11/25/2013 09:15 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Warsaw Climate Talks -- So Bad U.S. Looked Good


You know the UN climate talks are going badly when the U.S. negotiators appear to gain credibility. And so, major environmental, labor, youth, and other civil society organizations, including some involved in the negotiations since the beginning, decided to walk out of the negotiations in Warsaw. This is the first time Greenpeace has ever walked out of the talks.

We had some idea the climate conference in Warsaw might be co-opted by the fossil fuel industry when the Polish government organized a coal summit to take place concurrently. This year the climate conference itself was underwritten by the coal industry. The Polish economy can transition away from coal dependence. But it didn't help when Christiana Figureres, the Secreteriat for the UN climate negotiations, agreed to be the coal summit's keynote speaker. Her speech was fine, but her presence emboldened polluters.

In a spectacular action at the Polish Ministry of Economy last week, Greenpeace activists greeted participants as they entered the building where the polluter summit was held. Other groups and hundreds of protesters also organized to confront the global coal industry.

No one really expected the Warsaw negotiations to include landmark political or legal decisions. But there is a lot of work to do in the next two years before finalizing a climate treaty in Paris. We expected that at least a few important steps be achieved so the work doesn't pile up.

For example, governments needed to agree on details for when they would announce post-2020 pollution targets. Will pollution reduction deadlines be 2025 or 2030? Will the targets apply to economy-wide emissions? Will the targets include all greenhouse gases, and protection of carbon sinks like forests? Will governments allow enough time for civil society experts to provide input before finalizing in 2015? If governments were sincere about what they agreed in Doha and in Durban we should see all targets on the table in 2014, economy-wide, including all gases for a cap in 2025. These criteria are part of ensuring that all the targets together jive with what climate scientists say is absolutely necessary for avoiding climate chaos.

We also should have seen some movement on rich country obligations to provide finance to help developing countries. They already committed $100 billion per year by 2020 for dealing with ongoing climate impacts like more severe, more frequent typhoons and sea level rise. This commitment was made in 2009. In Warsaw, governments refused to provide details on how and when this money would be provided, never mind who would provide how much.

As it turned out, the Polish Premier wasn't alone in thinking he could get away with totally ignoring the desire of his voters who want the country to support renewable energy instead of climate-polluting fossil fuels.

Instead of announcing strong post-2020 targets, governments actually came to Poland to communicate a weakening of existing commitments. The Japanese government announced it would no longer reduce 25 percent of its pollution. It also changed the year from which it would reduce pollution -- from 1990 to 2005. This allows Japan's new minus 3.8 percent target to look less pitiful on paper. Obama led the way on this base-year switch his first year in office, hoping people would not notice that climate pollution rose quite a bit from 1990 to 2005. In effect, the U.S. target of 17 percent is actually 4 percent under 1990, and Japan now aims to increase its emissions 3.1 percent. Japan was joining Australia and Canada in backsliding on climate commitments.

Seemingly in an attempt to to show contrition, the Japanese government was one of the few to offer any new commitments on climate finance for poor countries. The $16 billion is in public and private climate finance for developing countries by 2015. The private finance 'commitment' facade has also been spearheaded by Obama's team.

Here's one way private finance commitments work according to the U.S. negotiator description at a press conference in Warsaw: the State Department re-allocates $20 million from the existing budget towards the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) to facilitate scoping on loans to U.S. companies for projects in Africa. These loans the U.S. estimates could be as much as $500 million, and the projects would inspire ('leverage' is the word they like to use) another $500 million in private sector spending relevant to the project. So, like magic, without any new money being spent at all, the U.S. can say it committed over $1 billion. At least, when it comes to institutions like OPIC, the U.S. is not likely to finance coal projects overseas anymore. Japan's pubic/private climate finance commitment is an embarrassing sideshow if they don't do the same, since one of Japan's OPIC counterpart spent $19.6 billion since 2007 on coal projects. Jake Schmidt at NRDC did some great analysis on this.

Obama's team sat comfortably in Warsaw watching the show they helped produce. A supposed 'leak' of instructions from Washington conveniently validated the negotiators in Warsaw by confirming everything they had already said -- the U.S. aims to keep ambition theoretical and hard action minimal. And they will keep sabotaging any notion of internationally legally binding obligations. None of this being new, it got little attention during these climate talks.

After the civil society walkout of the Warsaw negotiations, the government hosts of the next two conferences in Peru and France requested a meeting with us. It is clear the Warsaw negotiations will get no green stamp, but as bad as Warsaw was I don't want to know what the climate negotiations would eventually look like if we let polluter lobbyists take our place. So, volveremos. We will definitely be back next year in Peru.