Ambition is what's needed in Warsaw

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 14 November 2013 09:11 GMT

A wind turbine used to generate electricity is seen at a wind farm in Guazhou, Gansu Province, China, Sept. 15, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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In the real world, countries are taking action to cut emissions, but U.N. climate negotiations need to push those efforts to a higher level

What do the U.N. climate talks in Warsaw need more: greater ambition or a deal everyone can sign?

Marcin Korolec, Poland’s environment minister and the president of the negotiations, has made clear he wants progress towards a new agreement to curb climate change that every country feels comfortable with.

“I promise you transparency. I promise you an inclusive process. Those are my top priorities,” he said in an opening statement this week. As countries move towards a 2015 deadline for a new global deal, “I will spare no effort to find a consensus,” he said.

But with climate-changing emissions still growing - despite 20 years of negotiations and agreements to limit them - should inclusion be the top priority in Warsaw?

“It’s ambition that’s needed, from my point of view,” says Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow on climate change at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development.

Right now, “everybody is willing to do something” - a big change from the 2009 Copenhagen talks, when many countries were still refusing to budge - “but the cumulative amount that comes to is insufficient,” he says. “So raising the ambition collectively of everyone is the key. The issue of inclusion has already been solved. Ambition has not.”

Despite the perpetually slow pace of negotiations, greater ambition in cutting greenhouse gas emissions is also getting easier to achieve.

As countries around the world become convinced of the need to act - due to worsening extreme weather, such as Super Typhoon Haiyan which hit the Philippines just before the start of the talks, or other evidence that climate change is taking hold at home - they are ramping up renewable energy initiatives, launching efforts to adapt, and finding that none of it is as impossible as they once thought.

‘IT’S NOT ROCKET SCIENCE’

"One of the consequences of countries tackling climate change emissions at home, in domestic policy, is they learn to do it, and see it’s not rocket science,” says Huq, a native of Bangladesh, a country widely considered as a leader in climate adaptation. “That creates a feedback loop,” where things that had to be pushed at first - like installing solar panels – soon spread because they’re good for everyone, he says.

Even the poorest and most vulnerable countries – which once insisted they had no obligation to cut their own emissions – are stepping up. Many small islands are making pledges to become carbon neutral, out of a desire to stop importing expensive diesel fuel, and a willingness to curb climate change.

“Their emissions don’t amount to a hill of beans, but they’re doing something about them,” Huq notes. “It’s a different, much more positive mindset we have now. Even the smallest polluters are saying, ‘We want to do something ambitious, and we want everyone else to do the same.’”

But is that growing ambition making it into the negotiating rooms in Warsaw? “Not necessarily,” Huq admits. The problem is that negotiators tend to have fixed positions. No major developed countries have increased the ambition of their emissions reduction commitments so far in Warsaw, for instance.

What is needed to change that is support at a higher political level, Huq says.

That may seem a big ask, with Australia’s new conservative government announcing this week it would step away from a 15 percent emissions reduction goal in favour of a lower 5 percent goal, and would try to repeal the country’s carbon tax.

But Australia “is an outlier”, Huq argues. Look instead, he says, at China and the United States, where political leaders are moving more aggressively to confront climate change.

Trigg Talley, the U.S. lead negotiator at the talks, insisted this week that his country wouldn’t budge beyond its “already ambitious” goal to cut emissions 17 percent from 2005 emissions levels.

Still, “what you’re getting now are negotiating positions,” Huq insists. “It doesn’t reflect the real strategy."

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