Climate talks slouch towards Paris as Lima summit finally wraps up

It would be a stretch to call the latest climate talks in Peru a raging success. EPA/COP20

The UN’s climate negotiations in Lima (known as COP20) over the past fortnight were held in a military compound normally used by the Peruvian Army. Each day, negotiators at the COP passed an obstacle course for commandos - a sequence of torturous crawl pits, wires, walls and swing bridges. The symbolism wasn’t lost on anyone.

For the fourth year in a row the COP went past its scheduled end, grinding to a close at around 1.30 am on Sunday, well into its second night of overtime. It almost drowned in a sea of differences and the optimism established by the joint US-China announcement before the G20 meeting was dissipated as developed and developing countries fell back into their trenches.

The Road to Paris

The Lima conference was a stepping stone to Paris. There, the next COP will attempt to seal a crucial global deal on climate change beyond 2020 under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This deal is intended finally to do what everyone hoped would be done at Copenhagen in 2009.

The Lima COP’s central purpose was to frame the “elements text” — the working draft for a post-2020 agreement in Paris. Many — especially scientists and environmentalists – see the Paris Agreement as our last chance to set goals that will keep global warming below 2C.

This text, settled several days before the conference closed, still promises Copenhagen-style deadlocks next year when negotiators return to haggle over to its details.

However the big fights this year were not around the draft Paris agreement but the main decision of the Lima meeting, which refines the “climate roadmap” developed at Durban in 2011. The struggle revolved around four related issues.

What should national targets contain?

First, countries need to put forward targets that will, collectively, overcome the “ambition gap” between currently weak national goals and those needed to keep global warming below 2C or even 1.5C. This is the core objective against which the outcomes of the Paris result must be assessed.

The decision text merely noted this problem “with grave concern”. There was nothing to ensure that weak pre-2020 pledges were revisited and strengthened. Therefore the task of holding warming below 2C has thus been made almost impossible; instead we’re heading for 3-4C by 2100.

Moreover there was disagreement over what national targets (known as “intended nationally determined contributions”, or iNDCs) for the post-2020 period should contain, and when they should be first delivered for evaluation.

The developed countries also generally wanted them confined to mitigation, while the developing country bloc wanted to bring in adaptation. Similarly there were divisions over whether the iNDCs should contain clear justifications of how they are equitable and just.

The final decision merely “invites” contributions “well in advance” of Paris — by the first quarter of 2015 — and allows the UN Secretariat to produce a synthesis report (assessing the collective ambition of these pledges) as late as October 2015. This will have had the effect of cutting short the time to raise parties’ collective ambition if individual contributions are deficient, as most are almost certain to be.

However, parties are required to show how their targets are “fair and ambitious” in the light of the Convention’s objective of achieving safe climate. This is an impossible challenge for Australia unless the Abbott government announces a target of more than 40% below 2000 levels by 2025 and 60% by 2030.

The politics of differentiation

Second, from its inception, the UN Climate Change Convention has differentiated between developed and developing countries, based on their different levels of wealth, economic capacities, and different levels of historical responsibility for the problem of global warming. There was a struggle to keep references to ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ in the text.

Several major developed country Parties regard this binary approach to developed and developing blocs to have broken down as emergent major industrialising states such as China, Brazil and India have become major contributors to global emissions. Developing countries disagree.

This issue embittered the discussions, with countries such as Australia unhelpfully pushing for the binary to be set aside, despite it being foundational to the treaty.

Funding climate action

Third, there is the matter of climate finance. The funding required to decarbonise the global economy by 2050, deal with adaptation, and meet the mounting costs of loss and damage caused by extreme weather events, will amount to trillions over the next few decades. Where will this come from?

The Green Climate Fund (GCF), to which Australia grudgingly contributed a meagre A$200 million over four years, is an important initiative but it and other existing measures are wholly inadequate given the tasks at hand.

Finance is a redline issue for many developing countries. The poorer parties wanted to bring the issue of “loss and damage”, a consideration crystallised at the Warsaw COP in 2013, into the Lima decision. Developed countries resisted this as an attempt to smuggle compensation into the adaptation agenda. They confined reference to loss and damage to the preamble and weakened references to finance overall.

What about adaptation?

Last, and related, how adaptation will be handled under the new agreement is also in dispute. Should adaptation goals be a required part of the national targets? Indeed, should there be a global adaptation goal?

The Least Developed Countries — which have contributed least to the problems of climate change and will be hardest hit by its effects — want adaptation to have equal status with mitigation, in terms of finance and other forms of assistance, and could block the Paris negotiations if these matters aren’t taken into account. Adaptation is mentioned — but not strengthened — in this text.

Should the Paris agreement be legally binding?

Separately, there remains the overarching question of the Paris Agreement’s formal legal status. This remains a sleeper issue for Paris. The Lima talks affirmed parties’ determination to “adopt a protocol, another legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention”.

In other words, the Paris agreement could be a legally binding agreement, including compliance mechanisms, or a lesser decision calling for national measures with legal force. Or a hybrid of the latter two.

The prevailing view is that a strong legally binding agreement will be rejected by the US. Indeed, Paris could still collapse into a weak political agreement (a la Copenhagen) that would represent a failure of the roadmap agreed at climate talks in Durban in 2011.

Last Wednesday, Nobel Prize winner and former US Vice President Al Gore presented his revised slide show to a large audience in one of the COP’s side events. It offered a terrifying picture not only of the future consequences of failed negotiations and weak mitigation, but of our world unravelling under the present-day assault of accelerating global warming.

The contrast between his message and this COP’s unworldly and dilatory squabbling couldn’t have been starker. The selfish and ultimately self-defeating behaviour of developed country Parties like Australia – acting to protect their wealth against the just claims of the global South - is shaping up to be the biggest obstacle on the path to effective agreement in Paris next year.