Features | Environment

Lima: Climate Change Optimism Returns to Earth

After the positive feeling of the U.S.-China climate deal, a return to the realities of multilateral negotiations.

Lima: Climate Change Optimism Returns to Earth
Credit: REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil

The Lima Climate Change Conference (COP20), held under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), concluded in the early hours of Sunday morning, when agreement was finally reached on a five-page text officially known as the “Lima Call for Climate Action.” The nations of the world had begun the conference riding a wave of optimism as the recently announced U.S.-China climate deal raised hopes that it would spur the rest of the world to action. However, the positive feelings quickly faded and it became clear that the old political divisions between the developed and developing world largely remained, meaning that many challenges still need to be overcome before the crucial conference (COP21) at Paris next year.

There were several points of contention during negotiations: the Like Minded Developing Countries bloc led by China and India pushed for greater differentiation – the principle enshrined in the UNFCCC agreed in 1992, which dictates that developed and developing countries have different responsibilities based on historic emissions – and strong financial commitments; the Small Island States bloc pushed for “loss and damage” to be included as a stand-alone measure, as they seek compensation for the damaging effects of climate change; and developed countries pushed for a review of prospective emissions cuts pledges to enhance accountability. Following agreement of the text, each group could claim some degree of success, as the final text included passages that touched upon each issue, striking a balance between the various groups. Reaction to the agreement ranged from Christina Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework on Climate Change, citing a fresh wave of positivity, to the WWF claiming the optimism prior to Lima had been misplaced, given a lackluster plan.

The principle of differentiation has always dominated climate change meetings. China’s recent pledge to peak emissions around 2030 as part of the bilateral deal with the U.S. was seen a move away from the rigidity of the developed/developing split. In the negotiating chamber however, little had changed as China backed India’s calls for more references to differentiation in the text and the removal of a passage that suggested some developing countries could also contribute towards mitigation efforts. The principle of differentiated responsibility was included in the text but it is followed by the statement “in light of different national circumstances,” reflecting the political reality of India and China’s increasing carbon emissions (in terms of total cumulative emissions, China ranks third behind the U.S. and EU, while India ranks eighth). This opens up the possibility that the developed/developing barrier will become less pronounced over the course of the next 12 months, although Todd Stern, the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, acknowledged that it is likely to remain an issue at COP21 next year.

The issue of finance was prominent, it has been on the agenda since COP15 in Copenhagen when developed countries expressed a commitment to mobilize $30 billion/year from 2010-2012, rising to $100 billion/year by 2020. This was developed into a more formal pledge at COP16 when $100 billion/year was once again committed in addition to the development of the Green Climate Fund (GCF), designed to redistribute money from developed to developing countries to assist with mitigation and adaptation efforts. The final text from Lima “urges” developed countries to “provide enhanced financial support,” despite the efforts of the Africa Group to include explicit mention of a roadmap for scaling up financial contributions to $100 billion/year. In the run-up to the Lima conference, the issue of finance was raised regularly, as the Green Climate Fund became operational earlier this year, allowing it to accept financial pledges, which total $10 billion to date. Financial support was also a key aspect of the UN climate summit held in New York in September. A joint statement following the BASIC meeting on climate change in August reiterated the importance of properly capitalizing the GCF as well as coming up with a clear roadmap for financial support. Although the Lima text doesn’t provide this, it does keep finance firmly on the agenda and developed countries will be in no doubt as to the importance of this issue to developing countries.

In addition to the above financial commitments, the concept of “loss and damage” – commonly interpreted as meaning “liability and compensation” – raises the possibility of further financial output for developed countries, putting them at loggerheads with the small islands whose very existence is threatened by rising sea levels. The small islands such as Tuvalu and Marshall Islands always draw significant support from campaigners, as their precarious situations result in them pushing for strong measures. “Loss and damage” was eventually awarded a mention in the preamble of the text that the leader of Tuvalu felt comfortable with. This represented a step forward from a previous draft which completely excluded it, but developed countries will also be comfortable with the lack of commitment stated in the text.

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A lack of commitment was also evident in the debate over reviews of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), emissions reduction pledges by individual nations based on capacity and responsibility. It is looking increasingly likely that any climate deal at COP21 will be a patchwork of INDCs. Developed countries pushed for a review before Paris which would have included a technical paper determining the aggregate effect of the proposed INDCs resulting in suggested recommendations. India rejected this on the basis that it compromised sovereignty, China also rejected the idea of a review prior to the Paris meeting for similar reasons. This led to a final text that doesn’t make it mandatory for countries to provide detailed information about their proposed reduction targets. The Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Marshall Islands, Tony de Brum, expressed his dismay to RTCC at the lack of a comprehensive review: “Without an assessment process, how else can the world’s most climate-vulnerable people trust that we are on track towards our below 1.5 or 2-degree goal?” The comment resonated with the protesters that took to the streets in Lima.

Despite concerns over a lack of substance, agreeing on a text maintains some degree of momentum and avoids the despair that would have resulted if a document had not been adopted, as some predicted before the end of the conference. The conference at Lima was important; however, it is considered a stepping stone towards Paris. Now that areas of division have been highlighted, there is still time for countries to try and build bridges so that an effective climate deal can be agreed next year.

Moving on from Lima, substantial challenges remain. Speaking with The Diplomat, Tom Burke, chairman of E3G, said that diplomacy should be the priority in the coming months to try and prevent the inward approach that results from negotiators coming to meetings with strict instructions from their capitals. Germany’s environment minister Barbara Hendricks also said in a statement that she hopes bilateral meetings can help overcome stumbling blocks before Paris. The legal framework for a Paris deal remains an outstanding issue, there is no roadmap for financial flows to developing countries, and the overarching problem of agreeing on responsibility will continue.

Initiatives outside the UNFCCC process, such as China’s recent launch of an international climate fund to assist developing countries in tackling climate change suggests a willingness on Beijing’s part to act, which has been largely absent within climate change meetings. Advances in the deployment of renewable energy technologies, which China and India have both shown interest in, also suggests that there is potential for meaningful action that can boost confidence prior to Paris. E3G’s Burke highlighted the importance of overcoming political barriers that might hinder the implementation of renewable energy, noting that there is potential for an orderly transition to an economy driven by renewable energy as the technology is there. Looking at the wider picture, the transition to a green economy will be vital, but the importance of the UNFCCC process cannot be understated in generating momentum and creating a consensus to tackle carbon emissions.

The Lima conference highlighted similar divisions to previous meetings and concluded with a text that struck a balance without resolving the main issues. INDCs are expected to be submitted before the middle of next year, strong statements from China and India would ease the path to Paris, as would greater commitments from OECD countries regarding climate finance. Upcoming UNFCCC meetings in February, March and June 2015 represent crucial steps between Lima and Paris, providing an opportunity to make inroads into outstanding issues – leaving them unresolved until Paris will place too much pressure on one conference, making it highly unlikely that an effective climate deal will ever be delivered.

Stephen Junor writes on the rise of BRICS and geopolitics.