WARSAW – After another U.N. climate conference gave only modest results, European Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard says the process needs to provide a “substantial answer” to global warming in two years to remain relevant.
Even if it succeeds, it’s worth reconsidering whether the international confabs need to be held every year, and whether the scope of each session should be narrower, Hedegaard said Sunday.
“Maybe it would be time now to think if there should be themes for the conferences so that not each conference is about everything,” she said in a telephone interview.
In two decades, the U.N. talks have failed to provide a cure to the world’s fever. Heat-trapping carbon emissions that scientists say are warming the planet are growing each year as most countries still depend on coal and oil to fuel their economies.
Besides those emissions, the U.N. talks deal with a range of complex issues, including monitoring and verification of climate actions, accounting rules, and helping developing countries cope with sea level rise, desertification and other climate impacts as they transition to clean energy.
The two-week session that ended Saturday in Warsaw nearly collapsed in overtime before agreements were watered down to a point where no country was promising anything concrete.
On the final day, sleep-deprived delegates spent hours wrangling over the wording of paragraphs and bickering over procedure, like when Venezuela questioned why the U.S. got to speak before Fiji in the plenary.
As the gavel dropped, negotiators emerged with a vague road map on how to prepare for a global climate pact they’re supposed to adopt in two years — work Hedegaard said will be crucial in answering whether the world still needs the U.N. process.
“I think that it has to deliver a substantial answer to climate change in 2015,” Hedegaard said. “If it fails to do so, then I think this critical question will be asked by many more.”
Many climate initiatives are happening far from the U.N. negotiations as local and national governments pursue low-carbon energy sources and energy efficiency. Even international efforts are increasingly taking place outside the U.N. climate framework.
Governments are working together to slash funding for coal projects, reduce soot and other short-lived climate pollutants and to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels.
China and the U.S. — the world’s two biggest carbon polluters — this year agreed to work jointly on energy efficiency, carbon capture technology and other mitigation projects.
“This was a missed opportunity to set the world on a path to a global climate deal in 2015, with progress painfully slow,” said Mohamed Adow, a climate change adviser at Christian Aid. “We need a clear plan to fairly divide the global effort of responding to climate change and a timeline of when that will happen.”
To avoid the brinksmanship of the U.N. negotiations, many countries, both developed and developing, want to stop the fast rise of potent greenhouse gases called HFCs using another treaty that essentially eliminated the use of ozone-depleting chemicals.
Some observers couldn’t help noting that the Warsaw talks were held in a soccer stadium where delegates were literally moving around in circles.
“It is hard to resist that as a metaphor” for the U.N. process, said Nathaniel Keohane, vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund and a former special assistant on climate and energy to President Barack Obama.
The Warsaw talks advanced a program to reduce deforestation in developing countries but made only marginal progress on building the framework for a deal in Paris in 2015. Key issues like its legal form and how it will differentiate between the commitments of developed and developing remain unresolved.
“If we go to Paris and say we didn’t completely get this done I think . . . the world will draw the conclusion you really cannot trust the U.N. to deliver on this process,” said Jake Schmidt, a climate expert at the Natural Resource Defense Council.
Asked about the point of the U.N. talks, U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern said “it’s important to have an international agreement to provide confidence to other countries that if they are ready to step forward and take action, that their partners, their competitors, others are doing the same thing.”
Still, he said international action won’t do the job in reducing the use of fossil fuels and increasing energy efficiency. “We all know that any policies that do those things fundamentally happen at the national level,” Stern said.
Jennifer Morgan, of the World Resources Institute, praised national actions from expanding solar power in Germany to new wind farms in Brazil but said they’re not enough.
U.N. studies show global emissions need to peak in 2020 and then start falling to stabilize warming at 2 degrees, a level countries hope will avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
“The U.N. is the one place where all countries come together and everyone has a voice,” Morgan said. “World leaders simply need to set their sights higher and empower their teams to engage in a more constructive way. Without much greater ambition and action, we will soon be headed to a far more turbulent and dangerous world.”