UN Climate Talks Move Backwards: Developed States Refuse Meaningful Action

In the wake of super typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines chief negotiator, Yeb Saño, opened the 19th UN conference on climate change in Warsaw with a moving speech. He pledged to fast “until a meaningful outcome is in sight … until the promise of a … loss and damage mechanism has been fulfilled.” But his personal sacrifice, and the loss of over 5,000 lives in the Philippines, failed to move industrial countries to make any actual pledges to compensate low-income countries for losses and damages suffered from extreme weather events and other consequences of climate change. Sadly, the loss of lives and the creation of millions of climate refugees after typhoon Haiyan, whose fury reached nearly 300 kilometres an hour due to elevated ocean temperatures, is only a preview of more disasters to come. A 2012 report from the Madrid-based DARA Foundation estimates that climate change is already responsible for about 400,000 deaths each year due to stronger storms, the spread of communicable diseases and damage to agriculture. This toll could rise to 600,000 by 2030. The World Bank estimates that economic losses due to climate change amounted to US$200 billion annually over the last decade, up from US$50 billion in the 1980s. Indeed the reluctance of industrial countries to act on promises to consider compensation for damage caused by climate change prompted an unprecedented walkout by developing countries. Frustrated by the lack of progress, 130 low-income countries walked out of the Working Group on the Mechanism for Loss and Damage on November 20, three days before the conference was to end. In a joint declaration the group stated “developed countries did not express any intention of providing financing and technology transfer to developing countries, there is also no sign of political will to move forward on these issues, on the contrary there is a strong pressure from several delegations of these countries promoting climate business, new carbon market mechanisms and risk insurance markets for extreme events, making this conference, a conference focused on profits at the expense of Mother Earth.”


Youth attending the Warsaw Conference staged protests singling out Canada and Australia.

As the photo illustrates, youth attending the Warsaw Conference staged protests singling out Canada and Australia for refusing to listen to or examine the pleas for action from low-income countries. Expectations for the 19th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change were never very high. Dismay and anger grew after Japan announced that it would no longer try to meet its emission reduction targets, following the example set by Canada when it withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011. Then Australia announced it would not meet its targets and dismantled its carbon tax. Canada actually congratulated Australia for taking a backward step. This backtracking led the Minister from Fiji, one of the small island states most threatened by rising sea levels caused by climate change, to declare that this would be the first UN climate conference ever where commitments coming out of the conference are lower than those going in.

Canada’s Environment Minister, Leona Aglukkaq, claimed that “Canada is taking a leadership role in international climate change efforts.” In her speech to a plenary session she referred to regulatory action the government has taken on transportation and electricity generation but did not mention its failure to rein in emissions from the petroleum industry. A new report from the Pembina Institute and the Quebec environmental group équiterre states that planned expansion of production from the tar sands will add 72 more megatonnes (Mt) of carbon to the atmosphere by 2020 relative to 2005 emissions levels. This will “more than cancel  out the 67 Mt of reductions expected from Canada’s other industry sectors.” The report estimates “Canada will achieve only 50 per cent of its 2020 climate target.”

Yet Canada’s negotiators at Warsaw claimed Canada intends to meet that target. Even if it were met, the result would be a net increase of emissions of 2.5% above their 1990 levels, whereas under the Kyoto Protocol Canada was committed to reducing emissions to 6% below 1990 levels by 2012. In a last minute compromise, 24 hours after the conference was scheduled to end, large developing countries, such as China, India and Brazil, agreed that they would have to make “contributions” to emission reductions in a final deal to be brokered in Paris in 2015. In return industrial countries finally agreed that there could be a mechanism for compensating for losses and damages but only as part of an existing instrument for funding adaptation measures within developing countries. Although the US$100 million pledged so far for adaptation is far from sufficient, the industrial countries said they would review the status of the loss and damage mechanism only in 2016.

As recounted in KAIROS Briefing Paper #37, IPCC Confirms We Must Act Now on Climate Change, in order to meet the official target of keeping global temperature increases below two degrees Celsius, two-thirds of known fossil fuels must remain underground. Yet the need to live within a carbon budget, now confirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Energy Agency and leading climate scientists such as James Hansen, never made it onto the agenda for the Warsaw conference. The unwillingness of developed nations that are responsible for most of the greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution to act responsibly prompted a walk out by about 800 representatives from civil society groups from around the world. However, this action did not signal a giving up on the cause of climate justice. The groups that walked out promise to continue to “work to transform our food and energy systems at a national and global level and rebuild a broken economic system to create a sustainable and low-carbon economy with jobs and decent livelihoods for all.”

This is precisely our challenge as articulated in Briefing Paper #35, Time to Refocus Our Approach to Climate Change. As stated by KAIROS partner Tetet Nera-Lauron from IBON in the Philippines, “The diluted language of the conference outcome presents a growing problem for poor countries that are most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. It allows further leeway for developed nations to backtrack on their commitments and effectively weakens the position of developing countries that struggle every year from the damages of climate catastrophes…. The devastation in the Philippines should be reason enough for everybody to increase ambition.

Filed in: Ecological Justice

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