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Lima calling, but UN climate summit leaves massive workload for 2015

By Stephen Minas.

After the deadlock between national delegations to this year's United Nations climate change summit had been broken at half past one on Sunday morning, the president of the conference, Peruvian minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, made a request: that the resulting document be known as the 'Lima Call for Climate Action'.

The outcome is well described as a 'call' – rather than a protocol, a framework or even a roadmap. It notes 'with grave concern' the gap between countries' greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets and what will be necessary to restrict average temperature increases to two degrees Celsius. But it leaves the content of the planned global climate deal to be negotiated in 2015, setting up a diplomatic sprint to next December's Paris summit.

This was expected. More concerning was that negotiators were unable to agree on a standard for communications of intended national climate actions that would guarantee meaningful scrutiny of the proposed actions. The reason for this was that nations remain far apart in their interpretations of the division of responsibility between developed and developing countries.

Firewall between developed and developing countries reasserted

The common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) of developed and developing countries is a key principle of the 1992 UN climate convention. Under CBDR, developed but not developing countries were obliged to reduce emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. The concept has become increasingly controversial as the developing country share of global emissions has grown.

At Lima, disputes over differentiation characterized negotiations on the content of national commitments, adaptation to climate change and the financial commitments of wealthy nations. The EU's call for the Paris deal to reflect 'evolving national responsibilities in the world economy' was effectively rebuffed by the G77 and China bloc and, especially, the Like-Minded Group of Developing Countries. As the conference ran into extra time the negotiation grew heated, with Malaysia's lead negotiator using the rhetoric of the anti-colonial movement to reassert the need for differentiation.

Alongside the substantive disagreements were suspicions of bad faith. Certain developing country delegations attributed bias against them to the co-chairs of the main negotiation. The Like-Minded Group of Developing Countries also reported concerns that a text that they had rejected could be adopted 'by acclamation' in the closing plenary session.

The strength of disagreement over CBDR surprised some observers, who had credited last month's US-China joint announcement on climate change with bridging the developed/developing country divide. In fact, China had made it clear that the joint statement did no such thing. The National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, within China's National Development and Reform Commission, went so far as to describe the joint statement as 'a victory for the principle of common but differentiated responsibility'.

The Lima session demonstrated that no agreement will be possible without some form of differentiation, but it is also clear that the ongoing impasse over how to apply the CBDR principle is holding the negotiation back. Some creative thinking on how to update differentiation to account for twenty-plus years of economic development and growing emissions in the big emerging markets has not yet been widely adopted. In the October session of the negotiations, Brazil had proposed a 'concentric differentiation' approach, under which all parties would move from different starting points towards economy-wide, absolute emissions reduction targets. Brazil produced a paper in November on the topic and undertook to provide further clarification, but its idea was not reflected in the G77's positioning on differentiation at Lima.

Clarity on national commitments diluted

A key task of the Lima meeting was to provide for the content, timing and assessment of the communication of intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs). INDCs are climate actions that nations will commit to under the 2015 climate deal.

The CBDR division has rendered ostensibly procedural matters like the information to be contained in INDCs intensely political. Developed countries want INDCs to primarily be mitigation commitments; developing countries want them to include adaptation to climate change and financial support. Developed countries pushed for a centralized assessment process of INDCs applicable to all; developing countries opposed this and called for similar assessment of rich-world financial commitments.

At the beginning of the conference, the EU called for all countries' INDCs to contain information to enable them to be compared, aggregated and assessed against the stated goal of keeping average global temperature increases within two degrees Celsius. In the event, as successive draft texts proved unacceptable to the main bloc of developing nations, rigor was stripped out of these national communications. Some indicative changes:

  • Whereas the 8 December draft text called on nations to submit their INDCs in the first quarter of 2015, or otherwise by 31 May, the Lima agreement drops the May deadline.
  • The same draft provided that 'each Party shall communicate a quantifiable mitigation component' 'in the light of evolving national circumstances' and that 'Parties with greatest responsibility and those with sufficient capability are expected to take on absolute economy-wide mitigation targets'. The Lima agreement merely notes that each nation's contribution is to 'represent a progression beyond the current undertaking of that Party'.
  • The draft provided that all nations 'shall' provide information on 'the reference point (including as appropriate, a base year), time frames and periods for implementation, scope and coverage, expected level of effort', etc. The Lima outcome provides that nations 'may' include these and other details in their INDCs.
  • The 8 December draft encouraged nations to question each other on their INDCs and tasked the secretariat with organizing a June dialogue on INDCs and with preparing a paper on the 'aggregate effect' of INDCs by the end of June. In the Lima agreement, the dialogue is gone and the 'aggregate effect' report is to appear by 1 November – less than a month before the start of the Paris summit.

This weakened text will make it harder to assess national commitments against the goal of limiting climate change.

Mixed outcomes on elements of the global climate regime

With the Paris deadline still a year away, it is unsurprising that the Lima conference left many issues undecided (the draft negotiating text annexed to the Lima Call contains multiple options on many topics). Aside from the pressing question of INDCs, Lima saw some progress on climate finance but also ongoing disagreement over issues that are shaping up as faultlines at Paris and beyond:

  • Pledges announced during the conference finally saw the Green Climate Fund reach its initial targeted capitalization of $10 billion. The conference tasked the Fund with accelerating both the opening of its mitigation and adaptation funding windows and engagement with the private sector.
  • The question of compensation for 'loss and damage' caused by climate change remained controversial, with disagreement over how to address this issue in the negotiation.
  • There was no agreement on how to address negative economic and social consequences of response measures to climate change, with the G77 and China, opposed by various developed countries, proposing a new mechanism to deal with the issue.

The limits of climate diplomacy

Cooperation, as the political scientists Robert Axelrod and Robert Keohane once observed, 'is not equivalent to harmony'. Each year, the UN climate summit furnishes new evidence for this proposition.

This year, the Saturday night scramble for a text all could live with essentially restored the status quo of the process, leaving well-worn negotiating 'red lines' intact. Provisions that played down differentiation and were therefore (according to the G77 and China) 'unbalanced' were removed, but so was language calling for badly needed transparency on the part of governments. As one negotiator commented on Saturday, 'every time we do an iteration of this document we get less and less'.

Nevertheless, the Lima outcomes were fairly described by parties, presiding officers and the UN secretariat as doing enough to keep a robust Paris deal within reach. Such an outcome will require high-level political compromise of the kind that was never in prospect this year. Rather than simply condemning the Lima outcomes (which a number of civil society groups did before the digital ink on the 'Lima Call' was dry), it might be worth reflecting on what this process can deliver and what it cannot.

Twenty-plus years of experience suggest that the UN climate negotiations are effective at spurring nations to greater climate action than they would otherwise have undertaken, at creating platforms to mobilize resources (including knowledge) and at bringing together diverse public and private sector actors to work on the common challenge. However, the UN process has been unable to deliver anything approaching a comprehensive global solution.

Giving that climate change is a whole-of-world-economy problem aptly described by economist Ross Garnaut as 'diabolical', this is unsurprising. Instead of railing against the limits of climate diplomacy, critics should look for opportunities to increase the effectiveness of the process.

These include coordinating with other public sector processes, including the Sustainable Development Goals and city-to-city networks, in order to produce complementary, mutually reinforcing outcomes. They also include deeper engagement with the private sector and more experimentation with mobilizing climate finance, recognizing that public sector funding will continue to be insufficient. The Lima outcomes included encouraging language on both of these opportunities.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, the incoming conference president, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, noted that many of the negotiators present had spent much of their careers on climate change. 2015 will be a crucial year for translating that commitment into a stronger global response to climate change.

December 2014