Climate Change COP 20: The International Negotiations Stay (Just About) On Track

by Inline Policy on 17 Dec 2014

In Lima, at the beginning of this week, after two weeks of the usual tortuous negotiations, the 196 parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) emerged with the Lima Call for Climate Action. This sets out the main priority issues for the parties in relation to the landmark COP 21 in Paris in December 2015 - the deadline for an international agreement on climate change - and attaches a 39-page document (a “non-paper”) containing various options for different elements of  a draft negotiating text.

This note analyses Lima’s outcomes and the prospects for an international climate agreement in Paris 12 months away.

Backdrop

There was no disputing the sense of optimism with which country delegates went into Lima. Several significant developments had taken place in recent months to engender the buoyant mood:

  • the US/China emissions reductions deal struck in November;
  • the EU political agreement in October on a 2030 climate and energy framework;
  • the UN Secretary-General’s successful Global Climate Summit in September, attended by 120 heads of government;
  • the $10bn in various government pledges to the Green Climate Fund, the UNFCCC body designed to mobilise private capital to support the transition to the low-carbon economy in developing countries.

This sense of a promising direction was further reinforced as COP 20 started, with the German Government announcement that it was going to accelerate its emissions reductions up to 2020, and the announcement from the German utility E.on that it had taken the strategic decision to withdraw over time from fossil fuel and nuclear powered-generation in favour of renewable power.

All this against the backdrop of the recent synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with more definitive conclusions on climate science than ever before - and continuing extreme weather events around the world - underlining the urgency of the issue and the necessity of stronger international action.

Outcomes

There is however nothing like the laborious process of a COP to puncture a sense of optimism. A weary groundhog day atmosphere soon pervaded Lima: the habit with which negotiators put procedure above process: the endless bickering over a line of text; a mastery of the technical detail, but at the expense of strategic thinking which prioritises the political endgame. The heady mood of the autumn seemed to vanish..

There is a standard brinkmanship to these COPs which usually forces them into overtime before some coherent decisions emerge. The negotiations did come anxiously close to a stalemate where no decisions and, crucially, no draft text would have been produced. But, as the last COP before Paris, this would have been a disaster; and the negotiators (under pressure from their political masters) connected sufficiently with reality to agree the Call for Climate Action. No-one really wanted Lima to end in failure, and to take the blame for that. This options document therefore provides a starting point from which the detailed negotiations can now proceed. The road to Paris therefore remains open and the show remains on the road. A deal can be done.

The reactions from representatives, and the Call for Climate Action and draft text, make pretty clear the issues that will need to be resolved if Paris is to mark a global climate agreement:

Targets

In the UN jargon, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), ie the mix for each country’s national policies and measures on how they will reduce emissions, are expected to be submitted to the UNFCCC by the end of Q1 next year (although some countries may submit later). The good news from Lima was some progress on breaking down the historical division between developed and developing countries on this question. The latter, from China and India onwards, have traditionally insisted on the formula of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, but wording in the negotiating text suggesting that INDCs may also have to be considered “in the light of national circumstances” suggests that the dividing line on this fundamental issue is weakening. Which is not to say, however, that it won’t still be a deal-breaker in Paris. This will be the number one issue to be resolved there - the hinge on which everything else will depend - and that probably won’t be until the 11th hour.

The less good news on targets was that Lima was unable (despite pressing from the Europeans and Americans) to agree common means of how INDCs can be measured, nor anything on a review process. This holds out the possibility of a major row next year on how much effort key individual countries are proposing to make. The importance of these INDCs therefore cannot be under-estimated - and that’s before any consideration on whether collectively they are going to be enough to keep climate change at or below the 2 degrees C threshold.

Finance

The question of whether the developed world is doing enough to finance the developing world in tackling climate change will be a running theme in 2015. There is some satisfaction OECD countries about the funding which the Green Climate Fund has to date managed to attract, given the restrictions on government budgets. This is a marked contrast to views among many developing countries that they are not receiving anything like enough support, especially in handling and adapting to the impacts of climate change. They pressed a demand for developed countries to commit to scaling up funds year-on-year, but didn't get it.

The finance issue is also bound up with questions about support for developing countries in other areas such as technology transfer, all linked to the over-arching shadow which the Chinese climate negotiator has highlighted in his (broadly positive) post-Lima evaluation - the developed world’s historical responsibility for climate change. In the meantime, the Green Climate Fund (GCF) will need to get to work in 2015 on leveraging its fund allocation on mitigation and adaptation projects. At this stage the GCF seems to be taking an open and pragmatic approach on the organisations and financial institutions it will work with.

Those looking for progress on carbon markets and forests will have been disappointed by the Lima outcomes. The use of market mechanisms, including one to incentivise tackling deforestation, will basically have to wait until Paris and agreement on an overall package.

Lima in Summary

Lima may have served as a useful, and necessary, corrective to autumnal optimism. If anyone was harbouring any complacency about the difficulty of securing an agreement in Paris, that will have been dispelled. Above all, the parties have come out of the other side with a framework text which can provide the basis for a negotiated deal. Just as importantly, despite the arguing among negotiators, political relationships took no significant hit. Past COPs have been marked by US and Chinese public criticism of each other’s stance, but there were no broadsides on this occasion - and the sea-change in the G2’s approach on climate was symbolised by the appearance of John Kerry in Lima, the first time (bar Kyoto and Copenhagen) a US Secretary of State has spoken at a COP.

In summary, momentum has (narrowly) been maintained.

Prospects for Paris

At least five sessions have been earmarked in 2015 before the parties meet in Paris from 30 November-11 December, and these will be needed if the draft text is to be whittled down. There will be important milestones along the way: some which are part of the formal process, notably the submission of the INDCs; some, like President Obama’s visit to India next month, at the national/bilateral level. The draft negotiating next proper is scheduled to be published on 1 May. Ban Ki-Moon is also arranging another global summit, for the end of June. Other external factors: will of course also be in play: for example, it’s difficult to predict the dynamic impacts if the oil price continues to fall.

Ultimately the key to success at Paris will be political focus. If it’s left to technical negotiators, the prospects recede. But if leaders can create the space and the political will, as we have seen with the US/China deal and the Global Climate Summit, and concentrate on the agenda early enough in advance of Paris, the prospects substantially improve. This is probably the biggest lesson from the failure of Copenhagen in 2009: heads of government arrived to be faced with an incomplete text and therefore an impossible task. Ministers and politicians, supported by other stakeholders, e.g. from business, will need to exert pressure on the process throughout 2015 if that mistake is not to be repeated.

The fact that Copenhagen was such a failure does provide some grounds for optimism that Paris won’t ultimately go down the same path, partly because expectations should be managed more cleverly. Pre-Copenhagen, there was much talk of an ambitious comprehensive binding agreement. This time no-one, apart from the NGOs, is using that language. The binding or non-binding nature of the agreement may pose awkward questions (this question has been parked for now) but skillful drafting ought to prevent that being a deal-breaker. As hinted above, the targets which countries commit to at Paris may well be modest in nature. But if they can demonstrate sufficient intent that collectively the international community is prepared to support ongoing and more ambitious climate action and decarbonisation policies at national level, that may be enough.

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Topics: European Union, Conservative party, Energy and environment, Economy, UK business

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