Three things you need to know about the UN climate talks in Lima

As delegates assemble in Peru for COP20, Alice Bell sums up the state of climate change action.
By: /
December 1, 2014

1. It is one step in an on-going process.

The UN has climate talks every year and has done for the best part of two decades. The big action is likely to happen in Paris in December 2015. We might be forgiven for seeing Lima as a bit of a dress rehearsal. It will, it is hoped, help lay the ground for this ongoing process.

This year we’ve already seen a ‘bonus extra’ UN climate summit in New York in September, bringing together world leaders and engaging business and civil society too. There was also the US/China deal, the Green Climate Fund pledges, last month’s World Bank report, a steady, year-long stream of IPCC reports and a rapidly growing divestment movement.

“My hunch is it will still take time to build trust in the process. Lima is a litmus test in some ways for that,” argues Tom Mitchell, Head of Climate Change at the Overseas Development Institute.

A key step on the way to Paris comes in March, with the pledging of what, in UN speak, are known as the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, where countries outline the steps they propose to take to reduce emissions. It’s hoped that Lima will help clarify this process.

There are other steps ahead too though. “2015 is a busy year of discussions” says Mitchell. “The success we may or may not have in other deals in 2015 will shape the context of Paris. It’s very different to insulate any agreement for another.” He offers three headline events to look out for: the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, in Sendai City in March, the Financing for Development summit in Addis Ababa in July, and then, in September in New York, there are further discussions on the Sustainable Development Goals. “They’re some of the key stopping off points to the way to Paris” he suggests, “As well as negotiations as part of the UNFCCC that will happen periodically. There are lots of checking points on the way.”

Susann Scherbarth of Friends of the Earth Europe’s Climate Justice and Energy Programme also adds the G7 summit in Germany next summer. She expects a fair amount of civil society activity here, as well as political debates. Noting the global network of marches which surrounded the New York summit last September, but also the Reclaim Power week of action in October she argues “more people are willing to engage, and its not just the usual climate people. The constituencies are very different now. There’s a growing movement on the ground toward Paris.”

2. Action on climate change has a lot more political space.

“The wind seems to be changing direction” says Joanna Haigh, Co-Director, Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, with almost a glimmer of hope in her voice.

She refers to a slightly more direct approach from the IPCC. “The synthesis report has actually come out with what we need to do. It doesn’t say how to do it, but it’s said we’ve got to get carbon emissions down by this amount by such a date. So that’s a real something to aim for.”

On one hand she wishes the report had received more public attention. “All that effort, all that writing, all those hours, and it really got little [press] coverage.” At the same time, she suspects this was partly because the general public is already on board. ”They pretty much understand that climate change is happening and it’s pretty much down to human activities. They don’t need to know that anymore.”

“In a way, we’re in a good place” agrees Charlotte Wolff-Bye, Head of Sustainability Strategy at Statoil. “The more I think about it, the UN climate summit [in New York] was so important. To build that momentum and get that political will early on.” Also referring to the recent US/China deal and slew of pledges to the Green Climate Fund, she feels this movement is continuing. “The right signals are there.”

Mitchell felt the New York summit was, in some ways, disappointing because there weren’t key announcements on emissions reductions, but it was powerful in bringing together lots of different actors. He also notes a key shift in attitudes towards the economics of climate change.

“One of the key reasons for failure in Copenhagen was the relationship between the US and China. There were suspicions about the relationship between emissions reductions and primacy in the global economy. I think that’s changed. With the New Climate Economy report, under the stewardship of Calderon and Nick Stern, climate change action is aligned with economic growth. It’s not seen as a significant cost.” Although he thinks concern that the middle classes in China have for air pollution has played a key role too, the new business case has been powerful.

Mitchell also invites us to look at the set of developing countries taking a leadership role in tackling climate change alongside reducing poverty and improving human development. “There is a set of countries that want to be seen as leaders on climate change, and do so because it’s good for the economy, their trading position, investment, all that” he explains, citing Ethiopia, Kenya, Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru, and Chile as key examples.

Charlotte Wolff-Bye stresses the plurality of action of climate change. “I think you have a lot of different actors in society — civil society, academia, business, government, cities, regions — pooling together and doing some really exciting work. There are unlikely partnerships and unusual partnerships looking at how we might solve this issue.” Something to hope for in the UNFCC process are actions and pledges that ensure we can continue to foster these sorts of relationships. “It’s a big issue, it’s not for a single entity in society alone to solve.”

3. We’re still not nearly ambitious enough.

If people are hopeful, it comes with a lot of caveats and a general sense that something is a lot better than than the nothing — or at least woefully low levels of ambition — we’ve had previously.

As Tom Mitchell notes of the Green Climate Fund, the 9.3 billion dollars currently pledged falls well short of the G77 target of $15 billion “and it’s not yet at the 10 billion target Christiana Figueres set. But nonetheless it’s progress from where we were.”

Similarly, Jo Haigh is cautious: “When the US and China came out with that statement, we all thought that was a good thing, even if its not good enough, it’s definitely a move in the right direction.”

“I don’t know what the scientific community can do more. It now has got to be down to the policy makers to take notice of the necessary economics.” She adds. From the perspective of UK and European policy she wants to see action: “It’s very good that they’ve these targets, but they have to put their money where their mouth is, put a lot more investment in energy efficiency and renewables and think about carbon pricing to do something and show that they really mean it.”

Tom Mitchell sees the INDCs — those pledges countries will make in March on how they’ll reduce emissions — is a more constructive, realistic and pragmatic approach. “Let’s build from a position of what countries can do. Rather than a top-down distribution of targets based on some pre-determined equity framework. Even though we’re on a pathway to not meeting the ambitions that are needed, it’s a more positive starting point than having no opportunity to strike a deal at all.”

Susann Scherbarth, however, worries that the outcomes for Paris currently look quite weak, and would like to see a more binding approach than voluntary contributions. She still has hope that Paris can deliver something based on the principles of equity and science she wants to see. However, “currently what we see is the opposite, we get weaker and weaker agreements, with the developing countries being put under so much pressure.” She also worries about a negative influence of the fossil fuel industry on the negotiating position of several countries.

Charlotte Wolff-Bye notes that it’s important to remember that the private sector will have to implement many of these commitments. “I can’t see the private sector interfering in the negotiation process in any way, but its very important to understand [the sector], to get the right incentives for industry to invest in technology.” In terms of what she’d like to see: “From our perspective what would be very important is a price on carbon. That would be the best fix.”

Perhaps a trick is to look beyond Paris. For Tom Mitchell, the key period is between 2015 and 2020, and then through to 2025. “How the level of ambition of every countries’ pledges can be slowly turned up and up and up.”

Overall, however, he’s pessimistic that we’ll be able to keep within the limit of two degrees global warming which many seem to work to, or even if it’s an appropriate target. “Two degrees is a global average rise. It masks considerable sub-regional variations and very severe impacts for many people in the world. And it’s as if anything anything over two degrees is seen as avoiding dangerous climate change. Actually there is a lot of dangerous climate change between where we are now and getting to two degrees.”

This post was originally published by Road to Paris.