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Post-Warsaw, Why We Must Now Redouble Efforts to Secure a Global Climate Deal by 2015

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The latest UN climate summit finally finished with an agreement on Sunday. The talks dragged on for almost two extra days in what seems to be an annual ritual of overrunning to create the necessary last minute focus and tension that can deliver the required outcome.

But where is the process now and what was really achieved?

The negotiations were held in Warsaw under the uninspiring presidency of the Polish government. Logistically, the Polish did a superb job with the venue, the new national football stadium.

But political leadership was seriously lacking. Indeed, the Polish Prime Minister felt that with the international community on his door at an event chaired by his environment minister, it was the right moment to demote him in a reshuffle. Aside from convening a coal summit in the margins of the negotiations, the Poles did not invest sufficient time to build the political relationships that Mexico did so successfully when it reset the international climate negotiations after the failure in Copenhagen in 2009.

This summit was never billed as critical to deliver any major breakthroughs. Indeed, the most important role was to ensure that the show remained on the road leading to the UN Secretary General's Leaders Summit to be held in September 2014.

It is hoped that high level political impetus can now be injected into the formal negotiations at this September summit with the next UN climate summit meeting in Lima, Peru at the end of 2014, before finally the crucial meeting in Paris at the end of 2015. On this basic objective, the Warsaw negotiations succeeded and this sequence of international summits is in place to allow a historic agreement to be potentially reached in Paris, before entering into force in 2020.

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough in Warsaw related to the international mechanism intended to address deforestation - known as Redd (Reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation). Perhaps prompted by the upturn in international rates of deforestation after years of decline - in particular in the Amazon - and ten years of technical work, an agreement was reached on the fundamentals of how this system will work.

This is a key outcome that paves the way for forests to be part of the international climate agreement in 2015. When one considers that emissions from deforestation contribute more than the entire global transport system, this development is of critical importance. However, for such a mechanism to work in practice, much greater focus is now required at the national level to create the national legal and regulatory structures needed to translate the international agreement into meaningful application.

There was also progress on the issue of loss and damage, where countries in the front line of climate change impacts argued for a compensation mechanism that would provide immediate financing following a climate-related extreme weather event. With the catastrophic impact of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines readily on negotiators minds, this had the potential to be an area of real unity or, as it transpired for much of the two weeks, real divergence.

As some anticipated, serious divisions emerged between developed and developing countries. Ultimately, agreement was reached to begin establishing a mechanism and process to address loss and damage. Developed nations fought strongly against what they saw as an 'open cheque book' for unpredictable and unquantifiable costs. However, sufficient consensus was achieved to kick the can sufficiently down the road.

Serious disagreements came in the main negotiations for the future architecture of an international agreement and the nature of commitments to be covered. The main deal, after a marathon 36 hours of horse-trading, was that the emissions goals, to come into force from 2020, will be set at a national level.

There would however be an opportunity following their publication for other countries to scrutinise them and assess whether they were fair and sufficiently ambitious. As a result of a concession in the negotiations to a small but highly vocal group of developing countries the language was changed from 'commitments' to 'contributions'.

All countries are now expected to come forward by the first quarter of 2015 with their contributions. This should allow sufficient time during the remainder of 2015 to assess the likelihood that the offerings on the table will meet the already made commitments to keep global average temperature rises below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Warsaw revealed some serious divisions amongst groups of countries, and the language used became ever more heated. Indeed, the negotiations may well have raised the curtain on what will be some very difficult discussions when countries come forward with their 'contributions' from the end of next year.

What is clear, but not yet fully appreciated, is that the role of national climate change legislation will play a major part in the final post-2020 agreement. The growing recognition of what countries like Mexico and China are doing/planning to do through their own national laws will have a massive bearing on the seriousness of the national 'contributions' that countries will make.

If a country passes credible national legislation setting out a domestic path of emission reductions and implementation measures, there is growing recognition that this is 'stronger' than international commitments that can potentially be overturned overnight following a change of government. The priority for governments must therefore be to invest the time, effort and resources in the processes that can support countries to advance national laws, thus creating the conditions for success in Paris in 2015.