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Lima climate change talks avert a disaster

A lame-duck call to action helps safeguard every country's red lines, enabling all to argue again in much harder tussle in future

Nitin Sethi 

It is so decided,” said Peruvian Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, his gavel hitting the table. And, the torturous 13 days of UN climate change negotiations ended with 196 countries adopting the ‘Lima call to climate action’ document at around 1 am on Sunday morning.

Several hours of closed-door negotiations led by the hosts late on Saturday night brought about a compromise, rescuing the talks from the brink. The talks, then, did not end in a disaster but, eventually, nothing much was lost or gained. Neither for climate change or for countries.

The low-on-ambition decision left each country’s ‘red lines’ (meaning, a limit which should not be crossed) intact in two ways. Some fundamental battles – such as those over differentiation between rich and poor countries — were largely postponed, to be fought next year when negotiations for the 2015 agreement are carried out over at least three rounds. In other instances, the carefully crafted legal ambiguity in the document left room for even countries with conflicting and non-negotiable issues to claim their respective interests had been safeguarded at Lima.

As countries congratulated themselves for having reached a conclusion, the gathered civil society and environmental groups — and there were many — with near unanimity called the Lima call to climate action a cop-out. For, it had failed to set the path for next year’s crucial talks towards ambitious climate change action. By the same time next year, all the countries have to agree to a new global climate agreement.

Many international civil society groups blamed the developed countries for shirking the responsibility from existing commitments and on increasing their ambition levels for finance or reducing emissions in future. Some of these also expressed disappointment that the developing countries had not fought assiduously towards a more effective global climate regime.

A look at some roadblocks and how they were cleared
Issue: Targets for Paris 2015 agreement (INDCs)
How it got resolved
  • Mitigation-centric, but not prescriptive
  • Gives countries option to also have targets on adaptation
  • No decision on how legally binding they were
Issue: Finance and technology
How it got resolved
  • No road map for scaling up to $100 billion
  • No strong institutional mechanism
  • No mention of technology, leaving the question open
Issue: Review of INDCs
How it got resolved
  • Ex-ante review of emission targets in 2015 dropped
  • Option open for a review after 2015
Issue: Equity and common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR)
How it got resolved
  • Equity weakly embedded as idea
  • CBDR alive but weakened over years
Issue: Loss and damage
How it got resolved
  • Lip service this year, can be argued again next year to strengthen
Issue: Link of finance and technology to developing country for actions
How it got resolved
  • Lima did not emphasise on it directly

In sum
The Lima talks were originally meant to be less ambitious. Countries were to only decide the kind of information they would offer next year, to be anchored in the new (and yet not negotiated) global agreement. They were to prepare a basic sketch of ideas for this new agreement.

However, the developed countries tried to fix the terms of the new global agreement at Lima itself, lower the bar for their future obligations and break the existing provisions of the UN climate change convention. The developing countries, including India and China, in a rare sign of unity, led a rearguard action to recover lost ground. They believed the battle was tougher because the referees - the two co-chairs of the talks — were biased in favour of the developed world. They did to a large extent recover the ceded ground. However, in the face of a united developed world, determined not to raise ambition levels, the Lima decision only got more diluted to suit all.

The countries, building on the decision taken at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s annual meeting in 2014, committed to present their ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ or INDCs before the main annual meeting in Paris next year-end. The INDCs are meant to be the set of actions or targets that all countries will volunteer next year, to fight climate change under the new agreement.

The developed countries had wanted these to focus only on mitigation — or emission reduction actions. The developing countries had wanted that all the pillars of climate convention — mitigation, adapting to inevitable climate change, financing the actions and enabling it with technology, addressing loss and damage and transparency — be part of the INDCs.

The compromise
Eventually, countries lived with a compromise. Under the Lima decision, everyone will provide mitigation actions and those willing to do so could also provide adaptation actions. Respecting the red lines of the US and Australia and hard lines drawn by the European Union, finance did not make it explicitly to the INDCs list as even an option. However, in deference to developing countries, flexibility was also provided to prescribe the kind of mitigation action all nations should put up next year –- proof of how compromises had been made in lowering the benchmark to keep all countries.

Postponing a huge battle to next year, it was agreed that the Lima talks would not decide or pre-judge how legally-binding these INDCs would be upon countries in the future, if at all. Many countries, including the US, India and China so far, believe their actions should not be bound too onerously in the international forum.

The developing world enjoyed two clean victories. At the last moment, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities was re-inserted. A paragraph from the earlier joint announcement between the US and China was inserted into the Lima decision. It said the countries, “Underscore (their) commitment to reaching an ambitious agreement in 2015 that reflects the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.” Also as demanded, the provision for reviewing the adequacy of volunteered emission reduction targets without assessing the linked obligations of the rich countries to provide finance and technology, called the ex ante review, was dropped.

Developing countries were unable to insert a direct reference to the principle of equity in the decision document. Still, they revived several references to previous UN decisions and the climate change convention itself, from which the principle of equity originates.

The developed countries, in return, had their way on two key issues. Under the Lima call to climate action they are not put under any great pressure or obligation to do more to cut their emissions before the end of 2020. They also got away with watering down the provisions in the Lima decision on finance. No hard road map could be drawn for them to provide the already committed $100 billion annually, starting 2020. So far, only about $10 bn has been pledged against this sum, with great lack of clarity about the nature of these pledges.

The absolute hard line position of the developed world as a collective also ensured the issue of Loss and Damage was pushed to next year as well. It took a long fight to get even a mention of it in the decision. The developing countries, especially the poorest, had pushed that payment for loss and damage caused by inaction of the developed world to reduce emissions should be a separate pillar of climate change talks under the 2015 global agreement. The rich nations wanted it struck off entirely from the future agreement. Eventually everyone lived with some amount of lip service to the idea for this year.

At the end, on Sunday morning, many exhausted developing country leaders thanked the host Peruvian government for working with transparency to rescue the talks and respecting their views. But, bruised from the unexpected scrap with developed countries and the perceived bias of the two co-chairs of the negotiations, several, including India, also demanded that next year see a more structured, open and honest round of talks.

The next round is now slated for February 2015. By June, the first draft negotiating text for a new global arrangement should be ready and by December 2015 at Paris, this new agreement would be sealed. One that is more ambitious than the call the countries gathered at Lima made to climate action, many environmental groups hoped in their closing statements.

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First Published: Mon, December 15 2014. 00:46 IST