Thoughts from Lima (#5): Prof. John Sweeney Reports on the COP20 UN Climate Conference

The pattern of these UN Climate Conferences is similar almost every year.  Initial optimism gives way to deadlock. The clock is stopped and the conference is extended into Saturday when an agreement of sorts is produced under time pressure from departing delegates. So it was this week. When deadlock was evident on Thursday night the Peruvian President of the COP, Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal worked feverishly behind the scenes to rescue talks which had become increasingly bitter. A compromise draft on Saturday was again rejected mainly by the developing country blocs. US delegate Todd Stern warned that the entire UN structure on tackling climate change was at risk. The prospects of the conference paving the way for an ambitious deal in Paris in 2015 seemed remote.

The divide between the Developed and Developing Countries centred on the nature of individual pledges which all countries were asked to make in the lead up to Paris. Increased ambition and no retrenchment from current pledges were required. The intention was that in aggregate the total bottom-up pledges would bridge the gap between what was currently on offer and that needed to stave  off the spectre of 2oC  warming, the  agreed definition of ‘dangerous climate change’. To assist developing countries achieve ‘clean development’ and adapt to climate change, a ‘Green Climate Fund’ of $100B would be set up by the Developed Countries. Though this sounds a lot, spread over the global community it is not an excessive amount, and probably not even sufficient to achieve its objectives.

The Developing Countries are wary of promises which are not kept, and thus far the Green Climate Fund has only reached $10B, though increasing steadily as countries commit to it. Unfortunately a small number of developed countries have not made any tangible commitment to it, and this includes Ireland (which earned it some negative publicity in Lima as a result). The level of effort from other parts of the developed world was also seen as rather half-hearted in terms of the scale of the problem. The EU for example as a whole has almost already reached its 20% reduction target for 2020 and did not indicate a further tightening of its emission reduction policies for this period, though this may come in the event of a successful Paris agreement.

Gradually, trust broke down. In addition to objecting to emission reductions for themselves in the national pledges, the developing countries insisted their adaptation efforts should also be considered, together with their technical capacity and available finance. The developed countries for their part began to baulk at the prospect of large financial transfers for vaguely quantifiable actions. For seasoned conference watchers, two phrases were repeated over and over again.  The first was ‘historic and differentiated responsibility’. This referred to the differentiation between countries on the basis of their historic emissions, much of which is still in the atmosphere and contributing to the problems faced by poorer countries. Secondly was ‘Loss and Damage’ a relatively recent attempt to induce developed countries to provide compensation for their historic actions in impacting on e.g. increased storm, flood or drought occurrences in the developing world.

A sustained rejection of a compromise agreement brokered by the Norwegian and Singaporean delegates on Saturday afternoon seemed like the end of the road. However further work by the Peruvian President of COP produced a further version late in the day. This was agreed though reluctantly. The UN process works on the basis of unanimity, and getting 194 countries to agree in such circumstances inevitably produces a scaling down to a least common denominator. This appears to have been the outcome. The agreement does facilitate the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” and does provide for a “loss and damage” scheme. But the language is one of “may” rather than “shall” e.g. countries may rather than shall indicate quantitatively how they will meet their emission targets. They mayalso indicate their commitments in the first quarter of next year only “if ready to do so”.

The bottom line is that the momentum which seemed to be there for a Paris agreement has not been maintained at COP20. Instead the old antagonisms have re-emerged and the ambition that Paris will deliver a meaningful agreement has receded. It is a standoff the world does not need as we burn off our remaining carbon budget. But as we have seen in Ireland’s carping over meeting its agreed 2020 targets, national self interest trumps global community good when the chips are down. Would that those unwilling to put their shoulders to the wheel in Lima or Dublin explain their logic to the 250,000 people the World Health Organisation estimate die from the direct or indirect effects of climate change each year, or to the next generation of Irish people who will also pay a price for today’s lack of urgency.

John Sweeney


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