WARSAW – Avoiding a last-minute breakdown, annual U.N. climate talks limped forward Saturday with a modest set of decisions meant to pave the way for a new pact to fight global warming.
More than 190 countries agreed in Warsaw to start preparing “contributions” for the new deal, which is supposed to be adopted in 2015.
That term was adopted after China and India objected to the word “commitments” in a standoff with the U.S. and other developed countries.
The fast-growing economies say they are still developing countries and shouldn’t have to take on as strict commitments to cut carbon emissions as industrialized nations.
“In the nick of time, negotiators in Warsaw delivered just enough to keep things moving,” said Jennifer Morgan, of the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.
The conference also advanced a program to reduce deforestation and established a “loss and damage” mechanism to help island states and other vulnerable countries under threat from rising seas and extreme weather potential climate calamities.
The wording was vague enough to make rich countries feel comfortable that they weren’t going to be held liable for climate catastrophes in the developing world.
The U.S. and other rich countries also resisted demands to put down firm commitments on how they plan to fulfill a pledge to scale up climate financing to developing countries to $100 billion by 2020.
That money is meant to help developing countries transition to cleaner energy sources and adapt to shifts in climate that can affect agriculture, human health and economies in general.
“I think we had a good outcome in the end. It was quite a tough negotiation,” U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern said.
The U.N. climate talks were launched two decades ago after scientists warned that humans were warming the planet by pumping carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, primarily through the burning of fossil fuels. So far they’ve failed to reduce those emissions.
Historically, most emissions have come from the industrialized nations, but the developing world is catching up fast, driven by rapid growth in major countries including India, Brazil and China — the world’s top carbon polluter.
Though China has invested heavily in renewable sources, it’s reluctant to promise emissions cuts internationally because it still gets almost 70 percent of its energy from coal, which produces the highest emissions of all fuels.
The talks were paralyzed for hours Saturday until China and India dropped demands for a reference to an article in the 1992 U.N. convention on climate change that says only developed countries are required to make commitments to cut emissions.
Western countries want to get rid of that “firewall” in the new climate deal, which countries have agreed should be applicable to all.
“In my understanding the firewall exists and it will continue to exist,” Indian Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan said, indicating the issue is far from resolved.
The Warsaw conference called on parties to announce their offers to rein in or cut emissions by the first quarter of 2015 if they are “in a position to do so.” But it gave little detail on what kind of information should go into those offers.
“Unfortunately, they failed to agree on what process and criteria they would use to evaluate the adequacy and fairness of each other’s proposed actions,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
It also remains unclear what legal form the agreement should take.
Environmental activists, many of whom walked out of the talks in protest on Thursday, called the conference a failure for failing to deliver strong commitments to address climate change, and pointed to Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation in the Philippines as a sign of urgency.
A single typhoon or hurricane cannot be conclusively linked to climate change but rising sea levels can make storm surges stronger.
“Negotiators in Warsaw should have used this meeting to take a big and critical step towards global, just action on climate change. That didn’t happen,” said Samantha Smith, a climate activist at the World Wildlife Fund. “This has placed the negotiations towards a global agreement in 2015 at risk.”