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Climate-Change Confab

UN talks in Warsaw chart a course for completion in 2015 of a global deal to limit greenhouse gas emissions

by Cheryl Hogue
November 11, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 45

Credit: Artur Malinowski/Flickr
Global talks on a new UN climate-change treaty are taking place in Poland’s National Stadium, in Warsaw.
Photo of the National Stadium in Warsaw, Poland.
Credit: Artur Malinowski/Flickr
Global talks on a new UN climate-change treaty are taking place in Poland’s National Stadium, in Warsaw.

At a United Nations conference that begins today in Warsaw, negotiators will start to shape a climate-change treaty they hope to finish in two years. That new pact, which has the backing of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is to include commitments from all countries to control their greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2020.

The two-week session in the Polish capital is focused on large issues that will set the stage for working out details such as how much countries will cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

The Warsaw gathering isn’t getting the attention that some previous climate-change talks have, especially the failed attempt to complete a treaty in Copenhagen in 2009. Procedural maneuvering and shifting alliances among countries trammeled and nearly sank the Copenhagen talks. A handful of world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, dashed off to the Danish capital, met privately, and cut a nonbinding deal that didn’t specify numbers for emission reductions.

But the Copenhagen agreement represented a major step forward in climate-change diplomacy by establishing a global goal: restraining human-induced average global temperature increase to 2 °C above preindustrial levels by 2100.

That goal is driving the new climate talks. Governments in Warsaw are figuring out how they can shape, by the end of 2015, an agreement to achieve it, says Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. One of the issues before them involves crediting governments with emission-cutting efforts now under way, including energy efficiency improvements that reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel-generated electricity, says Christiana Figueres, the UN’s top climate-change official.

The global chemical industry sees the UN talks’ emphasis on energy efficiency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a key business opportunity. The International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA), an organization of trade groups, issued a report that explores ways for businesses to assess and get credit for avoiding releases of greenhouse gas emissions through the use of energy-efficient practices and materials. At the Warsaw conference, ICCA representatives are sharing information about how innovation by the global chemical industry can help the world reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“There are many areas where our technologies are vital,” says Russel Mills, Dow Chemical’s global director of energy and climate policy as well as vice chair of ICCA’s energy and climate leadership group. Examples include high-performance building insulation, catalysts that reduce the need for energy in chemical processes, and components of energy-efficient light-emitting diodes, he says.

Mills tells C&EN, “I hope we can demonstrate to those who doubt our industry that we do want to get seriously engaged in advancing solutions.”

The availability and effectiveness of technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions factor in strongly as countries pave the way toward the new treaty. Governments have agreed that each will propose how much it would limit greenhouse gas emissions under the planned climate pact.

The ability of nations to set their own greenhouse gas limits represents a major shift in international climate negotiations, says Jennifer Morgan, director of climate and energy for the World Resources Institute, an international research organization. In contrast, the two existing global-warming pacts, the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 1997 Kyoto protocol, obliged industrialized nations—but not developing countries—to cut their emissions. And these agreements set a single emission-cutting level and deadline for the entire industrialized world.

Credit: Sarah Fretwell/UN Photo
A photo of Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Credit: Sarah Fretwell/UN Photo

Governments are also raising questions in Warsaw about how emission-control pledges would play out under the new treaty, Meyer says. Some—including India—are suggesting that industrialized countries’ commitments should be legally binding while those of developing countries should be voluntary, he says. U.S. negotiators insist that the treaty must be legally binding for all nations.

Negotiators are also discussing when and how they would review the collective emission-cutting offers countries make and determine whether these are likely to keep average global temperature from rising less than 2 °C by the end of the century, Morgan says. The reviews are important because emissions and atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases continue to rise worldwide. This means the scope of emission cuts needed to maintain the maximum 2 °C warming goal has grown since 2010, according to estimates by the UN Environment Programme (see page 22).

Credit: Amanda Voisard/UN Photo
A photo of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Credit: Amanda Voisard/UN Photo

The talks in Warsaw are also focusing on countries that expect to bear the brunt of human-induced global warming despite efforts to curtail or prevent it, Meyer says. They include small island nations, such as Seychelles, Fiji, and the Bahamas, that are likely to be at least partially inundated by rising sea levels due to thermal expansion of the oceans. Others are African countries, many of which are predicted to experience worsening drought as average global temperature creeps up. These nations want the new treaty to include international financial assistance to help them cope with climate-change-related loss and damages.

But U.S. negotiators oppose this proposal, viewing it as an open-ended compensation-and-liability scheme, Meyer says. The U.S. is responsible for the largest portion of the greenhouse gas emissions pumped into the atmosphere through human activities since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Thus, the U.S. might get fingered for much of the liability for anthropogenic global warming if the world were to adopt such a system, he says.

The Warsaw talks are scheduled to end on Nov. 22. The next step toward the new treaty will take place in September 2014 at UN headquarters in New York City. There, Ban will host a climate summit. He hopes this confab of world leaders will help ensure successful completion of the treaty in 2015 at a meeting in Paris.

Ban held a similar summit just one week before the Copenhagen meeting. But this time, he has changed his strategy somewhat by inviting captains of industry, financial institutions, and activist groups to hold discussions in conjunction with the summit in an attempt to beef up interest in and political pressure for the ultimate goal of a signed treaty. And by calling together world leaders more than a year in advance of the Paris conference, he is seeking strong backing from the top levels of governments well before the talks get down to the wire.

“I challenge you to bring to the summit bold pledges,” Ban said in September when he invited leaders to next year’s gathering. “A low-carbon path beckons—a path that can create jobs and improve public health while safeguarding the environment.”

The summit will take place a few weeks before the 2014 UN climate conference, which will be held in Lima, Peru. There, negotiators are supposed to complete a draft version of the new climate-change treaty. In Lima, countries are expected to start offering their individual commitments for controlling their greenhouse gas emissions. Talks throughout 2015 are to focus on refining that draft so it can be completed in Paris at the end of that year.

The climate talks are likely to grow more heated as the Paris meeting draws near. Mills of Dow and ICCA calls the UN climate talks “a painful, slow-motion process” yet one that is essential to peacefully addressing a global threat. Figueres, the UN climate-change official, holds out hope that negotiators will successfully complete the journey in Paris. “Humanity must, can, and will work together to avoid the worst effects of climate change,” she says.


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