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Climate going into a time warp

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For the first time ever, environmental groups staged a mass walkout of the United Nations climate summit on Thursday. Citing immense frustration with the lack of productive action in the COP19 climate talks, which were dogged by a persistent rift between rich and poor countries on the responsibility of paying for climate damages, hundreds of people from dozens of environmental groups and movements from all corners of the Earth withdrew from the talks.

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The delegates were protesting against the low ambition of the conference, the influence of dirty energy and the lack of new financing.

China led 132 countries in a similar walk-out the day before in protest against the lack of progress on funding for loss and damage. This was the argument at the core of the previous 18 such annual meetings — the poor countries wanted the rich world to pay for current and future environmental damage from climate change. Their argument was that mostly Western countries are responsible for the majority of global greenhouse gas emissions, so should take responsibility for the environmental damage caused.

The lack of expectations meant COP 19 started with little hype and great concern that host country Poland generates 90% of its energy from coal. The country was holding a conference on coal at the same time as the climate talks.

What little hope there was stemmed from the Durban Platform agreement thrashed out in the early hours the day after COP17 concluded in 2011? It sets out the process by which all parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will commit to a new, legally binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The global agreement has to be agreed on by 2015 and in force by 2020, which made it imperative that delegates thrash out a large part of the draft version this year for consideration at next year’s COP 20 in Lima, Peru.

Participants in the walkout — which included members and organisers from Oxfam, Greenpeace International, 350.org, WWF International, the International Trade Union Confederation, ActionAid International, Friends of the Earth Europe, and dozens of other groups large and small from around the world — assembled just after lunchtime outside the main food court in the National Stadium that was hosting the meetings.

Their message was “enough is enough”.

It was powerful to see groups from across civil society coming to the same conclusion that in order to keep open any hope of an international climate treaty, we need to challenge the power of the fossil fuel industry. By walking out of COP19, they showed they were walking into a fight with the real enemies to progress — the coal, oil and gas firms that have a stranglehold over governments and economy.

It is indeed time to stop sitting in negotiating halls and stand with the majority poor bearing the brunt of the changing climate in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

Following the walk out, it was time for parties to do some soul searching and when the Warsaw Summit closed late on Saturday evening, the parties came up with some agreement after a last-ditch deal was reached on plans for a loss and damage mechanism designed to help developing nations cope with climate change impacts.

Forty-eight hours of tense negotiations including a stand-off between the US and poor nations culminated in a compromise deal that set out a timeline for discussions in the run-up to the Paris Summit in 2015 and commits countries to a new loss and damage mechanism.

“Warsaw has set a pathway for governments to work on a draft text of a new universal climate agreement so it appears on the table at the next UN climate change conference in Peru,” said Marcin Korolec, who presided over the talks on behalf of the Polish government.“This is an essential step to reach a final agreement in Paris in 2015.”

The so-called “Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage” will from next year commit developed nations to providing expertise and potentially aid to countries hit by climate-related impacts.

A Filipino diplomat Yeb Sano, who had been on hunger strike for the past fortnight in protest at the lack of action, successfully argued that the new institution should sit outside of rather than “under” an existing UN scheme dealing with adaptation.

But, the vague wording fell short of the kind of detailed commitments on additional funding and avoided a commitment to compensation that many developing nations had been seeking.

UNFCCC head Christiana Figueres said: “Let us again be clear that we are witnessing ever more frequent, extreme weather events and the poor and vulnerable are paying the price.”

Traditionally, the host country has had to lock delegates in a room on the last night to force an agreement so that it can say some success has been achieved.

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