Cold comfort in Warsaw

Jonathan Grant takes stock of COP19, including an unusually high profile for coal at a climate summit…..

A few years back the thought of having a big coal event at the annual climate negotiations, including a keynote speech by the head of the climate convention would certainly raise some eyebrows.

The fact that it has happened, sums up a lot about this COP in Warsaw.

It symbolises how these talks are being shaped more by pragmatism, trade offs and awkward compromises than visionary goals.

There are still the usual urgent calls for more ambition on finance and emissions, (and many are making the immediate and unscientific link between Haiyan and climate change), but even these are being tempered by the reality of outside events.

In Warsaw the debate and mood is quite different from other summits. Some of that's likely to be the calm-before-the-storm of the 2015 summit. The other aspect is that people - policy advisors and makers, business, even consumers - increasingly recognise that there are more and more trade offs appearing between growth, finance, energy, natural resources, and the environment. The debate in the UK on energy efficiency initiatives, and energy pricing; Japan's decision on emissions reduction: in the short term, jobs and growth are winning, the environment is not.

For all the negative reaction to Japan's revision to its target, it simply reflects the fact that many countries and companies are making short term decisions in response to immediate issues of jobs, growth and energy security. We may look back and rue some decisions. But there are glimmers of the long term ambition and understanding of the shifts to a low carbon economy, demonstrated by elements of the UK’s legally binding climate act, or its agreement to end support for public financing of new coal-fired power plants overseas, or more widely, the energy policies of South Africa, or Germany in support of renewables.

There is a sense of low ambition in the talks. There's less of the starry-eyed vision of what we could achieve, and a lot more talk of realism, and compromise. Hearing Christian Figureres' speech on how we can live with coal, is about pragmatism, even if some of the suggested options were not entirely practical. What's more worrying though is a disconnect between the climate negotiations and the reality of the scale of change needed to keep within the IPCC's two degree carbon budget.

Side events at the COP talk of the trade-offs that are going to have to appear between finance and goal setting for 2015, for example. It's not just weariness with the process, it’s pragmatism taking over.

Developing countries want more tangible commitments on climate finance before they agree to a deal, but even if the Green Climate Fund pledges are not enough they might still accept a meaningful agenda for discussion in 2014. Meaningful could mean a host of things - my guess would be some prioritisation of key issues for negotiation, acting as the gateway to the 2015 deal, such as when countries would submit their emissions reduction targets. But there is still the 'nothing is agreed until everything is agreed' attitude which threaten to scupper the negotiations.

Talk of a Warsaw Work Plan, providing an agenda for 2014, that would then be agreed in time for a deal to be done in 2015 is doable, and would prioritise key issues for next year's talks in Lima. But it won't be the progress many want on finance and emission targets. On current trends we will use up the two degree budget by 2034. That's just in 21 years! 21 years ago Bill Clinton was elected US President, the Rio Earth Summit gave birth to the Climate Convention, Agassi won Wimbledon, and the UK economic recovery was uncertain. Times goes by quick, other than at negotiations it seems.

Follow PwC's updates @pwcclimateready
For more information, comment or interview, contact Rowena Mearley + 44 7841 563 180