The future of our planet is far too important to be left just to our politicians

By Dr Simon Buckle

Two years to go and counting down. That’s the real significance of COP19, the Warsaw Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which runs from 11-22 November. A new universal climate agreement effective from 2020 is what is at stake, and Warsaw is a step on the path.

The COP21 meeting in Paris at the end of 2015 will hopefully be the successful culmination of many years’ of hard work by the UNFCCC Secretariat, government climate negotiators and many, many others. It’s time for governments to act on the words they agreed in the IPCC Summary for Policy Makers launched on 27 September – namely that substantial and sustained reductions in emissions are required to limit climate risks.  No doubt this is a point Ban Ki-Moon will make at his planned high-level Climate Summit in September 2014.

So how important is the Warsaw COP in this packed schedule to Paris? According to Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC Secretariat based in Bonn, the meeting is “a pivotal moment to advance international climate action and showcase a growing momentum to address climate change at all levels of society”.  That’s why there’s a Business Forum and a “Cities Day”.  There is also a Gender Day to showcase women’s role in meeting the climate challenge – a very welcome initiative since the differential impacts on distinct societal groups with contrasting interests and values is at the core of how we decide to respond – or not – to climate change.

Climate change is a critical issue for business, and business has to be part of the solution.  Companies realise that they can both become more profitable and improve business resilience by taking climate change and energy efficiency seriously.  We need to scale up these efforts significantly to limit the risks from climate change. The car industry is a good example of where European emissions regulation has encouraged innovation to reduce emissions.  However, businesses often have shareholders as well as customers and there is only so much they can do without a clear policy framework, a meaningful carbon price to capture the damage emissions do to others and adequate incentives for innovation and investment in clean technologies and new businesses, rather than in the old economy.

There is also a growing recognition that there are clear benefits, even in the short-term, from tackling climate change, including greater energy security.  Cities as key concentrators of human, financial and physical capital and resource use are at the forefront of efforts to make the transition to a lower impact and more resilient way of life. In rural areas, renewable technologies can play a valuable role in extending energy access for poor people in developing countries – a role that will grow as technologies get better and cheaper.

But Warsaw has to be about more than just showcasing what could be if we really tried.  To create the political conditions for an ambitious and effective mitigation agreement in 2015 covering all the major emitters, there’s a huge amount of hard work still to be done.  Warsaw can contribute by helping mobilise governments to deliver an ambitious and effective climate agreement in Paris in 2015.  Well before the end of next year, we need all the major emitting economies to have put on the negotiating table national commitments to significant and verifiable emissions reductions beyond 2020, with the degree of effort tailored to particular national circumstances.  This is not like the Kyoto Protocol. Emissions reductions are needed from developing as well as developed economies; the climate doesn’t care where the emissions come from.

Of course, vulnerable, developing economies will need help to make the transition to low-carbon, resilient economies. So a successful outcome in Paris depends on the quantity and quality of financial, technological and adaptation support that the UNFCCC institutions can mobilise for these countries.  Warsaw will hopefully take decisions to make the Green Climate Fund, the Technology Mechanism and the Adaptation Committee fully operational.  But institutions are not enough in themselves.  The developed economies have to deliver on their promises of additional financing. Clarity on plans to scale up finance to 2020 will be critical to success in Paris in 2015.

The great advantage of the UN process in tackling climate change is that it brings together over 190 countries with very diverse capacities and perspectives in a sustained effort to create an effective global response to climate change.  The voices of the poor and vulnerable can be effective in putting moral pressure on the rich.  The UNFCCC process should help us avoid a situation where the climate risks faced by the majority are determined by the decisions of the few.

This strength is of course also the UNFCCC’s Achilles Heel.  International agreements cannot bind national governments if they don’t want to be bound.  So whatever is agreed at Paris can only be as ambitious as countries judge is in their own interest, taking account of what others are doing in their self interest.  This is why there have been persistent calls for “bottom-up” approaches. While focused groupings, like the Major Economies Forum, can make a valuable contribution to the process, we need the UN process to keep up the pressure and also to provide an independent mechanism for monitoring, reporting and verifying countries’ emissions reductions.

As we’ve seen with the national pledges made after the Copenhagen COP, an agreement in Paris that is based purely on what countries want to do is unlikely to meet the scale of the challenge. Time is short, perhaps 50 years to make the transition to a much lower carbon world.  This is why the UNFCCC is absolutely right to seek to involve a much wider range of non-governmental actors in the discussions at Warsaw and beyond, to try and raise the level of ambition and to redefine what is feasible.

The future of our planet is far too important to be left just to our politicians.


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