Climate talks walkout highlights need for new political push - UNEP head

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 21 November 2013 22:35 GMT

An environmental activist places his hand on a giant globe in a rally demanding more action to battle climate change during the 19th conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP19) in Warsaw on November 16, 2013. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

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Political leaders must give negotiators new direction at U.N. climate talks or face stalemate, the United Nations' environment chief said

WARSAW (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Political leaders must give negotiators new direction at U.N. climate talks, because the "brief" they currently have is leading "to stalemate, to paralysis and to heightened levels of frustration", the United Nations' environment chief said on Thursday.

Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), spoke after more than 800 participants from 13 major green, aid and trade union groups from around the world walked out of the talks in Warsaw in protest at their slow progress on crafting a new global deal to reduce planet-warming emissions and provide support for poorer nations to cope with the impacts of climate change.

Steiner told Thomson Reuters Foundation the move "should have significance because when civil society makes such a gesture, it is something that speaks to the level of frustration, impatience (and) lack of comprehension as to why governments are still struggling on some of the fundamental negotiating parameters".

Negotiators are working to lay the basis for a new accord that is due to be agreed in 2015, but few concrete steps have emerged so far. Rich countries have also been criticised for failing to say how they will cut their emissions in the short-term or boost climate aid towards a promised $100 billion a year by 2020. In addition, some have been blocking the establishment of a mechanism to help poorer nations cope with climate-related losses and damage.

Steiner said there was "passion" in the negotiating halls, but those hammering out details on behalf of their governments had not been given a political mandate to move forward.

"The negotiating process is trapped because (negotiations now) … clearly have more to do with how to manage expectations than to raise ambition levels," he said on the sidelines of the climate conference.

"Negotiators need to return home and brief their political leaders that unless there is a different framework that emerges for negotiations - and perhaps a different perspective is taken on the issues that, at the moment, are seen as pieces on a chess board - it will be very tough to see a significant agreement emerging by 2015," Steiner added.

The United Nations climate change secretariat is "providing the world with the optimal stage on which to work towards an agreement", he said, but national and regional interests were thwarting progress.

"It is from national positions … that an agreement that is meaningful in terms of the (climate) science will flow, and therein lies the greatest challenge right now," he said.


Ed Davey, the UK's secretary of state for energy and climate change, was more dismissive of the action by civil society groups. "I don't think their walkout affects the talks," he said.

But former Irish President Mary Robinson, president of the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice, said it was through public pressure that political leaders would be motivated to act on climate change.

"The climate change issue needs human solidarity," she said in an emailed response to the NGO walkout from the climate talks.

"We need a movement of young people, women, trade unions, indigenous peoples; we need the whole world to come together, to mobilise, to create constituencies of demand at the national level so that when their political leaders come together at (Ban Ki-Moon's) Climate Summit in September 2014, they make commitments on the scale needed to solve this global problem. And if the political leaders fail to do so, they need to know that their constituents will hold them to account.”

Not all non-governmental delegates quit the talks on Thursday. Some environment and development groups, including CARE International and Christian Aid, remained to continue tracking the negotiations.

Saleemul Huq, director of the Dhaka-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development - which works closely with least developed countries (LDCs) - said the talks were the only place where the poorest nations had real influence on climate change issues.

"We accept that the process is bad, and doesn't deliver - but this is the only place where the LDCs have a seat at the table, and so we can't abandon it," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The chair of the U.N. negotiations, Marcin Korolec - who was dismissed as Poland's environment minister on Wednesday in a government reshuffle – said he regretted that some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had quit the talks.

“The climate conference and NGOs share common goals  – all of us want to ensure effective climate protection,” he said in a statement. “I hope that the voice of NGOs will remain present in the discussion on how to solve the most important problems of our planet.”

The groups that walked out vowed they would be back at next year’s talks in Peru. "We are now focusing on mobilising people to push our governments to take leadership for serious climate action," they said in a statement. "We will return … in Lima to hold our governments accountable to the vision of a sustainable and just future."

(Additional reporting by Michael Szabo)

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