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Lima summit ends with a call for action that is not strong enough to combat climate change, while the real action keeps shifting elsewhere

(Image by COP20)

(Image by COP20)

In a style now typical of the annual UN climate summits, the 2014 conference in the Peruvian capital Lima reached a conclusion more than 32 hours after its scheduled closure, with a call for action that at best keeps open the door for an intergovernmental deal next year to combat global warming.

The negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been kept from a collapse, but only by postponing all divisive issues to next year and watering down all decisions that could not be postponed.

Paris agreement mothballed

During the December 1-12 summit that went on into the early hours of December 14, bureaucrats and ministers from over 190 governments were quick to mothball what they call the “elements text” – the text that contains the elements of the global deal to combat climate change, a deal scheduled to be finalised at the next summit in Paris, less than a year from now.

Just a few initial sessions on these elements were enough to convince everyone that during the Lima summit, there was no hope of progress on this major issue. The negotiations will resume in Geneva 8-13 February next year, when the rich nation versus poor nation debate is expected to surface all over again, with renewed ferocity.

Then the Lima summit was left with one major job – agreeing on a format under which governments would put forward what they plan to do on their own to combat climate change. In UN-speak, this is called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC). With governments having more or less given up on the idea that the UN system can decide which country needs to control greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to what extent, the INDCs are expected to form the bedrock of the Paris agreement.

Then, in a year that is the warmest on record and during which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned yet again that GHG emissions are still going up and warming the world further, that climate change is impacting farm output here and now, making storms, floods and droughts more severe and more frequent, raising the sea level and melting glaciers faster – the world watched with increasing frustration as governments bickered on what the INDCs should contain, by when they should be submitted and how they would be reviewed.

By the time the conference agreed on what is named the Lima Call for Climate Action, most of the 11,000-odd delegates had left to catch their flights back home.

Tangible achievements

This bickering overshadowed some tangible achievements of this year’s summit. During the conference the initial capitalisation of the Green Climate Fund (GCF) touched $10.2 billion. Though Prakash Javadekar, India’s Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, pointed out that it should have touched $40 billion by now if rich nations were truly on the path to keep their promise to provide $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poor nations deal with climate change, industrialised countries feel they are being very generous in a weak economic era.

The summit also showcased a growing commitment to low carbon growth by businesses around the world.

For many years, climate negotiations have been bedevilled by the insistence by governments of industrialised countries to talk only of mitigating GHG emissions, while poor nations have wanted adaptation to climate change, as well as the finances, technologies and capacity building they need to move to a greener economy, to be equally prominent on the agenda.

These were included in the summit resolution after bitter quarrels over every word and punctuation mark, and Manuel Pulgar-Vidal – Peru’s Environment Minister and the conference President – was able to say, “Lima has given new urgency towards fast tracking adaptation and building resilience across the developing world — not least by strengthening the link to finance and the development of national adaptation plans.”

The Adaptation Fund of the UN has been doing some good work, but it is virtually bankrupt due to a collapse of the international price of GHG emissions – the fund depends on a cess on emission trading. During this summit, the German government pledged to give the Adaptation Fund 55 million Euros – it may turn out to be a lifeline, however temporary.

China also announced $10 million for South-South cooperation and mentioned they would double it next year. Most of this money is likely to go for adaptation.

Over the years, another extremely divisive issue has been that of loss and damage – what is to be done when a country, especially a poor country, suffers such loss and damage due to a climate impact which is beyond its capacity to adapt to? Fearing compensation claims in national and international courts, rich countries led by the US have consistently worked to remove this item from the UNFCCC agenda altogether.

This became another point over which the Lima summit almost collapsed at the last moment – when the penultimate draft of the resolution failed to mention that loss and damage was beyond adaptation, delegate after delegate from Africa, Asia and Latin America rose to reject the draft altogether. The poor nations ultimately won their point, though this issue will now be discussed only after the scheduled finalisation of the Paris accord. It remains to be seen whether the discussions will retain any relevance at that stage.

A rare point of unanimity was the launch of the Lima work programme to advance gender balance and to promote gender sensitivity in developing and implementing climate policy – a long felt need, especially among activists.

Another achievement was a decision by 17 industrialised countries to submit to questioning by other governments about their GHG emission targets under a new process called multilateral assessment. But there will be no such review of the INDCs – China and India opposed that on the question of sovereignty, and succeeded.

Voluntary commitments era

Overall, the world is moving into an era where action to combat climate change is determined by individuals, businesses, local, provincial and national governments, rather than a top-down determination by the UN system. Christiana Figueres, UNFCCC Executive Secretary, acknowledged that when she said, “Governments arrived in Lima on a wave of positive news and optimism resulting from the climate action announcements of the European Union, China and the United States to the scaling up of pledges for the Green Climate Fund.”

The UNFCCC acknowledged the power of voluntary action when it helped launch what is called the Nazca Climate Action Portal to capture what is being done by provincial and city governments as well as private firms to combat climate change.

And the delegates left Lima with voluntarism more firmly entrenched – there is not even an agreed date on when the INDCs should be submitted. The resolution does mention a March 31, 2015 deadline, but governments can also submit by June 30, or “as soon as possible after that”. There will be a poker game on INDC submissions next year, with many countries refusing to show their hands till the last possible moment.

Figueres may have had that in mind when she said after the conclusion, “The negotiations here reached a new level of realism.” She also said the negotiations had reached an “understanding about what needs to be done now, over the next 12 months and into the years and decades to come if climate change is to be truly and decisively addressed.” For the long term, she was referring to the call in the Lima resolution to phase out GHG emissions by 2050. But there is no roadmap for that, leave alone any agreement.

Rough road ahead

A major failure of the Lima summit was to get any commitment from rich nations on what they plan to do between now and 2020. The Paris accord is supposed to come into effect only after that, and developing countries have been demanding that industrialised countries ramp up their GHG emission mitigation right now under the existing Kyoto Protocol. But with the limelight firmly on the Paris deal, there was no discernible movement on this front.

While governments around the world welcomed the Lima resolution, reactions from experts and activists were more mixed.

It is now clear that the road to a Paris agreement will not only be rough, it will be so full of bottlenecks that the final deal will probably be reached hours after the scheduled closure of the Paris summit. Climate observers are now getting used to this last minute brinkmanship by governments. Their only hope – after all that, the Paris deal is one that can be effective in combating climate change.

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