Many having given up on the international process delivering solutions to climate change, and eyes are turning to national solutions to fill the void.
But travel upstairs to the ‘national pavilions' located at the top of the stadium, where individual countries hosted events and showcased their climate actions, and the mood couldn't be more different. The Chinese pavilion was exuberantly showcasing their regional emissions trading schemes. The Americans were trumpeting the new emissions standards for power plants. In the EU pavilion, individual member states were announcing new financial contributions to fighting climate change and deforestation left and right.
The divergence in moods from upstairs to downstairs in Warsaw was enigmatic of the direction international climate change talks are now going in. After the dramatic collapse of the Copenhagen summit in 2009, there has been a retreat from the idea that climate change is going to be fought through international action. The talk has shifted to ‘voluntary national measures' loosely coordinated at UN level.
It was this new world of national action that Todd Stern, chief negotiator for the United States, referred to again and again during the talks. “There is a role that international agreements have in addressing climate change,” he said during the talks. “But you can't ever forget that the most important locus of action on climate change is at the national level.”
“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,” says Adam Mathews or the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE), a cooperation group of national parliaments.
“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 following a change in government.”
This possibility was realised during the Warsaw summit, when both Japan and Australia confirmed they will renege on previous emissions reduction commitments for 2020. There is an increasing consensus that binding international pledges can never be truly binding, and they don't guarantee results.
But what is the alternative? Can countries be trusted to design their own climate action? That is the framework which was agreed in Warsaw. Countries will come forward with voluntary contributions. The UN parties will examine all the inputs and see if it will get the world to a total emissions reduction that will keep warming to below two degrees by 2050, the level scientists say would result in catastrophic climate change. If it's not enough, countries will have to work together to fill the gap – but in a voluntary way.
But it is uncertain whether this loose coordination approach will get the job done. What's more worrying is that this trend toward national action seems to be seeping into the EU. More and more national capitals are expressing scepticism at the idea of renewing EU-wide targets for renewables and energy efficiency. There is an increasing call for the EU's package of action for 2030, to be put forward by the Commission in January, to enable flexibility for member states to pursue their own routes.
But Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for climate action, cautioned against this approach today. “There is now a tendency in the debate that each member state could decide for themselves, and energy planning could stop at the borders,” she told a meeting in Brussels. "What Europe needs is not less Europeanised energy thinking, we need more."
It could be that countries in Europe are drawing the wrong lessons from the shift in thinking at the UNFCCC.