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At the Lima Climate Talks, It Was Groundhog Day All Over Again

The latest climate talks were an exercise in futility and delay. But that doesn't mean activists should give up

Lima climate talks. (Photo: UNFCCC)

At 3 a.m., two days after the scheduled end of the UN Climate Change Conference in Peru, everything looked uncannily familiar.

Exhausted negotiators applauded the Lima Call for Climate Action, a deal that demands little action but paves the way for another year of talking. “It always seems impossible until it is done,” said a South African negotiator, wheeling out a Mandela quote that gets cited every year. Climate activists, meanwhile, issued identikit statements condemning an agreement that fails people and the planet.

International climate talks are predictably disappointing, and the 20th annual meeting (known as a Conference of the Parties, or COP) proved no exception. The main outcome from Lima was that countries should submit climate action plans, called “intended nationally determined contributions” — or INDCs, in the alphabet soup of UN climate jargon — by an informal deadline of March 31, 2015.

But that was already in the cards before the talks even started.

Key Battles Postponed

The Lima conference, then, postponed most of the key fights for three rounds of talks in 2015, culminating in December with a conference in Paris that is intended to seal a new international climate deal.

One month in advance of that, the UN will release an analysis of the “aggregate effect” of countries’ plans, including pledges to cut their carbon emissions.  But there will be no common means for reporting on reductions, and there will be no formal review in advance of Paris to ensure that individual countries take on their fair share of the burden.

There is no resolution, either, on whether countries’ pledges will be legally binding.

The risks of this type of voluntary, anything-goes stance were revealed by last month’s U.S.-China climate accord. Though it was widely hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough, it fell a long way short of the emissions cuts that climate scientists say are needed, especially when equity between nations and the U.S. role in outsourcing its emissions to other countries are taken into account.

Based on current projections, including plans that the United States, China, and the EU have already announced, the world is heading towards a temperature increase of 4 degrees Celsius — twice the increase that negotiators initially agreed to prevent — which would have a catastrophic impact in terms of floods, droughts, sea level rises, and other extreme weather. That directly contradicts the goal of preventing dangerous climate change, which all 194 countries present in Lima agreed to when they signed onto the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

A Clear Dividing Line

The main disputes in Lima, in common with previous climate talks, concerned the respective roles of rich and poor countries.

The UNFCCC draws a very clear distinction, setting out in an annex the list of developed countries that should be “taking the lead” in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. These same countries are supposed to provide “new and additional financial resources” and “technology transfer” to help developing countries reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions (a strategy known as mitigation) and to deal with the climate impacts that are already happening (referred to in climate parlance as adaptation).

The rationale for the division is simple: The countries that were first to industrialize played a disproportionate role in causing climate change and became wealthier in the process, which leaves them best placed — and most responsible — to pay for reducing emissions now.

The developed countries listed in Annex I of the UN Climate Convention still produce far more emissions per person than their developing world counterparts, with a few exceptions like Kuwait and Singapore.

In short, while it is generally anachronistic to divide the world into developed and developing countries, it remains a remarkably accurate starting point for determining countries’ fair shares of action to address climate change.

More importantly, this “differentiation” between countries (as it is called in climate jargon) is far more equitable than U.S. calls for a “level playing field.”

But there’s the rub: the United States and other developed countries have spent the last 20 years reneging on their responsibilities under the UN Climate Convention, and the better part of the last decade trying to water them down. That show of bad faith undermined the possibility of a strong international climate agreement at the last attempt, in Copenhagen in 2009, and is hampering progress towards a new one.

Missing Elements

The Lima conference was never meant to finalize a comprehensive treaty, but it was supposed to sketch out ideas for what that might look like. Some of those lines are now clear, notably the request that countries submit their own emissions reduction targets rather than having these imposed “top down” and monitored by the UNFCCC.

But a climate agreement should be about more than just mitigation. For many developing countries, technology transfers and measures to help them adapt to the climate change that is already happening are essential elements of any new deal.

A similarly thorny issue is “loss and damage,” a term for climate impacts that are beyond what can simply be adapted to. Developing countries are increasingly demanding compensation for the tens of billions they spend each year cleaning up after extreme weather events — such as Typhoon Hagupit in the Philippines — which have become more frequent as a result of climate change.

Other impacts — such as sea level rises inundating low-lying Pacific islands, or the retreat of glaciers that could destroy livelihoods throughout large parts of the Andes — are harder to quantify, but require urgent action to avoid forced migration and the disappearance of entire cultures.

“We need a permanent arrangement to help the poorest of the world rebuild from the impacts of climate change” says Ian Fry, a climate negotiator for the Pacific island of Tuvalu and one of many critics of inaction on “loss and damage.”

The Lima talks failed to deliver such an arrangement, although a strong push from developing countries ensured that “loss and damage” — missing from the first draft of the Lima Call for Climate Action — remains on the negotiating table.

Climate Finance Gap

The key stumbling block on the road to a Paris agreement is money.

Rich countries have agreed to provide financing to help poorer countries cope with climate change, and to support them in taking a cleaner path to development. To this end, the 2009 UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen saw rich countries promise that they would collectively mobilize $100 billion per year in climate finance by 2020.

That’s an arbitrary, political figure unrelated to equity or the scale of what’s needed. But it was, at least, a firm promise.

We’re now at the halfway point to the date when the funds promised in Copenhagen are supposed to flow, but the level of funding is currently being leveled down rather than ratcheted up towards the $100-billion goal. Much was made of $10 billion pledged (over a four-year period) to the new Green Climate Fund, but precious little else was forthcoming.

Meanwhile, estimates for how much climate finance is actually needed keep on growing. A new UN study, launched in Lima, found that the costs of adapting to changes in the climate that have already happened (or are unavoidable) could be $150 billion per year by 2025, and up to $500 billion per year by 2050 — three times higher than previous projections.

It will take hundreds of billions more — up to $640 billion per year, according to the most recent study — to ensure that poor countries industrialize more cleanly than their counterparts did in North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia.

It’s highly unlikely that pledges in Paris will come anywhere close to addressing these needs. But a number of developing countries have already made it clear that without new finance, there will be no deal.

If the gap is to be bridged, it’s as likely to be a product of dodgy accounting as new money being put on the table. Climate finance is routinely used to promote developed countries’ exports, including — it was revealed in Lima — billions of dollars worth of support for building coal-fired power stations and oil refineries.

The root of the problem is a lack of any clear definition for what can count as climate finance — an issue that remains unresolved.

Looking for Positives

The depressing sense of déjà vu generated by UN climate conferences can be overwhelming. Six years ago, I reported that the Poznan summit saw “only glacial progress towards a new global climate treaty” while “corporate influence on the talks grows stronger by the year.”

Three years on, I returned from the climate conference in Durban lamenting that the talks had been essentially “two weeks of ineffectual jargon-filled bickering followed by an agreement to delay action on climate change beyond the political lifespan of most of the governments present.”

Much the same could be (and has been) said of Lima — although, like a magic eye picture, it is just possible to identify some causes for optimism if you squint hard enough.

Building carbon markets has long been a major objective for transnational corporations seeking to avoid reducing their emissions, as well as for financiers looking for new sources of speculation. But the Clean Development Mechanism, the main UN carbon market, is “in crisis” and “hemorrhaging capacity,” according to Hugh Sealy, chair of the board that oversees that scheme.

The creation of new carbon markets has also stalled. That’s a victory for climate justice activists who have long campaigned against markets, supported at UN negotiations by a handful of governments (notably Bolivia). Yet it also reflects a general lack of ambition.

For many governments and corporations, markets were a “plan B” to avoid having to restructure their own power production or industrial base. But their “plan A” of avoiding binding international obligations turns out to be working far better than expected.

Another ray of hope could be seen in the fact that the draft outline of a new climate agreement includes, for the first time, an option to achieve “net zero emissions by 2050, or full decarbonization by 2050.” That should mean leaving fossil fuels in the ground — an objective that is widely acknowledged outside international negotiations as key to averting catastrophic climate change, but scarcely mentioned within them.

But there’s a catch: “net zero” means you can still emit a lot, as long as emissions are somehow sucked out of the atmosphere elsewhere. That provision is already being used to support expensive and unproven measures to capture and store carbon from fossil fuel power plants and industry, as well as controversial, climate-manipulating geo-engineering.

A potentially more significant catch is that the language on “decarbonization” and “net zero” is one of numerous options available to negotiators, and is highly unlikely to survive the cut.

The Dead End Road to Paris

The talks in Lima kept international climate talks on track, but heading in the wrong direction. “The Paris deal is not going to curb emissions enough to meet the agreed target of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius,” writes Richard Black of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, because “the idea of a comprehensive negotiated deal” was buried years ago.

With 194 countries involved in climate negotiations, their conclusions are invariably dragged towards a lowest common denominator, in which governments usually defend a version of their national interest that reflects the bottom lines of political elites and major corporations above the needs of people.

Within that framework, there are two broad templates for reaching an agreement. Either it will serve the serve the interests of rich developed nations, which bully poor countries into submission (as the Wikileaks cables made clear). Or, if developing countries maintain a united front, as they did in the fraught final days in Lima, then the battle between rich and poor countries may be declared a draw.

In both scenarios, the planet loses and dangerous climate change will not be averted — even if an outbreak of Stockholm Syndrome ultimately leads governments and some NGOs to declare otherwise. “The science of climate change and the politics of climate change, which claims to represent it, now inhabit parallel worlds,” as Nature magazine once observed. Lima did nothing to change that.

All of which begs the question: why bother with international climate talks at all? There remain a couple of reasons for continued engagement by climate activists.

First, the “UNFCCC is like a rash: ignoring it won’t make it go away; it will only make it worse,” wrote the Tipping Point collective of climate justice activists going into Lima. “As corrupt, frustrating, ridiculous, and inadequate as the negotiations are, they exist, and will keep on existing  —  advancing harmful policies and paradigms  —  for a long time.”

With a plethora of technology, finance, and market mechanisms operating under the rubric of the UNFCCC, activist observers can and do play an important damage limitation role, often helping poor countries with few climate negotiators to be alert to dangers that can emerge in the numerous committees and sub-committees that meet in parallel during international climate talks.

Observers to the climate talks also play a role in calling out just who is driving the race to the bottom. Like most multilateral processes, climate negotiations suffer from a democratic deficit. The majority of the talks are conducted by civil servants operating through regional or interest-based groupings. They draw their legitimacy from acting in the name of governments, but the people who voted those governments in are rarely consulted on negotiating positions. Conducting talks under the UN umbrella does, at least, offer minimum standards of transparency that are not achieved in informal groupings such as the G-20 or Asia-Pacific Regional Cooperation (APEC).

Beyond the Climate Talks

Ultimately, any serious effort to address climate change needs to move beyond the space offered by the UN Climate Conference. There were glimpses of this in Lima, where a large demonstration coincided with the talks, as well as at the New York climate march last September. Those events, according to Brandon Wu of ActionAid USA, put “impacted people front and center.” They show “that there’s a growing understanding that climate change is not just an issue for environmentalists, but one that affects everyone’s lives, livelihoods, and human rights.”

Underpinning this analysis is an understanding that climate change is not an “environmental issue” resolvable by a multilateral treaty between governments, but is a structural fact of our economies. It requires “system change not climate change,” in the slogan popularized by protestors outside the Copenhagen talks in 2009. It doesn’t require a “climate movement” so much as an effort to deepen the connections between climate change and the fights against inequality, austerity, and transnational corporations that are at the heart of most of today’s movements.

The annual failure of UN climate conferences to resolve climate change might be a wake up call. But if it’s 6 a.m. and the radio is playing “I got you babe,” chances are that it’s still Groundhog Day. And something more dramatic needs to happen to break the same disappointing pattern.

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Oscar Reyes

Oscar Reyes

Oscar Reyes a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and a writer and activist focusing on climate and energy finance. His recent work includes Power to the People?, which takes a critical look at the World Bank’s Clean Technology Fund, and the co-authored Carbon Trading: How It Works and Why It Fails. He provides research and advice on the economics and politics of climate change to various organisations, including Corporate Europe Observatory, Earthlife Africa and Friends of the Earth UK. He is also environment editor of Red Pepper, a magazine that he previously edited.

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