The Lima Climate Talks Are A Step Forward (But No Giant Leap Ahead)

The UN climate talks officially ended at 4 am on Sunday, thus concluding two weeks (plus 33 extra hours!) of intense negotiations over the fate of the planet. The result was the so-called Lima Call for Climate Action–and the “action” called for was more a reflection of what was diplomatically possible than a rousing call to arms to stop climate change.

Two weeks ago, delegates from around the world entered Lima with an usual optimism. The mood was decidedly upbeat — delegates were earnestly working on an ambitious comprehensive draft text so that the final Paris 2015 agreement would not be quite so painful a conclusion. The politics intervened. As the line-by-line review of draft texts began, whole process unraveled, old issues resurfaced, and as one developing country delegate said “it became the usual political issue instead of environmental one.”

One of the main goals of the Lima talks was to establish the structure and format of the “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs), which are each countries’ national climate action plans that will folded into the larger Paris 2015 agreement. Formally establishing these INDCs as a centerpiece to the eventual Paris agreement was a big step forward, but the devil will be in the details. The text states that INDCs must contain elements of “mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology transfer and development…capacity- building, and transparency,” but does not say anything more specific, nor does it address the structure of that these national plans should follow for submission. The only way to measure ambition would be to have some sort of consistency in the submissions to make them easily comparable, but that is not ensured by the outcome document

Basically it will be a ‘free for all’ on what is submitted by countries as their contributions. Also, the deadline given –October 2015 — is fairly late considering that that the Paris talks start at the end of November.  Instead of taking the inter-sessional meetings throughout 2015 to fine tune the ambition of INDCs and assure that elements of adaptation and mitigation receive the appropriate amount of consideration as developing countries had wanted, delegates in Paris will bear much of this burden.

On finance, the agreement is also watered down. The Paris agreement will be signed in 2015, and come into effect by 2020, but there is no language in the text regarding the crucial pre-2020 component of the finance puzzle. In other words, the question of how countries will pay for climate adaptation and some mitigation efforts is still to be determined.  This will no doubt cause rankles in much of the developing world.

One small bright spot is a portion of the text that addressed differentiation, saying that any Paris agreement should follow “the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances.” This latter part of the phrase is key phrase here. It is the exact language lifted from the historic U.S.-China climate agreement announced in November of this year and could mean that an alternative definition of differentiation will make its way into the Paris agreement. (Read this post to learn all about the concept of “differentiation” and why it means in climate change diplomacy)  This suggests that rapidly developing countries like China and India are willing to acknowledge that they have an important role to play in reducing carbon emissions as their economies grow–and not rely so heavy on coal.

Overall, delegates and ministers alike were well aware of the weak agreement. None were particularly happy, but countries like the U.S. and India were willing to compromise. So to were the Africa Group, who had been vehemently opposed to a draft circulated early the previous morning. The only alternative would have been a failed Conference of Parties all together which no one wanted.  Unfortunately, the result left a great deal of work to be done on key issues puts even more pressure on the Paris talks next year.  Diplomats will absolutely have their work cut out from them. In the end, Lima was definitely a step forward–but not necessarily a giant leap for mankind. That will be reserved for Paris next year-if all goes according to plan, that is.