A 'weak' outcome feared as Lima climate talks look to stretch into weekend

Environmental activists in a mock boat perform wearing puppet heads representing leaders, from left, Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott, President Barak Obama, Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the Climate Change Conference COP20 in Lima Peru, Friday, Dec. 12, 2014.
Diplomats at the United Nations Climate Summit in Lima, Peru, have had a deceptively difficult task during the past two weeks: come up with a draft agreement that can be further honed over the course of the next year, and agreed to at a summit in Paris in December 2015. However, they do not need to finalize all the language, dotting all the i's and crossing the t's.
All parties agree that there needs to be a strong, workable framework for an agreement — like a well-constructed foundation of a home — that puts the world on course to cut manmade emissions of greenhouse gases after the year 2020.
There's just one problem with that: Through Friday afternoon, on the last scheduled day of the summit, negotiators remained stuck on a host of issues that have bogged down the climate talks for years. That no major events from the past year — from the largest climate rally in history to a landmark U.S.-China emissions agreement — have broken through the typical logjam between developing countries and industrialized nations is a pessimistic sign for the enactment of a new treaty by the end of next year.
So, yet again, a climate summit will likely continue well past its deadline, possibly through the day on Saturday and into the evening, according to experts in Lima. Right now, groups participating in the negotiations are warning that the text is watered down, and would likely fail to meet the stated objective that world leaders already agreed to at previous summits: preventing the world's climate from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels.
Meeting this goal requires would require that emissions of global-warming pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, peak in just the next few years, before declining to zero or negative emissions by the end of this century. (This would mean the world's trees and oceans would be absorbing more carbon than humans would be emitting.)
At our current rate of emissions, the world will burn enough greenhouse gases to surpass the 2-degree target in just the next 30 years or less, climate scientists say.
What's remarkable about this summit is the shifting politics around climate worldwide, with the emergence of a robust social movement backing climate action in the U.S. and Latin America, for example. In addition, the joint U.S.-China climate agreement prior to the talks was thought to provide an opening for an ambitious draft agreement in Lima, but so far, that has not been the case. Instead, countries have at times returned to stating positions they took at past climate negotiations.
"These aren't earth-shattering decisions ... they are kind of proxy fights," said Jake Schmidt, director of the international program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Warmest Years Ranked

Global annual average temperatures, ranked from warmest (left) to coldest (right).
"There hasn't been that small room yet, where all the ministers are sitting down and coming up with an agreement they can live with."

Key sticking points as of Friday afternoon:

  • What will countries have to disclose when they communicate their emissions-reduction commitments?
  • A key point of contention concerns the emissions-reduction commitments that countries have to communicate to the U.N. by the end of March 2015. In U.N. climate jargon, these are known as "intended nationally determined contributions," or INDCs.
    Countries are disagreeing over whether they will also need to commit additional financing to help developing nations adapt to climate change impacts and transition to a lower-carbon economy as part of these communications, as well as how they will be reviewed to ensure they are adequate and fair.
    “This is a sticking point," Kelly Dent, economic justice coordinator for Oxfam, told Mash in an interview from Lima. "Until that’s agreed, I think we’re going to be in for a very long night tonight, and maybe even tomorrow night.”
    For example, Brazil, the European Union, African countries are among those that want to have a very robust set of information when nations propose their targets. Others, however, are advocating that it should be up to each country individually to decide what information to include.
    “There needs to be some way of assessing each country’s contribution against the temperature target of 2 degrees Celsius," Dent said.
  • What are countries going to do to reduce their emissions before 2020, when the next treaty is slated to go into effect?
  • Some countries, particularly developing nations, are seeking language in a Lima agreement that would encourage or mandate additional emissions cuts from industrialized nations before 2020. Scientific reports published in the past year have shown that the earlier emissions start decreasing, the lower the ultimate costs and global warming-related damage will be.
    “We are really concerned that the current draft lacks specific actions to address pre-2020 emissions necessary to limit warming to 1.5-2 degrees [Celsius]. It seems that governments in Lima are happy to leave hard decisions on climate change to the governments of tomorrow. This is a recipe for a climate nightmare," Tasneem Essop, head of the climate-summit delegation for the World Wildlife Fund, said in a statement to reporters.
  • What about "long-term finance?"
  • Also at play is what additional funds industrialized countries will commit to helping developing countries adapt to climate impacts before the year 2020. So far, countries including the U.S. have pledged a total of a little more than $10 billion to this effort, but they had promised $100 billion annually by the year 2020. How this additional money will be raised, and what strings it might come with, has been a tension running throughout the two weeks of talks in Lima.
    At the end of the day, it's likely that a Lima agreement governing the INDCs will be reached before the end of the weekend, and that a separate, lengthy draft text of a potential Paris agreement will also emerge. The latter document will mainly be a compilation of country views on what should be in a longer-term global-warming agreement, potentially including a provision to radically cut global greenhouse-gas emissions to zero by the year 2050 (which was present in earlier drafts).
    But the stumbling blocks encountered at this summit in Lima raise legitimate questions about whether a new treaty can really be enacted next year — when the stakes are going to be much higher.

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