Lima Climate Talks Begin With Optimism, Fresh Challenges Facing World Leaders

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By Eric J. Lyman

Dec. 2 — The newest round of United Nations climate talks got under way Dec. 1 in the Peruvian capital with pleas for action from organizers, delegation heads and environmental groups and a promise from the president of the negotiations that it would produce a significant draft agreement.

On the same day as the start of the talks, the World Meteorological Organization said 2014 was on pace to go down as the warmest year on record, while world oil prices hit a five-year low, sparking worries that cheap fossil fuels would slow the development of renewable energy sources—a key component of strategies to lower worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

The opening plenary session went well over its planned time slot as heads of many of the nearly 200 national delegations in Lima spoke to call for a strong result from the conference, scheduled to run until Dec. 12.

Christiana Figueres, the United Nations’ top climate change official, echoed those calls, and Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, the minister of environment for host Peru and the president of the talks, vowed the negotiations would produce a “Lima draft text” he said would be made up of a “strong and ambitious set of actions” from the set of priorities he has put out.

Looking Ahead to Paris

A draft text is one of four major areas where organizers say they are hoping to make progress in Lima, and, according to several delegates, the most important of the four.

“If we can come out of Lima with a strong draft text and some measurable progress in the other areas, I would call that a success,” French delegate Herve Manon told Bloomberg BNA. France will host the 2015 edition of the Conference of the Parties summit, where delegates are expected to finalize a global agreement to confront climate change.

In addition to the draft text, the other key areas are increasing commitments to lower greenhouse gas emissions before 2020, which is when the 2015 agreement is scheduled to enter into force; finance issues related to helping poor countries adapt to the impacts of climate change; and a rulebook for emission reduction vows and other actions countries will commit to by the end of March 2015.

In her remarks, Figueres said she thought it was “essential” that the rulebook be finalized in Lima, and the issue is already shaping up to be a key area of friction between countries—including the U.S.—which have said the March 2015 “contributions” should be voluntary and not legally binding, and those, led by the European Union, which believe the targets must be legally binding to be effective.

“I don’t know how it can work if they are not binding,” EU delegation head Elina Bardram of Finland said in a briefing. “For parties to have confidence in the genuine intention of each other’s contribution to the commitments, we must have a robust legal basis. We have to have rules for how we monitor, account for progress, and converse about progress made.”

The 2-Degree Target 

Five years ago in the Conference of the Parties summit in Copenhagen, parties agreed to limit worldwide global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) this century compared to pre-industrial levels. In her remarks, Bardram said that if, as is likely, the contributions early next year are not sufficient to reach the 2-degree target, steps should be taken to increase national ambitions before delegates meet a year from now in Paris to finalize an agreement.

“We don’t want to arrive in Paris and find out that the actions we are proposing are insufficient,” she said.

But it is increasingly looking as though the targets, once filed in the first quarter of next year, will not be increased before Paris. The U.S. has long opposed a “ratcheting up” period in the months leading to Paris, and in recent months, Japan and Australia have both said they would oppose changes in the initial pledges so soon after they are filed.

On Dec. 1, the UN’s Figueres said it was unlikely countries would put in the work necessary to make their initial submissions in March and then change them afterward. Instead, Figueres said she envisioned a period of increased commitments spread over a longer time span.

‘Carbon Neutral' by 2050?

“With time, countries will realize that switching to a low-carbon economy is in their best interest,” she said, adding that she believed the world would be overall “carbon neutral” by the middle of this century.

The negotiation process received a boost in the last several weeks after the U.S. and China announced a bilateral climate agreement in early November, in which the U.S. would reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels, and China said its greenhouse gas emissions would peak by “around 2030.” Two weeks before that, the European Union vowed to reduce emissions by at least 40 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. Those developments meant that for the first time ever, the world’s three largest economies were on record with official commitments on climate.

In addition, countries—led by a $3 billion pledge from the U.S.—have promised to provide at least $9.7 billion this year for poor countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change, putting them close to the $10 billion target for this year.

“The announcement between the U.S. and China and the Green Climate Fund should [give] some momentum for Lima,” Union of Concerned Scientists’ Alden Meyer told Bloomberg BNA. “Some countries said they wouldn’t act until the U.S. and China did, and now they no longer have an excuse.”

Tasneem Essop from the World Wildlife Fund agreed: “We expect negotiators in Lima to roll up their sleeves and get to work translating momentum into real action,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Eric J. Lyman in Lima at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com