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Lima climate talks: What really happened

December 2014

In the wee hours of last Sunday morning, negotiators at the UN climate talks in Lima, Peru, finally concluded this year’s talks with a narrow outcome that provided a little more clarity on the path to reaching a new international climate agreement during the December 2015 talks in Paris.

Although the talks have been characterized as the “first time” that all countries have agreed to cut emissions, that’s actually not the case. That key development came in South Africa in 2011, where the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action established a process to develop a new agreement “applicable to all Parties” (the same accord that will be finalized in Paris).

And Durban itself built on the progress made in 2009 in the Copenhagen Accord, which included pledges by developing as well as developed countries to undertake mitigation actions. That put a crack in the so-called “firewall” that the 1997 Kyoto Protocol had raised between developed countries (which took on binding emissions reductions) and developing countries (which did not).

Nonetheless, the Lima Call for Climate Action did take an important step forward in reaffirming this trend.

The key language says the 2015 agreement should reflect:
the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances.

The last part of that sentence is critical, for a simple reason: Circumstances change. With those six words, the Lima decision for the first time recognizes that differentiation among countries is an evolving and dynamic concept. As countries grow and develop, their circumstances change — and hence their responsibilities and capabilities may change as well.

Perhaps as important was where the language came from: the China-US bilateral agreement announced in Beijing in November. Having China and the US find common ground on the key issue of differentiation augurs well for international cooperation more broadly.

Momentum outside the negotiating rooms

While the new language on differentiation could prove to be a breakthrough going forward, the talks were notable mainly for how long they took to achieve so little. Even with a very short task list negotiators barely managed to reach a decision.

Yet despite the limited progress inside the negotiating rooms, the growing global momentum on climate change was on full display outside the talks.

Indeed, one of the highlights of my week in Lima was a breakfast hosted by Glen Murray, the Ontario Minister of Environment who — with his counterpart from Quebec and Secretary Matt Rodriguez of the California Environmental Protection Agency — announced a “Climate Summit of the Americas” to be held in July. They, along with other states and provinces, are not waiting for either the UN or their own governments to take action.

The road to Paris

Despite these small signs of progress, we should not expect Paris to result in a “global deal” with internationally legally binding emissions reductions targets that will limit global warming to the widely recognized target of two degrees Celsius. That is not what a single international agreement can achieve — and unrealistic expectations are a recipe for failure.

Rather, an effective outcome in Paris will create a robust and durable framework to support and promote ambitious domestic action, including by:

  • providing clear “rules of the road” on key technical issues such as how countries account for their emissions (to ensure, for example, that the same ton of emissions reduction doesn’t get counted twice);
  • establishing a system for countries to transparently measure and report their progress in reducing emissions, and fostering their capacity to do so; and
  • facilitating — or at a minimum not impeding — the cooperative development and use of high-integrity market mechanisms, such as emissions trading. These tools can drive low-carbon innovation and cost-effective mitigation, while also stimulating the international cooperation needed to reduce emissions even further.

Rather than trying to solve climate change in one fell swoop, the goal should be a durable and robust framework that will build confidence and trust among countries over time, in order to create a “virtuous circle” of increasing ambition.

In the coming months, countries will begin to announce their initial emissions targets for the post-2020 period — known as “intended nationally determined contributions.” Those headline numbers deserve attention, to be sure. But it will be all too easy to overlook the importance of the nuts-and-bolts issues enumerated above.

The focus for Paris should be not only on the trajectory of emissions, but also on the trajectory of institutions. To make real progress on climate, we need to summon the patience and vision to craft a climate regime that is built to last.

Reprinted with the permission of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), where this piece first appeared.

Nathaniel Keohane is a member of the E15 Expert Group on Measures to Address Climate Change and the Trade System. He is the Vice President for International Climate at EDF.

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