Global Environmental Politics

Master's Degree Programs in Global Environmental Policy and in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development

Sikina Jinnah: UNFCCC COP19 – Less than necessary

D10_176_384 – By Sikina Jinnah, Ph.D.

As expected, the November 2013 19th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) delivered less than necessary. Long standing deadlocks between key countries, such as the United States and China, continue to impede the ability of negotiators to take on meaningful mitigation commitments. Meanwhile, glaciers continue to melt, severe weather events becoming increasingly strong and frequent, and rising sea levels create existential crises for low lying states and other coastal communities. Nothing made this dichotomy between needs and deliverables more stark than the arrival of Typhoon Haiyan, the largest storm to ever reach landfall, in the Philippines just days before CoP19, causing thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in damage.

By means of brief background, the UNFCCC is in the process of figuring out what comes next. The second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol will come to a close in 2020. Accordingly, states have set a deadline of December 2015 to decide what they will collectively do to address climate change in the post-2020 period.  Among the most contentious questions going into CoP19 were: how ambitious will states’ future mitigation commitments be?; how will adaptation funding be delivered?; and will fledgling discussions about loss and damage deliver support for those hardest hit by climate change impacts?

Although CoP19 did not make any giant leaps in any of these directions, it did make some incremental progress (again…). On mitigation, for example, states that are “ready to do so” agreed to submit bottom-up  (i.e. nationally determined) pledges by the first quarter of 2015. This decision leaves critical questions of ambition and distribution unanswered. It does not ensure that such bottom-up pledges, when considered in the aggregate, will maintain emissions below 2 degrees Celsius, nor does it clarify how the post-2020 agreement will be “applicable to all” as promised in the 2012 Durban Platform.

On climate finance, states pledged $100 million for the UNFCCC’s Adaptation Fund, and operationalized the Green Climate Fund. These decisions are important in that they bring states closer to their collective goal of $100 billion in climate finance by 2020. However, like the mitigation decision, these decisions also leave important questions unanswered, such as how these funds will mobilized and adequately scaled-up to reach the ambitious long-term finance goal.

Perhaps the most interesting political movement, even if relatively empty on substance, was CoP19’s decision on loss and damage. Resisted by developed countries for many years, CoP19 picked up on last year’s initial discussion on this topic, by creating an institutional mechanism (the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage) to compensate communities that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Importantly, and sadly, this decision differentiates adaption finance from finance for loss and damage, making clear that the latter refers to compensation for climate impacts that cannot be adapted to. Again the devil remains in the details.

Finally, CoP19 made some long awaiting progress on REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation). The decision set up some institutional arrangements and steers REDD+ away from the market-based approach as originally envisioned towards a fund-based approach (for more on this topic see ENB’s CoP19 report:

This meager largely procedural progress raises the question: why bother? Why sink so much time, money, energy, and hope into a process that year after year fails to deliver meaningful results?

Incremental progress is not enough to avoid the dangerous anthropogenic impacts of climate change that scientists warn are coming and/or are already here in some places. Look out for my forthcoming publication on this topic, entitled “Why Govern the Climate?” in 2014. We will post an announcement and full citation here when that comes out.

Author: sisgep

The Global Environmental Politics program in the School of International Service at American University offers a unique, specialized, and world-leading graduate environmental studies education. We have two degree tracks: Global Environmental Policy (GEP), and our dual-degree Natural Resources and Sustainable Development (NRSD) option with the UN-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. Join us!

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