Contentious UN Climate Change Summit In Warsaw Makes Sluggish Progress

Environmental groups and trade union walked out of the summit in frustration

By Rhonda J. Miller on November 24, 2013 11:48 AM EST

United Nations Climate Change Summit 2013
The United Nations conference on climate change, the Conference of the Parties 19, met in Warsaw, Poland in November. (Photo: UNClimateSummit / Rhonda J. Miller)

Bickering, walkouts and deadlocks marked the two-week-long United Nations climate summit in Warsaw, Poland — also known as the Conference of the Parties 19 or COP19 — which ended Nov. 23. UN climate summit leaders declared the conference a success, while some environmental groups deemed the progress insufficient. Financial, economic and political complexities remain related to how rich nations and developing nations will take steps reduce global warming.

"There were three major issues that had to be delivered here in Warsaw. One was climate finance, one was a much more clear path toward the 2014 and 2015 COPs and, of course, loss and damage," United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Christiana Figeures said in a media briefing at the close of the conference. Loss and damage deals with the mechanism that provides financial support and compensation to countries facing the impacts of severe climate events.

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"This COP has managed to deliver on all three, in addition to many other issues," said Figueres, at the same time acknowledging that success in addressing climate change is measured in phases.

"What is important to underscore is that as successful as this COP was, because I think it exceeded many expectations, it is not possible to solve climate change with one meeting, with one COP, with one negotiation," said Figueres. "It is imperative that every single one of these climate talks, of which we have one a year, is very firm step forward in the right direction... and this was definitely a very firm step forward toward Lima and Paris."

The Warsaw summit put the UN climate change conference on track toward future summits to be held in Lima, Peru in 2014 and in Paris in 2015, where the goal is for nations to reach a binding pact on greenhouse gas emissions, she said.

Figueres said, however, that progress at the Warsaw summit "... does not put us on track for a 2 degree world."

Some scientists have said limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, which is 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, would avert the worst impacts of climate change. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has called for that limit of 2 degrees Celsius.

"How do you balance the urgency of the science and the boundaries that science imposes on us with respect to greenhouse gas emissions?" said Figueres. "How do you balance that with an international policy evolution process that is necessarily a gradual and progressive process and not one magical solution overnight?"

If the efforts of thousands of representatives from more than 190 nations attending the Warsaw summit are any indication, "gradual" could mean a very long time.

About 800 people representing environmental groups, trade unions and social movements — including Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, Oxfam and Friends of the Earth — walked out in frustration during the climate summit, according to The Guardian..

"Movements representing people from every corner of the Earth have decided that the best use of our time is to voluntarily withdraw from the Warsaw climate talks. This will be the first time ever that there has been a mass withdrawal from a COP," said a World Wildlife Fund spokesman, The Guardian reported.

"Warsaw, which should have been an important step in the just transition to a sustainable future, is on track to deliver virtually nothing. We feel that governments have given up on the process," said the WWF spokesman.

"The Polish government has done its best to turn these talks into a showcase for the coal industry. Along with backsliding by Japan, Australia and Canada, and the lack of meaningful leadership from other countries, governments here have delivered a slap in the face to those suffering as a result of dangerous climate change," said Kumi Naidoo, director of Greenpeace International.

Hoda Baraka, global communications director for 350, said the groups were walking out because lobbying from fossil fuel companies was impeding progress at the talks.

Among the accomplishments in Warsaw were a set of decisions on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and the degradation of forests. The agreement on the so-called REDD+ initiative is backed by pledges of $280 million in financing from the U.S., Norway and Britain, according to a statement released by the conference, reported Xinhua, the press agency of the People's Republic of China.

"I am proud of this concrete accomplishment," said Marcin Korolec, who represented Poland and presided over the climate talks. "We are all aware of the central role that forests play as carbon sinks, climate stabilizers, and biodiversity havens."

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