Climate talks headed nowhere

S. Gopikrishna Warrier | Updated on December 04, 2013 Published on December 04, 2013

The real issue is lost in the smokescreen of technicalities. — G. Karthikeyan

The Warsaw meet failed to make progress in hammering out a post-Kyoto protocol mechanism.

The international climate change negotiations have become like games set on quicksand. The more the negotiators attempt to come out with decisions, the deeper they get sucked into technicalities and jargon.

‘Loss and damage’ was the latest buzz phrase that emerged from the 19th Conference of Parties (the Warsaw CoP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held at Warsaw, Poland (November 11-22). This term added an additional element to an already entangled web of discussions, even while the climate change negotiations have not achieved what they set out to do two decades ago – cut the emission of greenhouse gases.


The term loss and damage refers broadly to the entire range of damage and permanent loss associated with climate change impacts in developing countries.

These countries are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change that can neither be avoided through mitigation (reducing emissions), nor through adaptation (living with climate change). This is because, with some of the current loss and damage being the result of historical emissions by the developed countries since industrialisation, loss and damage calculations can also go back in time.

The Warsaw CoP was also significant because it was the first time the countries were meeting after the end of the first reporting period of the Kyoto Protocol. According to the Protocol, developed countries (whose names have been listed in Annexe 1 of the document) had to reduce an average of 5 per cent of their emissions from their 1990 values by 2008-2012.

The emission figures between 1990 and 2011 of the developed countries was compiled and made public by the UNFCCC Secretariat before the Warsaw CoP. The figures show that the reduction in emissions was due to the contribution of the economies in transition (the former Soviet Bloc countries); the emissions of the blue-blooded developed countries increased, though slightly, during this period.

Together, the Annexe 1 countries recorded a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of 9.3 per cent from 1990 to 2011. While the economies in transition contributed to a reduction of 36.8 per cent, the emission of the other developed countries increased by 3.2 per cent.

Among the 43 Annexe 1 countries, the former Soviet bloc countries were the “low hanging fruits.” In the 1990s, when the Kyoto Protocol was designed, the Soviet Bloc had disintegrated and these countries were straddled with old technologies and greenhouse gas emitting manufacturing sectors. Interventions for improving technologies in these countries could show great reduction in emissions.

Thus, Russia, the largest emitter among the former Soviet Bloc countries reduced its emissions by 30.8 per cent. Romania’s emissions decreased by 54.8 per cent.

The real test of the success of Kyoto Protocol, however, is in assessing how the other developed countries performed. True to their reputation, the Scandinavians did well in reducing their emissions. Denmark reduced emissions by 17.6 per cent, Finland by 4.9 per cent, and Sweden by 15.5 per cent. The exception was Norway whose emissions increased by 6 per cent.

The United Kingdom also was successful in reducing its emissions by 27.8 per cent. Germany reduced by 26.7 per cent.

Many others continued to increase in their emissions. Australia, for instance, increased its emissions by 32.2 per cent. Canada increased by 18.7 per cent and Spain by 23.9 per cent.

Though the US refused to ratify the Protocol, its emissions are included in the UNFCCC list, since it was one of the countries listed in Annexe 1. Between 1990 and 2011, the US emissions increased by 8 per cent.

Thus, if not for the massive emission reductions by the former Soviet Bloc countries, the Kyoto Protocol results would have been different. In countries that have a higher technology base the scope for making emission reductions is minimal. This has been confirmed by the emission figures of developed countries between 1990 and 2011.


However, when these countries go into the second commitment period of Kyoto Protocol (from 2013 to 2020) or into another instrument that could succeed the Protocol in 2020, the ability to make quick progress in emission reduction will not be available. The technology levels would have improved in all countries and thus the scope for reducing emissions will be minimal.

This would even hold true for the developing countries, which did not have emission reduction targets in the period up to 2012. Among the developing countries, the emissions of the emerging economies of Brazil, South Africa, India and China (the BASIC bloc) have grown more rapidly than the others.

The problem is that the climate change negotiations have strong boundaries marked between the developed and developing countries. This emanates from the guiding principle of common but differentiated responsibilities that the international community agreed upon while framing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.


However, the divide between the developed and developing countries has been a sticking point in the climate change negotiations. Even in the Warsaw CoP, the developing country bloc (G77 + China) walked out of the discussions on loss and damage at one stage, accusing the developed countries of scuttling talks on this subject.

This resulted in the CoP adding an international mechanism on loss and damage into the negotiations process. The detailed work is expected to begin next year.

Reports of death and destruction of death and destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines focussed attention on the loss and damage discussions at Warsaw CoP. Fair enough, since even the latest Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in September, had stated that climate change could increase the frequency and strength of extreme weather events.

However, tying the negotiations down in yet another technicality without achieving what it set out to achieve is like adding yet another string to an already entangled web. Deciding what should be the historical cut off point to calculate loss and damage could itself take a few CoPs.

The priority should be to agree upon an equitable mechanism to reduce present-day greenhouse gas emissions. Once this is done, the other contentious issues will fall in place.

(The author is regional environment manager with Panos South Asia. Views are personal.)

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Published on December 04, 2013
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