Lima Climate Talks End in Deal, but Path to Treaty Is Uncertain

The documents finally drafted at the overtime Lima talks were too full of ifs, ands and buts to be considered a landmark accomplishment.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, at the Lima climate change talks. Credit: UNclimatechange

LIMA, Peru—A few hours before dawn poured over the Andes Mountains on Sunday, exhausted diplomats from 190 nations finally reached an uneasy compromise after a grueling and highly contentious round of United Nations climate negotiations.

Somehow, they managed to keep open a route, however uncertain, toward a new climate treaty that they want to complete in Paris a year from now.

"Like all texts, it is not perfect," acknowledged Peru's Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, who as the president of COP20, the 20th conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, had spent the last few days herding the deeply divided delegates toward a shaky consensus.

Climate advocates, who had come to Peru optimistically after China, the United States, and the European Union had all announced plans this autumn for significant climate actions, left town relieved that the whole enterprise didn't fall apart.

But they were disappointed with its scope.

The Union of Concerned Scientists called the deal "the bare minimum needed." Oxfam International said, "the decisions made in Lima do not foreclose the possibility an agreement in Paris, but do little to improve the odds of success."

The draft, which incorporates the main elements of a proposed treaty, doesn't bind anyone to emissions cuts just yet. It's a working paper that contains many options, and will provide the basis for further talks starting early next year.

But it does call on nations to submit pledges for climate action in the months ahead, so that before the Paris talks begin next December specialists can assess whether countries' intended actions would result in cuts deep enough to head off the worst effects of climate change.

Preserving that path ahead was a messy process even by the unruly standards of the UNFCCC, the framework under which the world's nations have labored for decades to head off a climate crisis that threatens them all.

The documents finally drafted here were too full of ifs, ands and buts to be considered a landmark accomplishment.

Some provisions were so watered down as to be essentially toothless.

Take, for example, the convoluted description of information that each country is supposed to offer during the coming year to outline its own contribution to the fight against global warming.

These pledges, known in the jargon as Individual Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs, are at the very heart of the Paris process. They will be collected early in order to ascertain whether a new treaty can put the world on the right track by 2020, when the Paris accord would take force.

Because current pledges, and those likely to come this year, are understood to be inadequate, the Paris treaty is intended to create mechanisms to ratchet down emissions ever more tightly during the next few decades.

But the very notion of universally binding pledges, let alone their verification, gave a fright to less developed countries, which until now have been exempt from mandatory actions to rein in emissions.

So in the Lima deal, the specifications for these pledges were anything but crisp or concise.

"In order to facilitate clarity, transparency and understanding," the approved draft reads, a nation's pledge "may include, as appropriate, inter alia, quantifiable information on the reference point (including, as appropriate, a base year), time frames and/or periods for implementation, scope and coverage, planning processes, assumptions and methodological approaches including those for estimating and accounting for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and, as appropriate, removals, and how the Party considers that its intended nationally determined contribution is fair and ambitious, in light of its national circumstances."

With one "inter alia," three "as appropriates," an "and/or" plus an "in light of," this is a formula for getting away with just about anything—even for increasing emissions, if a country is growing fast.

Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund who follows the talks closely, observed that the emerging text seemed to show "an overwhelming desire to keep everyone on board."

The toughest issues, he said, were being left for later.

Major Stumbling Block

The unresolved questions include how to balance the central goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions with the costly effort to adapt to the climate change already locked in from past emissions; how to pay for developing countries' climate action; and whether the rich, which have been the source of most of the pollution so far, ought to pay for climate damages and losses being inflicted on the poor.

Also dropped was any requirement that each of the pledges made in the coming year be formally assessed before the Paris talks. Instead, all the pledges will be made public on the Internet, so outsiders can hold them up to scrutiny. But the only formal assessment will be a "synthesis" report, which will add the pledges up and decide whether they are collectively adequate.

All in all, said Mohamed Adow, senior climate adviser at Christian Aid, "Working out how to fairly share the workload of tackling climate change between developed and developing countries has become the major stumbling block on the road to Paris."  

That was plain as delegates from developing countries refused to accept the initial draft presented to the group as the initial Friday deadline came and went.

"Many of you colonized us," the delegate from Malaysia said, explaining the depth of resentment at what they were being asked to do.

With only a few exceptions, developing nations insisted that they could not approve the first draft because it undermined the longstanding principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities," or the notion that the main burden of climate action must fall on the rich.

The problem this poses is that as formerly underdeveloped countries grow, as China has done and India will do, their increased emissions can swamp those of rich nations that are clamping down on pollution.

But to keep the talks alive, rich nations had no choice but to highlight the differentiation catchwords in the revised text, and to soften or remove anything suggesting that the climate-action burden must be more widely shared.

Every Nation Must Pitch In

But the new texts retained two important new elements that imply that Paris will call on every nation to do its part.

One is a recognition that the global economy needs to shift in the decades ahead to what is essentially a carbon-free energy system. That would be a radical transformation costing lots of money.

The second follows from the first. To hit the mark on emissions, every nation—rich and poor, large and small—must find a way to pitch in. Each may play its own unique role, but none can expect to stand aside, not if the goal is zero net emissions of carbon dioxide.

Welcoming the pact, Nicholas Stern, a noted climate expert who is president of the British Academy, said those objectives require building more mutual trust.

"All countries must continue to engage in a collaborative way with each other to build mutual confidence," he said. "Rich countries must accept the responsibilities that are associated with their greater wealth and historical contribution to the rise in greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. They must help in tackling the effects of climate change that are already with us. And they should also work to create and unlock much greater public and private investments in clean economic growth in the developing countries, and not just relabel overseas aid budgets."

In Lima, both sides gave enough ground to keep the talks alive because the risks of failure were just too great, as Secretary of State John Kerry had warned in an impassioned speech on Thursday.

 "If we fail, future generations will not and should not forgive those who ignore this moment, no matter their reasoning," he said. "Future generations will judge our effort not just as a policy failure, but as a massive, collective moral failure of historic consequence, particularly if we're just bogged down in abstract debates. They will want to know how we together could possibly have been so blind, so ideological, so dysfunctional, and frankly, so stubborn that we failed to act."

When the developing nations dug in their heels on Saturday, Todd Stern, the chief United States negotiator, warned delegates that they might bring about the collapse of the entire UN climate regime.

"The debate here was very intense this past week, when the stakes were relatively small," said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a veteran observer of the climate talks, after the deal was struck.

"The stakes in Paris are going to be huge," he warned.

But the road to Paris remains open. "A global climate agreement is now within reach," said Jennifer Morgan, director of the World Resources Institute's climate program. The deal "keeps us on track to Paris but also signals a tough year ahead," said Elliot Diringer of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

Even grassroots advocates who helped organize a climate march in Peru saw grounds for hope. "By putting a zero emissions target on the table, Lima has thrown a lifeline to the world," said Iain Keith, campaign director at Avaaz.

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