The stakes are high at this year’s international climate negotiations in Warsaw, Poland (COP 19). The recently released Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed that the world is on course to use up its “carbon budget” and exceed 2 degrees C of global temperature rise within the next 30 years. A new United Nations report shows a significant “emissions gap” between the global climate action we’re seeing and the amount needed to prevent 2 degrees of warming. And just yesterday, the World Meteorological Organization announced that atmospheric CO2 rose to a record high in 2012. These environmental changes set the stage for worsening climate impacts, including greater sea level rise, forest fires, and coral bleaching, among others.

It’s critical that these negative signs inspire positive action at COP 19. Negotiators should arrive with a fire in their bellies for finding global solutions. It is vital that they get down to business on designing the international climate action agreement, including actually constructing the pathway needed to reach this agreement by 2015.

“Constructing” the 2015 International Climate Agreement

Two years ago in Durban, South Africa, countries agreed to establish an international climate action agreement by 2015 that would be applicable to all countries, with the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5-2 °C above pre-industrial levels. These kind of new agreements do not emerge overnight, but rather require progress to take place each year along the way.

In that sense, this year’s COP should be thought of as a “construction COP,” where the road is being laid to reach the 2015 international agreement at COP 21 in Paris. That pathway includes a number of key milestones and timelines that will need to be met before 2015 in order to secure a strong agreement.
Making headway on this goal will require making progress across five key issues during the Warsaw negotiations, including:

1) Architecture and Process for an International Climate Agreement:

How to design the architecture for the new agreement and the process leading up to it will be a central discussion in Warsaw. It is an enormously complex challenge to get all nations of the world to agree to a common way forward.

A new approach to the negotiations is emerging, aimed at creating an international process that catalyzes change at the national level around the world. This approach would take countries’ “national offers” on how they will reduce their respective emissions and blend them with an effective international process and regime. Offers would be reviewed (and revised) based on benchmarks for global emissions reductions and equity concerns. Final “offers” from this process would be underpinned by an agreement with binding, international rules on issues like transparency.

To be effective, this process will likely have to be iterative, with countries continuing to tweak their respective offers until all of the plans add up to an overall emissions reduction that keeps global temperature rise below 2 degrees C. And the agreement will need a strong ‘ratcheting’ mechanism for the period after 2015 to ensure that countries continue to increase their reductions over time.

Warsaw will be about developing this architecture, and determining exactly how it should be carried out. WRI recently published an options paper outlining some of the key issues associated with this process.

2) Equity:

Based on the negotiating mandate adopted in Durban, the 2015 agreement will apply to all countries—it is no longer possible to keep developed and developing countries in two entirely separate cabins. As a result, addressing equity among the wide range of countries in the UNFCCC has become an essential issue for the negotiations. This includes complex questions about which countries should be responsible for taking what types of action, as well as how to factor in the vulnerability of those who often face the harshest climate impacts but who have contributed least to the problem.

How equity will be built into the process leading to the 2015 agreement is a key question for Warsaw, especially in terms of national offers and assessments. This includes the issue of how benchmarks for equity will be determined and how they will be used when countries propose offers and when those offers are reviewed.

3) Finance:

Climate finance discussions will be central to laying the groundwork for the 2015 agreement. Specifically, countries must discuss how to move toward the goal of mobilizing $100 billion in climate finance annually by 2020, and establish what types of reporting and transparency mechanisms they will use. How and when countries plan to mobilize resources for the emerging Green Climate Fund (GCF) will also be a significant issue, especially now that the GCF has laid out a schedule for completing its essential framework and initiating a pledging process by September 2014. There will also be discussion of the overall balance of funding for adaptation and mitigation, which is currently weighted heavily towards mitigation.

4) Loss and Damage:

An important question is how the international community will address the needs of communities who will be harmed by climate impacts that are difficult or impossible to adapt to. In many cases, these impacts will be experienced several decades from now (including submersion of island nations, loss of coastal land and communities, loss of biodiversity and crop varieties, etc.). This issue, referred to as loss and damage, rose on the agenda of the negotiations at the very end of COP 18 last year in Doha, when countries agreed to adopt institutional arrangements on loss and damage this year at COP 19. Discussions at Warsaw will revolve around creating strategies to address the harm caused by long-term climate impacts.

5) Measurement, Reporting and Verification (MRV) and Accountability:

The process to reach ambitious and fair commitments by 2015 must be underpinned by rules and guidance to ensure that countries prepare their negotiating offers transparently and with some degree of comparability. Countries can also reach an agreement in Warsaw on how to implement the verification pillar of MRV (measurement, reporting and verification) for developing countries, known as International Consultation and Analysis (ICA). ICA involves assessments of developing countries’ biennial reports on their mitigation actions and financial support received. Agreement on how to carry out ICA can be reached in Warsaw, but an outcome will depend on developing countries seeing the verification and assessment exercise as an opportunity for more effective cooperation.

Taking Immediate Action Before 2015

These issues are key ones in laying the foundation for the 2015 agreement. But it’s also important that countries capitalize on opportunities now—even before a new global agreement is established.

Any country or group of countries can come forward with emissions-reduction proposals now, an important confidence-building step as decision-makers look toward reaching the 2015 deal. For example, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) has put forward a proposal on renewable energy and energy efficiency. These approaches make sense both for addressing climate change and for responding to development and economic needs around the world. There’s no need for AOSIS to wait on moving forward with this initiative. Countries should make it clear—now—that they are serious about efforts to take climate action.

Moving Forward with International Climate Action

Warsaw can get started on emissions-reductions plans that can be implemented now. But ultimately, a long-term approach and a durable international agreement for tackling climate change are needed.

Constructing this new global agreement will not happen overnight—it must be a well-planned, iterative process. The discussions at Warsaw represent a critical step along the way. We need progress at COP 19 to ensure that the 2015 agreement is built on a strong foundation.