A breakthrough climate accord in Lima but a tough road to Paris

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, CC BY-SA

In the early morning hours of Sunday, December 14th last year, climate negotiators in Lima, Peru concluded the COP-20 talks with an agreement among 195 countries.

The Lima Call for Climate Action, or Lima Accord, represents both a classic compromise between the rich and poor countries in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and something of a breakthrough after twenty years of difficult climate negotiations.

The text, which was approved without dissent, provided the foundation for the next major international climate agreement, which will be finalized and signed at COP-21 in Paris this December for implementation in 2020, as the successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Why is this Lima agreement so significant and what should we watch for in Paris?

Broad participation

The Lima decision constitutes a big departure from the past two decades of international climate policy. Since the 1995 Berlin Mandate and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, agreements have covered only a small subset of countries, namely the so-called Annex I countries (more or less the industrialized nations, as of twenty years ago).

COP 20 President and Peru’s Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar Vidal. Enrique Castro-Mendivil/Reuters

The Lima Accord greatly expands country participation. It combines bottom-up country-level commitments – called “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs) in UN parlance – with top-down elements for reporting and synthesis of contributions by the UNFCCC Secretariat.

Importantly, the Lima decision calls for each country to submit emissions mitigation plans by June. These plans (the INDCs) can state specific targets and timetables for emissions reductions, using the country’s baseline of choice, can specify aspirational goals, or describe policy actions.

But because of the sharp divide between developed and developing countries, various aspects of the accord were watered down in the last 30 hours. The baby was not thrown out with the bath water, but this ongoing divide suggests a rough road to Paris for the negotiators.

Effect of US-China deal

It was clear the joint announcement of national targets by China and the United States in November played a significant role in achieving the Lima Accord. The commitments from the two largest emitters, representing over 40 percent of global CO2 emissions, provided much-needed encouragement to Lima delegates.

The UN Secretary General visits the Peruvian Andes during COP20. Mark Garten/UN Photo, CC BY

Within the next six months, the other industrialized countries will announce their own contributions, and — more importantly – so will the other large, emerging economies – India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico and Indonesia. With Europe already on board, this will cover 80% to 90% of global emissions. By contrast, countries participating in the current (second) commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol only account for 14% of global CO2 emissions.

Major questions still remain, however, regarding what can be expected from some key countries, including India, Russia and Australia.

Focus on the long-term

In a 1998 book Economics and Policy Issues in Climate Change, edited by William Nordhaus, Richard Schmalensee lamented that the Kyoto Protocol called for aggressive cuts from a small set of nations. He presciently noted that this was precisely the opposite of what would be a sensible way forward.

More fruitful would be to start with broad participation, even if the initial ambition is less. It now appears that with the 2015 Paris Agreement, that approach may finally be adopted.

The Lima decision will surely disappoint some environmental activists. The talks will not lead to an immediate decrease in global emissions and will not prevent atmospheric temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Although a widely accepted political goal, that temperature change threshold has become unachievable.

However, Lima is important because it calls for long-term action and has broad geographic participation. That is a sound foundation for ultimate success.

Despite the last-minute compromises, the Lima agreement offers a new path forward in which all countries participate and holds promise for meaningful global action to address the threat of climate change. So, despite all the acrimony among parties and the 30-hour delay in completing the talks, Lima may turn out to be a key step along the way.

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