At Lima Climate Talks, a Rare Air of Optimism

Even the most hawkish experts expect the Lima talks to wrap up at the end of this week with an open path ahead to a Paris treaty.

Protestors march through the streets of Lima, Peru at the People's Climate March on December 10, 2014. Credit: Avaaz

LIMA, Peru—The air was sticky in Lima Wednesday morning, but at least the 15,000 demonstrators who marched through the streets demanding climate action could feel a tepid breeze.

Not so inside the stuffy white carnival tent where delegates at the United Nations talks spent hours fiddling with text meant to map out the route to Paris. It is there where a global climate treaty is supposed to be adopted one year from now.

A delegate from the European Union at a news conference seemed fed up with Lima's dog days. "Progress is a lot slower than we want and need," said Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU's commissioner for energy and the environment. "The text is increasing in length, with no paragraphs yet agreed. It is high time to pick up the pace."

Later in the day it was the turn of Bangladesh's delegation to vent its frustration. With a big slice of their country likely to be swamped by rising seas in the decades ahead, Bangladesh and other poor nations are demanding reliable flows of aid from the rich, and damage payments for the losses they are sure to suffer in the years ahead. Europe and the United States are not interested in any such notion.

But the Bangladeshis, speaking in vehement and even strident tones, said these are not just suggestions—they are "demands," expressions of "our rights."

The hand-wringing and tough talk might be taken as a sign that things were going badly in Lima—a conference that everybody says must succeed if the Paris treaty is ever to be completed.

But the outlook is not so dismal, the experts say. In one interview after another, seasoned observers of the UN climate talks—even the most hawkish—said that they expect the Lima talks to wrap up at the end of this week with an open path ahead to a Paris treaty.

That path won't resemble, say, the final étage of the Tour de France, when all is settled except for a mad dash around the Champs-Élysées. But neither will it be the much rougher trial that world-class cyclists know just as well—the Paris-Roubaix race—along a route rutted with killer cobblestones.

Despite the deep differences that divide the rich from the poor, the old hands see no insurmountable obstacles in the climate talks. All will be smoothed over, they say.

The Kerry Factor

Secretary of State John Kerry is dropping in Thursday for a couple of hours of high-profile arm-twisting. In a speech on Wednesday, he tested a theme that he'll expand in Lima—it explicitly recognized the rich-poor divide, and points to a way out.

"While many of the hemisphere's largest countries are global energy producers, many of the hemisphere's smallest countries are bearing the greatest burden when it comes to the effects of climate change," he said. "And we know exactly what we have to do. This is not some crazy, hard to define, impossibly out of reach public policy issue. The solution to climate change is energy policy. Make the right energy choices, you solve the problem. And it takes leadership to do that."

Kerry, who has a long history of engagement with the UN on climate, will tell a friendly audience in Lima that the path to prosperity leads away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy alternatives where trillions of dollars will be spent as the world shifts away from carbon.

"We all know that building a new clean energy revolution for the world will require each of our nations to make some very fundamental choices," he said. "And I'll be speaking at greater length about those choices at the conference of the parties in Lima tomorrow."

Kerry is no wallflower—just look at the other negotiations he is engaged in up to his neck, over Iran's nuclear programs, Israel and Palestine, Russia's expansionism. But the time is not yet ripe for him to knock heads together on the climate treaty.

He will meet with his French counterpart, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and they will be treated as co-stars here, but they already see mainly eye to eye on the diplomacy that lies ahead. After a few hours Kerry will leave, putting the closing maneuvers of the Lima talks back in the hands of Todd Stern, his chief climate negotiator.

The U.S. Position

More significant than Kerry's cameo appearance, some observers say, is that the United States will have a top Kerry aide at the helm of the UN talks in 2015. He is Dan Reifsnyder, the deputy assistant secretary of state for the environment, well respected among climate negotiators, who will become the co-chairman of next year's talks—along with Ahmed Djoghlaf, an Algerian diplomat. The co-chairs are meant to be neutral arbiters, not logrollers for their respective countries, but Reifsnyder's role makes Stern's job easier in the year to come.

On Wednesday, Stern met briefly with representatives of green groups, answering few questions before rushing off to his next engagement.

He was asked specifically about a key step that's supposed to come early next year, when each country makes its own carbon-reduction pledge. Many nations, including the Europeans, want those pledges to be held up to formal scrutiny, to see if they're realistic. This review, which climate hawks would like to see conducted well before the Paris treaty is written, would determine whether the pledges are ambitious enough to keep the planet from warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius, the upper limit before the risks of climate change become unacceptably severe. But China, along with other countries, is resisting.

Stern was noncommittal on this question, which in the jargon of the negotiations is known as the "ex ante" review of the INDCs (indicated nationally determined contributions).

Many parties to the talks—and the green groups that are here as observers—view this review as an essential feature of a treaty. Without it, each nation would be allowed to decide for itself what to promise, and what to do about the climate problem. For a treaty meant to be binding on all nations, advocates say, this seems too loose.

That Stern and the U.S. are waffling on the ex-ante review could make it less likely for countries to consider raising their ambitions before the Paris talks. Early and escalating action, a key goal of the negotiations, would be put in peril.

We'll Always Have Paris

So what are the grounds for optimism?

It boils down to this: If the outcome of Lima is a bit murky, if the draft text of a supposedly binding treaty is still toothless, and if the developing countries, like so many doubting Thomases, are unable to believe in the promises, there is always next year.

There will be another meeting just around the corner in February in Geneva, and further talks in Germany in June. A session or two is likely next autumn. And we'll always have Paris, at least until crunch time next year.

Then, when the diplomats play the old ploy of putting their bags on the curb ready to leave town without paying their tabs, the threat will mean something.

But for now, the mood in Lima is mostly optimistic.

Peru, despite being a developing country, said it would kick a few million dollars into the Green Climate Fund, and this was seen as a sign that the north-south divide was crumbling. Germany, which has just announced new legislative proposals to rein in its own emissions, and had already pledged to the green fund, announced a separate kitty to pay poor countries for the inevitable damages of climate change that are already locked in. This was hailed as a sign that the rich were finally stepping up to the plate.

"They don't have to achieve very much in Lima, and so they will succeed," said Elliot Diringer, observing the talks on behalf of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a mainstream Washington think tank.

Michael Jacobs, senior advisor to the New Climate Economy project and a former special advisor to British prime minister Gordon Brown, said he saw nothing that would derail the Lima talks. So did Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has been attending climate talks for more than two decades.

'Norms Developing'

It may be less than some were hoping for, but it will not be a collapse of the talks—not by any means.

What seem to be divisive sticking points today, Jacobs said, may turn into minor matters next year.

As an example, he cited the insistence by developing countries that the INDCs include not just promises to cut emissions (known as mitigation) but also pledges to finance adaption in poorer countries.

"Some things that are not agreed to may still happen," Jacobs said. "Countries may or may not be told to include finance for adaption in their pledges. But countries may do it whether or not they are told to. There are norms developing."

Similarly, not everyone will meet the end of March deadline for filing their pledges. But most of the biggest polluters probably will, and there's a new deadline for laggards, a few months later, and the optimists feel that everybody will want to be on board by Paris.

By then, the main question will be when to set the next deadline for reviewing countries' ambitions—in five years, perhaps, or in ten.

It's all up in the air. And by Wednesday afternoon, as if absorbing the optimism in Lima, the breezes turned suddenly cooler, and the faces of the delegates seemed less florid than just a few hours before.

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