Even with the destruction from Typhoon Haiyan as a backdrop, the 195 nations that met over the past two weeks in Warsaw for a global summit on climate change made only modest progress toward an agreement, including an accord designed to slow deforestation that may be the meeting’s signature accomplishment.
It is impossible to blame climate change for any specific weather event, including the ferocious typhoon that killed more than 5,200 people and displaced 4 million in the Philippines two weeks ago. But many conference participants cited the storm, which hit three days before the summit began, as a symbol of the kind of extreme weather that will continue unless the international community responds rapidly to slow the emission of heat-trapping gases.
Instead, the 19th session of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change achieved some small gains and may have begun to build momentum for next year’s meeting in Lima, Peru.
“Clearly, the accomplishments here are modest. The principal agreement of note would be on the rules for forest investments,” said Paul Bledsoe, senior fellow on energy and climate at the German Marshall Fund and a former Clinton White House adviser on the environment, who is in Warsaw for the talks.
“They are headed toward a C to C-minus for the overall effort,” said Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, which is among scores of nonprofit groups working at the talks.
The deforestation plan provides economic incentives for countries to reduce the emissions that come from deforestation and a way for developed nations that will foot the bill to measure their efforts.
Norway, Britain and the United States collectively pledged $280 million toward the effort, with the U.S. share at $25 million.
There were a number of setbacks during the session. Japan, with its nuclear power plants shuttered after the Fukushima disaster, took the occasion to note that it would sharply reduce its previous commitment to cut emissions. Australia’s House of Representatives voted Friday to repeal the nation’s carbon tax. Fed up with those actions and with little movement on financial issues, an estimated 800 members from a wide variety of nongovernmental organizations walked out.
“We left because the climate negotiations in Warsaw have been a farce from the start,” said Brandon Wu, senior policy analyst for ActionAid, an international development agency.
Negotiators were continuing to talk Friday night, with the possibility of going into the early hours of Saturday. People familiar with the history of the U.N.-led sessions said that meant there was still a chance for progress. Among other issues, negotiators were seeking a way to address developing nations’ demands for payments for irreparable damage they say was caused by climate change produced during developed nations’ industrialization, according to someone familiar with the ongoing talks.
It was clear even before the negotiations began that the United States and other developed nations would not accept any language that made them responsible in the long term for damage such as a rise in sea levels or drought that is affecting smaller, developing countries. But they are willing to help pay those nations to protect themselves from further damage and clean up some damage that has occurred – if an acceptable approach can be found.
The developed nations held firm during the talks. “Developing nations now realize the developed nations are … not going to agree we inflicted damage on you, ⅛and€ that any assignment of blame for damage is not going to happen,” Bledsoe said.
There may be efforts to help developing nations with their damage via a $100 billion fund that developed nations previously pledged to “mobilize” by 2020. But no agreement had been reached on the specifics of that fund late Friday.
Expectations for the summit were not high. Most participants saw it as a session that would lay the groundwork for an agreement in 2015 at talks in Paris over an agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2020.
Toward that end, the nations seemed inclined late Friday to agree to a plan under which each would commit to reducing its greenhouse gases by a certain amount and by a certain deadline, rather than signing a legally binding agreement or a treaty. Other nations would be able to review and verify progress toward those goals.
At a midday briefing, Todd Stern, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy for climate change, said of the developing document: “There could be stronger language indicating, in effect, a real timeline to drive our work forward, to give greater clarity to when initial commitments ⅛on greenhouse gas cuts€ should be put forward.”
The United States, Stern said, probably would offer its commitment on greenhouse gas reductions “in the first quarter of 2015.” That would allow negotiators to know how regulations on emissions by existing power plants, which the Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to propose in June, will affect the nation’s output of carbon dioxide, some observers said. It also would come after next year’s midterm elections.