Climate Change: How To Make Sense of the Lima Talks

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Children try to form an image of a tree next to a sign reading, "The world we want" on a beach in Lima December 4, 2014. A two-week long United Nations climate summit, U.N. Climate Change Conference COP 20, opened on December 1 in Lima, with experts and analysts from around the world gathering to discuss melting glaciers and extreme weather patterns. Reuters

World leaders are gathering in Lima, Peru, for the 20th session of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC. A primary goal of the meeting is to build the foundation of a new climate agreement—to be struck in Paris next December and take effect in 2020—that can have a meaningful effect on global emissions.

In advance of the meeting, governments have shown new political will to address climate change. Several major economies, for example, have recently come forward with targets to curb emissions. In October, the European Union committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

In November, the United States and China—the world’s largest emitters—jointly announced that the United States would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and China would peak CO2 emissions around 2030. China subsequently also committed to cap its annual coal consumption through 2020, after which its use of coal is expected to decline.

At the same time, more than 20 countries have come forward to financially support the Green Climate Fund, a new multilateral fund that will help developing countries shift to pathways of low-carbon and climate-resilient growth. The fund now has more than $9.5 billion in commitments. The United States pledged $3 billion—the largest national pledge to date—during the G20 summit in November.

The spate of recent announcements has invigorated the U.N. negotiations for several reasons. First, the announcements from the United States, China and the European Union on reducing emissions indicate that the Paris agreement could have genuine participation from the world’s major economies.

Second, strong financial pledges build trust among the parties. In the Copenhagen Accord of 2009, developed countries agreed to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 from public and private sources to help developing countries rein in emissions and adapt to climate change. Recent commitments from the United States and others to the Green Climate Fund indicate that developed countries intend to ultimately fulfill the Copenhagen pledge.

Third, the fact that the United States and China jointly announced their targets indicates that the antagonism between developed and developing countries that has burdened previous negotiations—and still poses a real threat—may be lifting. It is also notable that developing countries are beginning to join developed countries in financially supporting the Green Climate Fund.

Progress on a new climate agreement will depend on parties coming together to resolve the following issues, which will be under discussion in Lima.

National goals

Whereas the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 required emissions reductions from only developed countries and therefore covered only a fraction of world emissions, the Copenhagen Accord counted 141 countries as participants but lacked the ambitious mitigation targets necessary to adequately limit warming. The Paris agreement—in contrast to both Kyoto and Copenhagen—is meant to couple participation and ambition.

In order to promote participation, parties will determine their own national targets. In order to promote ambition, other countries and civil society will be given the time and information necessary to examine the targets, which is thought to encourage parties to submit their best efforts.

Parties are expected to submit their intended targets—known as intended nationally determined contributions, or INDCs—in advance of the Paris meeting to allow a so-called sunshine period for discussion. Major and emerging economies are expected to submit INDCs in the first quarter of 2015.

A primary task for the Lima negotiations is for parties to decide what “upfront information” countries should include with their contributions. This will enable others to appraise and compare targets, measure progress and assess targets collectively against the goal of limiting warming within 2°C over pre-industrial levels. For example, required information might include the base year used, the sectors covered, the gases covered, expected participation in international carbon markets and the national policies expected to facilitate emissions reductions.

Since a common timeframe for national targets would facilitate assessment, parties will also discuss whether the first commitment period should be through 2025 or 2030. The United States has recommended 2025 to give parties an earlier opportunity to strengthen their targets for the next period. In contrast, Japan has recommended 2030, in order to signal to investors that world governments have a sustained commitment to transition to a low-carbon economy.

There will be continued discussion in Lima about whether countries should prepare contributions for the Paris agreement that address not only the mitigation of carbon emissions but also adaptation and finance. The United States has stressed that mitigation should be the focus of the INDCs; many other nations and blocs, such as Brazil, the Africa Group and the Like-Minded Developing Countries, which include China, India, Indonesia and Venezuela, have called for a broader scope.

Differentiation between developed and developing countries

All parties to the UNFCCC support the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, or CBDR, which means that countries have a shared responsibility to protect the climate, but each country’s level of responsibility varies with its historical contribution to global warming and its current capacity to address it. However, the question of how CBDR will be represented in the Paris agreement—and how it will function in the agreement—is unsettled and contentious.

In 1992, the UNFCCC separated countries into categories: Annex I Parties are economies that were then industrialized or in transition, and non-Annex I Parties are economies that were then developing.

It remains to be seen whether the Paris agreement will use a sorting mechanism such as the annexes to assign different types of obligations on mitigation, adaptation or finance to different groups of countries. Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, warns against taking CBDR to mean that the annexes should be operational in the new agreement. “Such a separation,” he said, “would be inimical to ambition and would undermine the political cohesion we need to build an effective and durable climate system.”

But many parties still propose using the annexes as a sorting mechanism. These include members of the Least Developed Countries Group, the Africa Group and the Like-Minded Developing Countries.

Brazil has recommended a reconfiguration of the annexes in which countries would be conceptually sorted into three concentric circles. In the innermost circle, developed and Annex I Parties would commit to absolute, economy-wide mitigation targets. In the next ring, developing countries would commit to economy-wide targets that are relative to national gross domestic product, business-as-usual emissions trends or population size. In the outermost ring, the least-developed countries would commit to objectives on reducing emissions that are not economy-wide.

The idea is that countries would move toward the center circle over time.

Global goals

Parties will continue to discuss which collective goals to include in the Paris agreement as they refine the draft text in Lima. Whereas the UNFCCC already recognizes the goal of limiting warming within 2°C over pre-industrial levels, the Paris agreement may also include a goal on global emissions reductions, such as net-zero emissions by 2050 or a 40 percent to 70 percent reduction in emissions from 2010 levels by 2050. Parties will also discuss whether to include goals on facilitating adaptation or new goals on finance.

Legal status

The legal nature of the Paris agreement, including the national contributions, is under continued discussion. Stern has warned that making the mitigation contributions legally rather than politically binding would discourage both participation and ambitious national targets. Similarly, New Zealand has proposed that submitting and reporting on the progress of mitigation contributions should be legally binding but that the content of the contributions themselves should not. The European Union, in contrast, has called for legally binding targets in order to create an agreement with robust accountability.

Gwynne Taraska is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Center for American Progress and the research director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University.