As most will have seen from various media reports, delegates to COP 19 in Warsaw continued negotiating the outcome until late Saturday night. The key sticking points were “loss and damage” and the shape of national actions that would ultimately form the foundation of the 2015 deal (for implementation post 2020).

The agreement from the Doha COP (3/CP.18) to create a mechanism for “loss and damage” related to climate change was delivered on, but probably fell far short of what many developing country negotiators were hoping for. Those at the extreme of this may have been interpreting it as a formula to assess the climate component of national reparations from a given event or weather trend and then bill emitters accordingly, but this is not how the problem was addressed by the negotiators in Warsaw. Rather, the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage establishes an advisory and information sharing body with an executive committee that must report annually to SBSTA and SBI and make recommendations. At least for now, this issue has been kicked into the long grass, but it will return in 2016 when it is subject to review at COP 22.

As noted, the second major sticking point was over the nature of national mitigation actions post 2020. The agreed text seeks to have these tabled in the next 18 months, i.e. by Q1 2015. Specifically the text says:

To invite all  Parties to initiate or intensify domestic preparations for their intended  nationally determined contributions,  without prejudice to the  legal nature of the contributions, in the context  of adopting a  protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2 and to communicate them well in advance of the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (by the first quarter of 2015 by those  Parties ready to do so) in a  manner that facilitates  the clarity, transparency and understanding of the intended contributions, without prejudice to the legal nature of the contributions;

Reaffirming the mandate agreed in Durban which aims to see all countries treating mitigation similarly, the negotiators landed on the wording “prepare contributions”, rather than some countries being asked for specific reduction targets or commitments and others for appropriate (to their development status) actions. The latter would have been a retreat back towards the strict developed / developing country division of the Kyoto Protocol, so this wording is a positive development in that sense.

But the compromise word of “contribution” has its own issues and is not the same as “commitments”. The two words have very different meanings;

Commitment: the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity, etc., or, an engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action. 

Contribution: a gift or payment to a common fund or collection (e.g. the part played by a person or thing in bringing about a result or helping something to advance).

What the world has settled on is essentially a voluntary role for nations as this is the essence of a contribution, rather than the obligation that arises from a commitment. Perhaps we all knew this, but it is now becoming clear that nobody has any particular requirement to do anything with regards mitigation. It is certainly looking unlikely that this choice of wording is preparing nations for what is necessary if they are indeed going to achieve the objective of the Convention as set out in Article 2:

. . . . stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.

While there is certain to be a long argument at some point about the exact level of stabilization that is necessary, the above statement nevertheless requires that anthropogenic emissions are eventually reduced to about zero (or at least net zero), in that without such a reduction stabilization is not really possible. It is also likely to be the case that this needs to happen during this century so as to avoid an excessive global temperature excursion and therefore dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system (the official line here is of course 2°C, which implies net zero emissions rather sooner than the end of this century, but still in the second half).

A further aspect of the intended global agreement is that while it currently lacks any structure, it will seemingly require contributions now that eventually deliver on the needs of the Convention (although the 2015 outcome will probably only cover the period 2020-2030).  In theory and if negotiators followed this line of argument, it would give nations only one variable left to play with in determining said contributions, that being the date at which they intend to reach net zero emissions. Statements of this magnitude hardly fall into the category of voluntary efforts, rather they become national obligations that may well restrict freedom of action in the future, at least at a national level. That sounds very much like a commitment.

It could therefore be argued that the frantic last hours of a long COP that started out with very low expectations have delivered a challenging legal paradox. Of course it will be unraveled by a focus on the word “towards”, in that it implies a 2015 agreement that doesn’t require a statement of zero emissions now, but at least a pathway that eventually gets there. But this is meant to be a global agreement for the long term, not another interim step towards real action. Whether or not the 2015 agreement embraces a concept such as “net zero emissions” remains to be seen, but if it does then it is hard to see that “contributions” will be a robust approach to getting there. If it doesn’t embrace the concept then it won’t be the global agreement the world actually needs, which means that “contributions” will probably do for now but stabilization of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will continue to remain elusive.