Reflections on the COP19 climate change negotiations

International climate change event (COP19):  Warsaw, December 2013
… succinct reflections for a meeting with the Welsh natural resources minister

This personal account of COP19 was submitted to a meeting of the ‘climate change commission for Wales’ (CCCW) with Alun Davies, Welsh minister for natural resources and food, in late December 2013. It was not intended to be a detailed account, but simply a few rough and ready reflections from having attended the COP event.

Backdrop

  • This was my first COP, as choosing not to fly constrains those I am able to attend.
  • The Tyndall Centre had a stand and a side event; the latter was well attended and triggered considerable interest. The global carbon atlas was released – an open access tool, updated regularly and a valuable resource for considering national and global emissions.
  • The AR5 science report was released in September 27th 2013; the first such report to include carbon budgets. The report made clear that there is now very little time remaining within which to make the reductions necessary to meet our 2°C obligations.

As a contextual framing:
- since the 2007 AR4 almost 200 billion tonnes of CO2 have been emitted into the atmosphere
- emissions are now almost 60% higher than they were at the time of the first IPCC report in 1990 

Quick Impressions
Disturbingly COP19 appeared to have taken no note of AR5. There was no sense of urgency or of the importance of deep emission reductions, either amongst those engaged in the formal negotiations or the majority of wider delegates. With notable exceptions, the COP was attended by many climate change junkies – an industry of folk who already are looking forward to the next climate change meeting in Lima.

I sat in on a range of side events, the majority of which offered only superficial overviews of issues; in this regard it was disappointing to see how few academics presented at COP. The one exception in terms of both urgency and depth of thought was around issues of global justice – but despite the veracity of a lot of the arguments the wealthier high emitting nations paid little more than eloquent lip-service to the genuine and pressing concerns of the poorer nations.

I also sat through various stages of the formal negotiation phases, or at least those where non-governmental delegates could attend. In particular I listened to several hours of concerns raised by the relevant ministers from poorer nations followed by the platitudes and misinformation from their wealthier counterparts. Whilst the UK was not the worst amongst these, the comments from the DECC secretary of state typified such weasel words.

After an array of ministers from poorer nations had made repeated reference to the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change, the UK minister noted how the UK and the EU were in line, if not ahead, of meeting their climate change targets. This was disingenuous at best. The UK consumption-based emissions in 2013 are slightly higher than they were in 1990; the only reason they are not considerably higher is thanks to the failure of the banks’ various Ponzi schemes and governments’ inability to appropriately regulate the banking industry. Pre-recession consumption-based emissions were around 20% higher than the 1990 level.

The other significant smoke and mirror trick used by the UK minister, was in reference to the targets. The UK’s domestic budgets are not related to 2°C (see … why so little science), with the only legally binding target being the 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 (though even for this, decisions on inclusion of aviation and shipping have still to be settled). Moreover, the UK’s nearer term carbon budgets imply very inequitable divisions of the global 2°C carbon budget (favouring the wealthier high emitting nations) – clearly in breach of obligations on equity enshrined in the Copenhagen Accord and subsequent agreements, including the Camp David Declaration in May 2012

So in brief:

  • AR5 laid out the science case for immediate action on reducing emissions
  • COP19 essentially ignored the science, exchanging analytical and quantified coherence around 2°C for a nebulous framing of climate change & eloquent rhetoric

I left Warsaw with the very clear impression that the spineless nature of contemporary politics on climate change, supported by a supine civil society and a science-base too afraid of its funders to be vociferously candid about its analyses, leaves little hope of reducing even the rate of growth in emissions, let alone absolute emissions. Has 2°C simply become a pipedream?

Still, mustn’t despair, there’s always Lima next year ….

Ps. My lasting memory of the event, was a discussion I had in a windowless main corridor with the lead negotiator for the Philippines (Mr Naderev “Yeb” Saño). He was ten days into his hunger strike, yet each day was still negotiating late into the night. He and his small team of researchers were all based in a corridor – in stark contrast to the negotiating teams from the high-emitting nations, the UK, US and other wealthy countries – all of whom had expensive and well served private rooms. This was emblematic of COP19 and of the two decades of climate change negotiations. The poor countries – those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and responsible for only very low-levels of emissions – are actively marginalised from the process. As for Naderev “Yeb” Saño, his blend of humility, scientific rigour and absence of malice was a beacon of hope amongst a sea of apathy. I’d certainly recommend watching the few minutes of his opening statement to COP – and in particular noting how, when discussing his speech with journalists, he stuck firmly to the science that Haiyan cyclone could not be attributed to climate change, but, as AR5 notes if emissions continue to rise “Increases in intense tropical cyclone activity”[1] are a likely outcome. Whilst Haiyan and its aftermath must not be misused as evidence of climate change – it is appropriate it be used to illustrate the risks associated with our unchecked emissions. If this tragedy cannot drag some humanity from those of us leading carbon profligate lives and shake our leaders into meaningful action the future does indeed look bleak.

[1] IPCC Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Summary for Policymakers. Table 1. p.5.

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Links to reports of the Tyndall Centre’s COP event, interviews, etc: