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UN Climate Talks Go Into Overtime (Part I) (Updated)

United Naitons and Climate Change

Update 7:30pm, Saturday, November 23

Decisions have been adopted on the three major elements of COP19: Durban Platform, Loss and Damage, and institutional mechanisms for finance.

Update 4:11pm, Saturday, November 23

The decision of the Durban Platform was adopted and the plenary to finalize other COP decisions on finance and loss and damage will commence soon.


Two weeks at the UN climate negotiations in Warsaw (COP19) have passed, and talks continued well into Saturday. As I wrote earlier this week, this conference was an important step on the way to Paris in 2015, when an international treaty for action on climate change post-2020 will be sought. Much reporting has focused on the acrimony between developed and developing countries, largely based on outstanding issues of development assistance and compensation for climate damages that were held by some as preconditions for success.  Into the late hours, unmet expectations from some developing countries pushed discussion on the prospective structure and timeline for the 2015 agreement into Saturday afternoon.


Plenary session late in Thursday evening (credit: Michael Davidson)


Discussions on climate assistance (which includes everything except compensation – mitigation, adaptation, disaster risk reduction, etc.) have been divided into three periods for the UN climate talks: 2010-2012, 2013-2015 and 2015-2020. The 2010-2012 period (“fast start finance”) was agreed at Copenhagen to total $30 billion, a sort of down payment on moving forward with a new climate regime that saw big countries such as Brazil, South Africa, India and China (BASIC) take on more responsibilities. Developed countries claim this was delivered (and here are the details), while developing countries and their NGO allies dispute the “newness” of the money.


“Long-term finance” – which includes how assistance will scale up to 2020 levels of $100 billion / year – has been another battle at Warsaw. Some have called for intermediate targets – such as $50-$70 billion / yr in 2016 – or year-by-year amounts. The U.S. and its friends have pushed back against such a “schedule”, claiming that’s not how the budget process works. Major donor countries organized meetings in April and October, which have had at the core the task of leveraging private sector finance. The US has pointed out that even if governments could guarantee funding for 7 years, there is little chance of corporations making commensurate timelines.

For the interim period (2013-2015), China has made clear that contributions should not be less than the fast-start period (in effect, guaranteeing at least another $30 billion through 2015). Several new pledges on climate assistance were made at a concurrent high-level forum on Wednesday, though they fell short of the desired roadmap. The US, UK, Norway and the World Bank put forward $260 million for a forests initiative. Norway committed to continue its funding of the UN climate program on forestry/land use (called REDD+) through 2020. Germany promised $150 million for a total of $1.8 billion in 2014. And from the European Union, which revealed its 2014-2020 budget during the talks: up to 20% would go to “climate action”, and $2.3 billion (1.7 billion Euro) earmarked for developing countries in the next two years.

“Warsaw Mechanism” for Loss and Damage

Another key point of contention was the mandate from last year’s talks to create a compensation scheme for countries suffering “loss and damage” from climate change. In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines negotiator Yeb Sano captured worldwide attention with his impassioned plea for a long-term mechanism for help. This fund would be based on historical responsibility for emissions, and would apply to both extreme weather events and slow-onset events.

Should countries suffering the effects of climate change benefit from developed country assistance, both from an historical responsibility perspective and a more traditional argument for development aid? No country has denied this fundamental right, but there is real difficulty in operationalizing it in a framework that has teeth. First, as the IPCC report lays out, it is particularly difficult to attribute any single event (or a percentage of that event) to anthropogenic climate change. Second, if causality were established, damages could quickly become untenable. Recall that Congress allocated $60 billion for Hurricane Sandy relief. Slow onset events are even more troubling: how do you attach a value to a submerged island? 

Friday morning, a draft “loss and damage” text was released, which creates this mechanism, but falls short of specifying amounts of funding or explicitly requiring developed countries to contribute. Subsequent negotiations will continue working out these points. This issue is certainly not closed.

Elements of a Post-2020 Treaty

Negotiations were held up into Saturday on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, the treaty mandate from 2011. As I wrote before, the issue of equity is fundamental to the nature of climate change, whose causes and effects are not distributed evenly across all countries, neither are countries’ respective capabilities to tackle these challenges. The language in the treaty mandates it to be “applicable to all”, but countries disagreed on how this will translate into specific mitigation and financial requirements. I will go into more details in Part II. Stay tuned.

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