Generally one country makes a move, and gives a lead, and others follow. One country leads and then fall back and another country takes the lead. Progress comes in fits and starts. What we are missing is the starts. Sir Peter Gluckman says that New Zealand’s greatest contribution to fighting global climate change will be “moral and political” ie by setting an example. We need to start here, we need to start now. Calling for a ban on all deep sea oil forr awould send a strong global message

  6. If talking was so important, why did the green movement walk out?

    How can the greens as a movement contribute to the discussion if not in attendance?

    Massive fail simply because the “poor” countries want to “rich” ones to pay for any “extreme” weather occurance “damage”.

    Oxfam’s executive director, Winnie Byanyima, said governments gathered in Warsaw were failing in their primary responsibility of securing the security of their people.

    “They must… come back in 2014 ready for meaningful discussions on how they will deliver their share of the emissions reductions, which scientists say are needed, and their share of the money needed to help the poorest and most vulnerable countries adapt” to climate change, said Byanyima.

    Sounds more like a “wealth redistribution without representation” call from the walker-outers (who are all incidently non democatic organisations).

    How many governments will go to the people they represent and put forward a motion, for the voters to decide, that rectification for damage caused by extreme weather occurances (occuring anywhere in the world) must be paid for by their national voter and tax payer.

    It is not Greens policy in New Zealand at present, perhaps it is going to be added to the policy list?

    Be interesting the feedback from voters on that policy!

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