What Happened in Lima: Are We on Track for a Global Climate Change Agreement by 2015?

I had high hopes for the United Nations climate change talks in Lima, which concluded yesterday after two weeks of negotiations.

brush fire, Australia

Brush fire in Australia. Prolonged drought (one of the many climate change impacts being felt across the globe) makes landscapes more susceptible to wildfires. (© Art Wolfe/ www.artwolfe.com)

Over the last few months, we saw dozens of commitments made at the U.N. Secretary-General’s Climate Summit, a gathering of hundreds of thousands of people in New York to demand action on climate change; a landmark agreement between the world’s two biggest emitters, the United States and China; and billions of dollars pledged to the Green Climate Fund. In addition, the New York Declaration on Forests brought together hundreds of organizations including companies, governments and civil society representatives, united behind the goal of halving deforestation by 2020.

Never before had so many diverse actors come together in solidarity to express willingness to take concrete action on addressing both the causes and impacts of climate change — and with 2014 reported to be the warmest year on record, the stakes have never been higher.

Those of us working on climate policy had hoped that this unprecedented momentum would finally translate into a coordinated effort at the global level.  Which is why the failure of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 20th Conference of the Parties (UNFCCC COP 20) to address several important issues was such a disappointment.

These talks were particularly significant because this was the last major meeting before the global climate change agreement is due to be adopted at the end of 2015 in Paris. As the talks began, I hoped to see progress on creating a process to assess the combined impact of commitments to date, and a mechanism to boost commitments that fall behind what the science demands.

There was also an expectation that the meeting would bring clarity on how issues like adaptation and finance would be addressed in the 2015 agreement. While the means for mitigating climate change — reducing greenhouse gas emissions — are quite clear, adaptation is dependent on the local context and on financial resources to implement large-scale transformation.

The Lima talks failed to result in any clarity on these issues and it is quite clear that countries will have a large volume of work in 2015 to reach consensus.

However, looking at the outcomes from two weeks of negotiations (which were extended by more than 36 hours), I do think the Lima COP was distinct from past sessions. Having been to eight COPs over my career, Lima helped to elucidate the following lessons for me:

  • It will be tough to move away from old ways of thinking — but it has to be done. Most of the stalemate in the negotiations results from drastically different interpretations of one of the UNFCCC’s main principles: common but differentiated responsibilities. In the past, the UNFCCC made a distinction between the actions required by developing and developed countries. Yet negotiators in Lima were forced to confront the reality that many of the world’s biggest emitters today are developing countries. These talks showed that if we are going to achieve any success in negotiating a global agreement, we will have to reach a breakthrough on how countries perceive their differing responsibilities in the context of the agreement.
  • The agreement will be “bottom-up,” but we need to clarify the role of “top-down” and where the two meet. With no clear criteria on which information countries must provide early next year for assessment before the agreement is adopted at the end of 2015, the agreement will likely be comprised of a series of bottom-up and potentially piecemeal actions around the world. If the agreement is to be effective, there must be some value added in having a global, or top-down, framework to align the collective effectiveness of the various commitments on mitigation, adaptation and means of implementation such as finance.
  • Goals are meaningless if there aren’t strong policies to back them up. The science presents clear, high-level goals on limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius if we want to avoid the most damaging climate change impacts. In 2009, parties decided on a finance goal of mobilizing US$ 100 billion per year by 2020. However, these goals have no purpose if they are not linked to policies that directly aim to achieve those goals. Having these goals is useful to anchor individual activities, but they need to be realistic and reflect the aims of collective political action.
  • Non-state actors are just as important as governments. The slow pace of action at the global action belies the simple fact that those who are willing and able to do so are already acting on their own accord. Cities, companies and regional entities are already moving forward. The role of the global agreement will be to complement and accelerate the movement we’ve already seen from these non-state actors.

Looking ahead, negotiations will continue where they left off in February in Geneva. Ultimately, the goal will be to ensure a strong and robust set of policies and guidelines that frame national and sub-national action on climate change, including the mechanisms or markets that develop as a result. These policies should ensure that the best, most effective measures are encouraged to help countries collectively meet mitigation and adaptation targets through innovative finance and solutions that harness the potential of nature to meet those goals.

Lima showed us that there will continue to be many challenges along the way — but the good news is that the political will we need exists. Given that the outcome from Lima means that decisions on most of the big issues will now be pushed to next year, I remain hopeful that we will be able to channel the collaborative spirit we saw here in Lima into a strong outcome for our planet — and ourselves — in 2015.

Shyla Raghav is CI’s director of climate policy. Read other blogs from the U.N. climate talks in Lima. 

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