Wandering off in Warsaw

UN climate talks in Warsaw have seen inroads on issues like monitoring, reporting and verification. But agreement on the three main goals have proved elusive.

In the annual climate negotiations since, Copenhagen in 2009, painstaking progress has been made towards a new deadline of 2015 for a framework agreement that concentrates on bundling up national interests, trust and action rather than a 'top-down' formal treaty.

This new agreement won’t be born perfect but must be able to ratchet up collective action with accountability towards the shared goal of avoiding a 2 degree rise in average global warming, as well as a fair approach to addressing both unavoidable, but also unmanageable, climate risks.

To compatriots at the Institute for Public Affairs and Bjorn “what’s a few bushfires between friends” Lomborg, current national interests mean progress across these issues are unlikely to succeed and are, indeed, mostly unnecessary…yet.

Since 2009, however, there’s been a growing recognition that climate and pollution impacts are costing national, economic and human interests now. Typhoon Haiyan has punched home those costs as did a World Bank report with a main message that building climate resilience is essential to the global goals of ending extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity.

There’s also been growing action with national legislation or strategies covering round 75 per cent of the global population, up from only a third pre-Copenhagen. Environment Minister Greg Hunt, to his credit, has acknowledged significant action in and between the US and China. 

This is not to pretend all is sweetness and light but countries are mostly emerging from trusted bunkers, exploring new partnerships and approaches. Some do so tentatively with occasional retreats and some retreat spectacularly such as Japan with its conversion last week of an emissions reduction pledge to one of emissions increase.

Australia’s simultaneous dismantling of what is recognised as a broadly credible carbon market provided another shock which pushed many back towards their bunkers. It ensured Australia’s every action is viewed with suspicion and distrust. This has been compounded by what appear to be restrictive, half-formed and ideologically tinged mandates for negotiators. 

These might be understandable for a new government but the domestic political 'carbon tax repeal' hothouse may be driving some negotiators to over-reach or be misunderstood in the negotiations. Inabilities to commit to further 'financing' commitments at this stage, because of budget reviews due to looming massive cuts to overseas aid, were interpreted as enduring attacks on core principles.

'Financing' is understood at the UN as being rich nation investment in low emissions, climate resilient projects in poorer developing countries. In addition to a sensible investment in building regional stability and prosperity, it is seen as an important trust building measure.

Concerns that those comments were at least a staging post to such an enduring position were reinforced by extraordinary actions and statements by Australia at the CHOGM talks. There, the very concept of developed countries funding emissions reductions in developing countries was questioned. An, at best, ill-informed comparison was made between the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and a UN financing institution called the Green Climate Fund.

The latter’s name may be a red rag to conservative politicians but there is as little basis to the comparison as there is to the statement that what we do at home we have to do abroad. If the reverse applies the equivocal approach to torture displayed in Colombo bodes ill.

These Warsaw negotiations were never to result in glamorous reduction goals but, rather, designed to provide a roadmap towards 2015; progress in financing, and; the more recent question of “Loss and Damage” – how to deal with unmanageable, not just unavoidable, climate impacts. There’s been reasonable progress across a host of other framework issues like the monitoring, reporting and verification of national actions but those three are the biggies here still to be resolved this week.

Last night saw ministers begin to arrive and the irony of an Australian minister’s absence from the first formal meeting focusing on effective market mechanisms was not lost on many.

In a parallel universe an Australian minister may have proudly shared how our carbon market supported other policies in reducing emissions from covered sectors and boosted renewable energy. He or she would highlight that inflation impacts were as predicted, and that household support measures funded by carbon price revenue meant most households were better off. And, finally, that business decisions incorporated the reality of firmly entrenched carbon prices and limits.

John Connor is chief executive of The Climate Institute.

CONNOR: Australia produces a bruising first half, November 18.

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