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The Warsaw aftermath: Can this process succeed?

I am now back in Ottawa, resuming the normal duties of trying to amend government legislation that undermines various aspects of the Canada we love -- criminal justice, labour laws, harm reduction, and so on -- but the events of the week in Warsaw are much with me.

The 19th Conference of the Parties of the climate convention managed to advance the process only minimally. The hoped-for injection of urgency from the Philippine delegation's brave call to greater commitment, fell on deaf ears. Nevertheless, here is a quick and dirty (emphasis on the "dirty") summary of COP19 decisions:

1. Forests: The most positive developments were in the area of land use and forest cover. That negotiation track is called "REDD" for "reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation." REDD has been under negotiation for years, but COP19 adopted REDD+ which is being heralded as an effective means to arrest deforestation by creating clear rules for developing countries to receive financial help for protecting forests. Earlier in the negotiations, the U.K., Norway, the U.S. and Germany agreed to put $280 million in a World Bank Biocarbon fund to assist developing countries. The final COP19 decision makes real progress in establishing a results-based system before any country can get the money. Forests are carbon sinks so deforestation increasing global warming. More forest cover is essential in avoiding a 2 degree global average temperature increase.

2. Loss and Damage: The poorer countries succeeded in keeping this agenda item, originally put on the agenda last year at COP18 in Doha, on the rails as a separate item (not absorbed into adaptation). The U.S. had rejected the whole concept, calling it "blame and liability," but the parties agreed to create a Warsaw Mechanism to address the issue -- with details to wait until after 2015.

3. Finance: The 2009 offer in Copenhagen from rich countries, $100 billion a year by 2020, has transited rather sharply from public relations ploy to albatross around their necks. They managed to avoid taking any firmer pledge than to commit that the amounts would be there by 2020.

4. Cutting GHG emissions: This is the over-arching and critical question and we moved farther from it, rather than closer. At COP18 last year, both Australia and Japan were on board for meaningful reductions. By COP19, Australia went off-side (and rogue) due to the election of the pro-coal government of Tony Abbott, while Japan went backward, reneging on its pledge due to the impacts of the earthquake and tsunami. The media is covering the change of the word “contributions” from "commitments." The big polluters (U.S., EU, Canada etc) were unwilling to have language that treated countries in different circumstances differently from each other, thus we end up with "contributions."

5. Beyond the specific, "better than nothing" decisions of the COP, we have a fundamental problem. The disaster that was Copenhagen is still casting its shadow on these talks. Environmental groups and most of civil society have tuned out, just when we need to tune in. By December 2015 at COP21 we are supposed to have a new legally binding, global agreement, including all countries, moving to reductions to avoid exceeding a 2 degree C global average temperature increase. The only way to make that happen is to have much deeper cuts, much sooner pledged by all the industrialized countries. The screamingly obvious point is that the process lacks leadership. And that leadership must come from the wealthiest countries, those best placed to commit to a complete transition away from fossil fuels. As the negotiator for the Gambia put it, speaking on behalf of the African bloc, "Without leaders, there will be no followers."

And the stakes couldn't be higher. Some country delegations spoke passionately of the threat. The representative for Colombia said, "We are calling for a world with less than 1.5 degrees... the reality is we are heading for a 4 degree world or higher. The year we are aiming at is 2015. If we want to stay away from a 4 degree world, we have to act."

It is easy to criticize the UN multilateral system of being incapable of closing the gap between the real threat of global warming and the political "realities" that have allowed more than two decades of procrastination. The difficulty is that, short of a spontaneous technologically driven shift away from fossil fuels (still possible, but too risky to bet our lives on), we need this process to work. And for the process to work, we need to re-engage global civil society, so that the next COP, December 2014 in Lima Peru, will be held in the bright light of public awareness and demands for action -- and not in a grey and smoky shadow land of a forgotten and unloved process.

We need to find a way to do two things simultaneously: create the public awareness to mobilize pressure and media awareness of the rapidly closing window on climate action to avoid 2 degrees, and, we need to develop innovative approaches with greater chances of success within the treaty. We are running out of time; let us not run out of courage.

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