A Guide to the Lima Climate Change Talks

The most crucial battles in the fight against climate change are unfolding now in Lima, Peru.

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

The most crucial battles in the fight against climate change are unfolding now in Lima, Peru. That's where negotiators from around the world are hashing out issues of fairness and finance to sketch out an effective climate treaty that would push greenhouse gas emissions to zero this century.

Note: InsideClimate News reporter John H. Cushman Jr. will be filing posts from Lima this week. Read his stories at the Carbon Copy blog and follow him on twitter @jackcushmanjr.

What's Happening

Representatives from more than 190 nations are meeting for talks in Lima, Peru (Dec. 1 – Dec. 14) to hammer out the draft of the first truly global pact to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The ultimate goal: signing a treaty a year from now in Paris. If successful, it would be the world's most complex and encompassing treaty ever devised. The last attempt was in 2009 at the Copenhagen climate talks.

Why It Matters

We already face significant and widespread climate change risks from the carbon pollution that has been accumulating in our atmosphere and oceans since the Industrial Revolution. Thanks largely to emissions from burning fossil fuels, the Earth is on pace to have its hottest year ever recorded, and warming of at least 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is already locked in, according to a new World Bank report. Countries agreed to limit warming to 2 degrees, a level assumed to be relatively safe. Without steep cuts in fossil fuel use, people around the world will likely face catastrophic and irreversible repercussions by 2030 or 2040. In human terms, that's about when today's babies finish college.

READ: Ground Zero for Climate Change: 14 Carbon Hot Spots — Interactive Graphic

Key Dates

Dec 1–12, 2014—Negotiations in Lima, Peru

March 31, 2015—The target date for countries to present their plans for curbing climate change.

Nov. 30 - Dec. 11, 2015—Negotiations in Paris, where countries hope to sign an historic climate treaty.

The Players

The United States, China and the European Union are responsible for about half of the world's climate changing emissions, so their actions have an outsized impact.  

India, as a rapidly growing source of harmful emissions, has to make a quicker shift to low-emission energy  for any climate treaty to work. The country has not announced what it's willing to do as part of the climate accord.  

The LMDC, or like-minded developing countries bloc, represents half the world's population and most of the world's poor. It's a powerful counter-force to the United States and other wealthy nations. The group, which includes China, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and more than 20 others, has pushed the U.S. and Europe to make much larger emissions cuts and to provide substantial funding and technological assistance to its member nations.  

The big-money crowd, which includes global corporations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other international financial institutions, will be influential because they hold sway over many economies and the global flow of cash. That makes them key players in financing the global energy transition and in funneling aid to poor countries that need help adapting to climate change.

The World Resources Institute, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam and many other major environmental and social justice groups are important non-institutionalized voices and some are deeply involved in trying to shape a balanced and workable treaty.

A growing contingent of investment groups, foundations and major corporations, all of them with substantial funds at their disposal, is pushing for unequivocal action on climate change and making the argument that climate action is an opportunity not economic punishment.

Make-or-Break Issues

For years, a split between rich and poor nations dimmed hopes at UN climate talks. Broadly put: Poorer countries want wealthier ones to promise deeper cuts in carbon emissions, and they want sufficient cash to kick start climate action they can't afford. At Lima, it's the same story. Here are the big issues countries must solve:

  • What's a fair way to divide the costs and investments needed to limit greenhouse gas emissions and help countries adapt to climate change? Emission reductions and climate aid contributions are meant to be based on relative responsibility for climate change—but views differ on how to translate a "fair share" approach into concrete pledges from individual countries. There's also ongoing tension over whether the treaty should increase its focus on adaptation, possibly by including pledges of financial and technological aid to help nations adapt to climate change effects that can't be avoided.

  • How should island and poorer nations be compensated for the devastation they are already experiencing from climate change caused by other nations? The Philippines and many others want such "loss and damage" funds to be provided for in the treaty, while the U.S. and others have objected to that.

  • Should the climate treaty commitments be binding or voluntary? The United States, for example, wants the pact to be non-binding, while the Europe Union and developing countries want an enforceable treaty.

  • Should the world put a price on carbon through an international carbon-trading system to create a stronger incentive to shift away from fossil fuels?

Glimmers of Hope

The talks gained momentum after the United States, China and the European Union—all major polluters —made encouraging emission-reduction pledges ahead of the Lima talks. Some saw the fact that the U.S. and China announced their actions together as a sign that the two countries would not end up in a face-off during negotiations.  

Others also found hope in the almost $10 billion in initial pledges for the Green Climate Fund, considered a critical factor in convincing developing nations to offer ambitious emission limits.

GRAPHIC: Who Pledged What to the Green Climate Fund?

President Obama and President Xi Jinping  in Beijing on Nov. 12, 2014. Credit: White House Photo

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Potential Spoilers

India could render the treaty ineffective if it opts to make an uninspired pledge toward limiting carbon emissions, or if it continues its aggressive build-out of new coal-fired power plants.

Countries rich in fossil fuels—Australia, OPEC nations, Russia and Canada—could block any effort that would reduce demand for their oil, gas and coal.

Least-developed nations or the Like-Minded Developing Countries could lose faith in the treaty talks, especially if they believe their needs and views are being given short shrift by developed nations, or if they think wealthy nations are not making commitments commensurate with their role in causing climate change. If that happens, the Lima conference could end with major issues unresolved, putting a Paris accord in jeopardy.

Public Action

Fast for the Climate—A global demonstration on the first day of every month where people refuse to eat as a show of solidarity for people affected by climate change.  On Dec. 1, the first day of climate talks in Lima, it was declared the world's largest fast for the climate. Pacific Islanders—who face widespread destruction from rising seas—were heavily represented, with most residents of tiny Tuvalu participating, organizers said. Dec. 1 also marked the beginning of a tag-team fast, where climate leaders around the world take turns fasting for a day until the Paris talks next December.  

Fossil of the Day—This shaming award from Climate Action Network International, first presented at climate talks in 1999, is bestowed on countries deemed to have done their "best" to block progress during negotiations. In Lima so far, the award has thus far been given to Australia, Austria, Belgium and Ireland for not contributing to the Green Climate Fund to help poorer nations; to Japan, for using climate funds to build coal plants in developing countries; to Switzerland for opposing legally binding finance commitments and warning that the issue could derail the treaty; to Australia, for opposing separate compensation for climate-related loss and damage (from extra-fierce typhoons, for example).  

People's Summit on Climate Change—A parallel event from Dec. 1-12 to remind negotiators that a global climate accord must respect the rights and wishes of citizens and social organizations. It's a forum focused on climate justice, deforestation, social movements, farming, climate finance and other topics. 

Light for Lima prayer vigil—A global, multi-faith prayer vigil illuminated by solar lamps to remind negotiators that the people are watching and praying for action on climate change. Digital vigil began Dec. 1, worldwide.

People's March—A Dec. 10 protest march organized by the activist group Avaaz through the streets of Lima for "International Climatic Justice and Defense of Life Day." The day is also International Human Rights Day.

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