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This year’s UN climate summit in the Peruvian capital Lima is special because this is where countries are setting out their positions to negotiate a global climate deal

Christiana Figueres, Chief Executive of the UNFCCC, opens the vigil of The Interfaith Council of Peru before the opening of the climate change conference in Lima. (Image by Carlos Garcia Granthon)

Christiana Figueres, Chief Executive of the UNFCCC, opens the vigil of The Interfaith Council of Peru before the opening of the climate change conference in Lima. (Image by Carlos Garcia Granthon)

Global climate talks have been meandering for two decades with few successes and many failures. Meanwhile greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and consequential climate change have gathered pace, causing serious loss and damage worldwide. People suffer, scientists warn, activists plead, but governments remain stuck in zero sum games.

Matters come to a head towards the end of every year when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) holds its summit. Officially called the Conference of Parties (COP), the 2009 summit in Copenhagen had been billed as the defining one, where governments would finally commit to significant GHG emission control. The failure to get legally binding commitments set back the entire process.

The 2011 COP saw a restart, with a new deadline of 2015 by which governments would negotiate a global deal to combat climate change. Three years later, there are still fundamental disagreements between rich and poor nations on what this deal should contain, what the legal form should be and who will police the whole thing. This year’s COP in Lima is meant to put these essential elements in place so that the negotiations can start in earnest. That is what makes this summit important.

Two recent developments – one negative and one positive – have provided significant impetus to the process. The first development – the negative one – is the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global collective of climate scientists and policy analysts. In essence, the IPCC report and a subsequent report by the UN Environment Programme showed

  • Climate change is gathering pace and its effects are showing, especially through more frequent and more severe storms, floods and droughts
  • GHG emissions – mainly of carbon dioxide – are still going up; current voluntary emission control commitments by governments fall about 40% short of what is needed to combat climate change effectively
  • Policy options that can correct this course are available and economically feasible, though the cost keeps going up with every day of delay.

The second development is the joint statement by the governments of China and the US, by which China has committed itself to peaking its emissions by 2030, while the US has committed to reduce its emissions by 2025. This is a positive development in climate geopolitics that is expected to propel other governments, though the commitments fall short of what is needed to avoid even more dangerous climate change.

As the December 1-12 summit opens in Lima, the Indian government is still mulling over its reaction to the US-China statement. Along with China, India has traditionally headed the developing country group that has pointed out

  • Since the start of the Industrial Age, rich nations are the ones that have been emitting most of the extra carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere today, causing climate change, so rich nations have to take the primary responsibility to reduce emissions
  • The atmosphere belongs to all, so on a per capita basis rich nations have already taken up far more than their just share of the carbon space; now poor nations cannot be asked to give up their share at the cost of development
  • Rich nations have an obligation to help poor nations move towards a greener economy by providing finances and new technologies free of cost

Rich nations have not frontally denied these charges, but – led by the US – have consistently blocked progress on these fronts, while pointing out that emerging economies have very significant emissions now. China is at the top, US second and India third, though India’s per capita emissions are about one-tenth of that of the US, and China’s is about one-fourth.

These differences between industrialised and developing countries have been core reasons why climate talks have been mostly stalled for two decades. Now, uncertain of the extent of support from China, the new Indian government – which seeks to be more US-friendly – is still trying to figure out what it has to do.

A veteran Indian government climate negotiator said, “The Lima COP is where countries will set out their stalls, in preparation for a year of negotiations. We shall do the same, and then see where it leads us.” There are strong indications that at least for the time being, India will set out its stall along traditional lines – it is already talking about the need to add adaptation to climate change effects in the 2015 deal, not just emissions reductions; it is pointing out the lack of progress in providing finances and technology transfer, especially in meeting the commitment to provide $100 billion a year from 2020; it is asking rich countries what they are doing to bring down emissions between now and 2020, the year the 2015 deal is supposed to kick in.

As for making its own voluntary commitment, India is unlikely to name an emissions control target before it has to do so – there is a March 2015 deadline for all countries to do that – and the government continues to insist that there must be differentiated responsibility between rich and poor nations in the matter of reducing emissions.

There is also the prickly question of who is going to police the commitments expected under the 2015 deal. All countries are sensitive about their sovereignty, while asking other countries to subject themselves to an international monitoring, reporting and verification regime.

The Lima talks open on a note of ever-increasing urgency – shown by unprecedented climate marches all over the world this September, which drew thousands of people in the cities where they were held – and a little bit of hope. People are asking if governments can get rid of the devils in the details.

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