Disappointment at the Warsaw Summit was understandable, but the direction of travel is still towards ambitious climate action
It is that time of year again. The global environmental movement now faces the annual sense of crushing ennui that comes with the fallout from another faltering and flawed international climate change summit. It's like listening to a Leonard Cohen album remixed by Joy Division. Actually, that sounds quite good; it's like listening to a Leonard Cohen album remixed by Katy Perry – it really is that depressing.
Warsaw followed the template perfectly. Months of increasingly grave warnings about the scale of the climate impacts the world is already facing were released in the run up to the conference –warnings that were made horrifyingly real by the Philippines typhoon. Ministers from around the world acknowledged these warnings, stressed how severe climate risks now are, and then singularly failed to deliver any commitments that could reasonably be described as commensurate to the scale of the threat. You can see why NGOs walked out; you can see why Filipino diplomat Yeb Sano felt moved to hunger strike; you can see why even normally optimistic economists and business leaders were heard to warn that progress is not being made nearly fast enough.
Ministers tried to put a positive spin on things, talking of "essential progress" and "key objectives" being met, but even their reactions felt muted. Reading between the lines of the various carefully worded reactions, you could see a recurring question: if it's this difficult to get an agreement on a timetable for negotiation that was basically already agreed last year, what hope an ambitious international treaty that reshapes national economies and distributes $100bn of financing?
However, to those lamenting the lack of real progress in Warsaw there is another question: what did you expect?
The scientific warnings and the deadly fall-out from the Philippines typhoon may demand immediate and urgent action, but, ever since the Durban Summit of 2011 restored some optimism to the UN negotiations and set out a roadmap towards agreeing a new treaty in Paris in 2015, the intervening COP summits have been relegated to the status of staging posts. Diplomats and observers can argue all they like about the critical need to make progress, but the setting of a deadline, while critical for focusing minds and political attention, has the downside of allowing each and every difficult decision to be kicked down the road to Paris.
Set against this yardstick, the Warsaw Summit was, if not a full-blown success, certainly a reasonable accomplishment. The show has been kept on the road and most nations have agreed to do their 'homework' ahead of the Paris Summit; hopes for an international agreement remain alive.
Inevitably, any sense of optimism needs to be set against a whole fleet of caveats. The one thing that unites virtually every measure discussed in Warsaw – whether the topic is finance, emissions reduction or technology deployment – is that they fall well short of the scale and pace of action needed to decarbonise the global economy. The roadmap to Paris includes a deeply worrying extension through to 2020 when the finalised treaty is scheduled to be signed, raising the prospect of tough decisions being again kicked down the road for another five years. And, most importantly, the diplomatic stand-off in Warsaw again served to crystallise the tension and distrust between some rich and poor nations.
Like any good political deadlock it looks irreconcilable, with both sides of the debate making a compelling case. On one side emerging economies and developing nations continue to argue, with complete justification, that rich nations are not doing nearly enough to shoulder their historic responsibility for climate change by delivering deeper emissions cuts and more generous climate financing. Why should poorer countries be expected to deliver emissions reductions from an already low base, when the likes of Japan, Australia and Canada are happy to tear up their climate commitments? On the other side, the US, EU and others argue that China, India and the Middle East petro-states cannot indefinitely duck making any firm climate commitments, particularly when with every year that passes their soaring emissions just cancel out the emissions savings many industrialised nations are making.
However, these challenges, while serious, do not completely overshadow the progress delivered in Warsaw. And if the diplomatic stand-off may at times look irresolvable, international circumstances can, and do, change – as evidenced by this week's breakthrough on Iran's nuclear programme.
The Warsaw Summit confirmed that by early 2015 many of the world's largest and most influential economies will set out the 'contributions' they plan to make towards tackling climate change. We also know that the US and EU had wanted countries to make 'commitments' rather than 'contributions', suggesting they could yet make some pretty bold and legally sound pledges to slash emissions through the 2020s. Moreover, China may have insisted on a text containing softer language, but it was at pains to use the Warsaw Summit to highlight its commitment to new carbon markets and soaring levels of clean tech investment.
The final text leaves way too much wriggle room for recalcitrant states to dodge making any meaningful pledges to decarbonise, and scientists will rightly continue to warn the pledges that will be made will not go far enough. But all the indications are that the world's largest economies want to deliver a new suite of climate policies for the 2020s that will be designed to build on the progress already being made on cleaner vehicles, lower-carbon energy, deforestation and climate adaptation.
The carbon bubble hypothesis, and its warning that fossil fuel assets could be left stranded by a wave of clean technologies and climate change legislation, looks even more prescient post-Warsaw than it did before the summit. Investors and business leaders should take note.
Some form of climate deal in Paris remains a possibility and we are starting to get a sense of what such an agreement could look like: ambitious emissions reduction targets from industrialised nations; similarly ambitious emissions management pledges from developing countries; a major Green Climate Fund part funded by developed nations and part funded by global carbon pricing mechanisms; concerted action on climate adaptation, technology transfer and deforestation; and some form of loss and damage agreement that recognises the need to help nations facing the most severe climate impacts, while also recognising that no individual country is directly liable for those impacts.
Inevitably, such an agreement would require the easing of centuries-old geo-political tensions, a comprehensive U-turn by some climate-sceptic governments and a degree of progressive enlightenment never previously displayed by certain petro-states. As such, at this stage the odds on a genuinely ambitious Paris deal remain long. And yet, even if an agreement backed by every country in the world is hard to envisage, a looser deal based on increasingly aggressive climate action from the likes of the EU, US, China, Brazil, South Africa and numerous other nations remains a distinct and encouraging possibility.
For green businesses and progressive investors this is good news. Despite five years of media misinformation and unarguable setbacks from countries such as Australia and Canada, there is still significant political appetite for cost-effective clean technologies and ambitious action to curb greenhouse emissions. If businesses can demonstrate over the next seven years that decarbonisation can be delivered without compromising living standards then some form of international climate treaty that helps to correct market failures and makes it easier to roll out clean technologies remains a distinct possibility. The direction of travel is clear. As savvy investors are fast realising the political and policy risk faced by carbon-intensive technologies is starting to outstrip the political and policy risk faced by clean technologies.
And even if the Warsaw Summit did not deliver the scale of ambition that is needed, those businesses and NGOs committed to building a green economy would be wise to couple their justified criticism of the slow progress with a vocal reminder to their peers that ambitious climate policies are still being planned. No media outlet chose to run with headlines from Warsaw trumpeting how the US committed to delivering a new climate plan by early 2015, how all of the biggest EU states underlined their commitment to delivering remarkably deep cuts in emissions by 2030, or how China confirmed the roll out of its first seven carbon markets – but that is exactly what happened in Poland.
Paris 2015 will not solve the climate crisis. We will still face immense and daunting environmental challenges regardless of what happens; a treaty will not, on its own, stop one tonne of carbon being emitted. But with political progress edging forward and cost-effective clean technologies making waves, the environmental movement could yet end up with some reasons to be cheerful during the second half of this decade. We may even need a new soundtrack for the annual late-November blues – Katy Perry remixed by Leonard Cohen perhaps?