When Loss and Damage is as good as it gets (reflections on Warsaw)

You know you’re in trouble when – the Warsaw international mechanism on “loss and damage” is as good as it gets. The climate negotiations the ended last week in the Polish capital launched a mechanism. Loss and Damage (L&D) is what happens when you can no longer adapt to impacts. The damages of typhoon Haiyan were a striking reminder how extreme events can lead to irreparable losses. And in the final hours, well beyond finishing time, negotiators did agree a mechanism (see a detailed account by Martin Khor here).

But they agreed no substantial finance at the ‘implementation COP’. And with two years to go to Paris, the roadmap to the 2015 Agreement is clear as mud. Frustration with the lack of progress caused many NGOs to walk out in the second week.

The big new agreement is to be developed in the ADP. Major battles prevented significant progress from being captured. One battle is whether commitments will be “nationally determined”, or negotiated multi-laterally. The final decision places more emphasis on national processes for determining – what are now called “contributions”. Some think that this is politically more pragmatic, will broaden participation – but will it enhance ambition? (see a piece by Elliot Diringer).

While potentially a creative term – that can reflect not only mitigation, but also adaptation and finance obligations – it lacks the legal clarity of commitments. Precisely this point was reiterated in the final decision, repeating several times that contributions are “without prejudice to legal form”.  I find the slide from commitments to contributions disappointing: that with more clarity on national processes, we cannot agree clarity that they will deliver commitments.

And the ADP only agreed half of what is needed. It did agree to “identify the information that Parties will provide when putting forward their contribution” – without of course prejudicing legal form – but stopped short of specifying such information. Together with refusal in the SBSTA and SBI work programmes to agree common accounting rules, this is worrying for the future of the multi-lateral rules-based system. While this was affirmed in Durban, the appetite for defining rules seems rhetorical, not firm political will to agree.

And rules are not sufficient on their own; it is also necessary for ambition for country to compare their commitments (or ‘contributions’).  Several countries and groups  – including South Africa, the Africa Group, LDCs – had called for an equity- or principle-based reference framework (see one approach, by Xolisa Ngwadla, here). Even softer language on assessing contributions in relation to science (“do all the contributions add up to enough?”) and equity (“are the relative efforts fairly distributed?”) were not acceptable.  Notably to India – ironically, since Minister Natarajan had been the most prominent defender of equity in Durban. Now, India takes issue with an ERF, saying that it forecloses options – though it is unclear to me by what analysis India would be expected to do more than keep its per capita emissions below those of developed countries. The argument seems to reduce equity to developed country leadership, meaning closing the entire mitigation ambition gap (for an analysis on why it may not be putting forward any compelling alternative vision on equity, see an article in The Hindu here). While the ERF was always intended to be a reference, it may have to be developed later or more informally. With Japan and Australia joining the low-ambition club (along with old members Canada, see here, and the US), some assessment to ratchet up ambition is surely needed.

Warsaw, in the mean-time, set up no explicit multi-lateral assessment process of any kind; there is – as yet – no review in “pledge and review”. It just about leaves open the door with a reference to presenting information “in a manner that facilitates the clarity, transparency and understanding of the intended contributions”.

The ADP, at this mid-way COP, was also unable to resolve the big political question: How differentiation will be applied in a regime applicable to all  (see an article with Lavanya Rajamani on this topic here).  That is unsurprising, this highly political matter will probably only be settled in Paris. The new co-Chairs of that group did well to table an Annex, which was a first sight of the elements of the 2015 agreement. But like many other issues, was lost in the final night.

A mechanism on Loss and Damage (L&D) was an important success. The Warsaw COP agreed to establish a L&D mechanism. It is to address loss and damage from extreme weather and slow onset events in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts. Functions will include enhancing knowledge, action and support for L&D. The Executive Committee will be drawn from existing institutions for adaptation, finance, technology, for LDCs and the CGE.  The mechanism is  “under” the Cancun Adaptation Framework, but this will be reviewed in 2016. It does create an institution, and leaves open the options for risk management – but leaves open the contested issue whether L&D will deliver finance in addition to adaptation, or not.

Right now, that is somewhat academic, as there is no roadmap on long-term finance. While seven decisions were taken on finance, no serious money was on the table. Many developed countries, including Australia, seek to redefine the system whereby developed countries provide finance, and developing countries receive. Developing countries expressed frustration that the commitment by developed country leaders to “jointly mobilise” $100 billion shows little sign of being fulfilled. Calls for a roadmap, via $70 billion before 2020, were not heeded. The only relief in the financial gloom was having US$100 million for the Adaptation Fund, which was at risk of collapse since its revenue from carbon credits had decreased dramatically. And in principle agreement on ‘results-based finance’ for REDD+. But nothing could take away that pledges from developed countries were counted in the millions, not billions. The Green Climate Fund, established three years ago, is still waiting for its initial capitalisation.

Many other issues were deferred. Under the Kyoto Protocol, most of the world agreed how the famous Article 3.7 ter from Doha might be reported transparently. However, a last minute ultimatum by the Ukraine, supported by Russia and Belarus, meant text forward to the next SBI session in Bonn.

One fairly unnoticed achievement was the completion of the rules on transparency. A large set of processes (IAR, ICA, BRs, BURs to aficionados) were agreed in Durban. Warsaw completed a revision of review guidelines for Annex I national communications; details of technical teams of experts under international consultation and analysis; and general guidelines for domestic MRV by developing countries. With the first biennial reports due 1 Jan 2014 and updates by developing countries 31 Dec next year, that cycle can now commence.

So we are in trouble, with the greatest achievement of Warsaw probably being Loss and Damage. Several NGOs walked out of the conference buildings in the second week. It was a sign of frustration and got a good degree of media attention. It was, however, also divisive within civil society. More productive may be efforts to connect the actions of NGO’s outside of the process (such as protests against the nearby coal conference) with those on the inside.

Is the process not working? As one NGO activist said to me, “it’s Parties that are not working”. At least not nearly fast enough, urgently enough – nor working together very well.  We all will have to find better ways of doing things, and doing less talking and more action.