Assessing the Outcome of the Lima Climate Talks

In the early morning hours of Sunday, December 14th, the Twentieth Conference of the Parties (COP-20) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) concluded in Lima, Peru with an agreement among 195 countries, the “Lima Call for Climate Action,” which represents both a classic compromise between the rich and poor countries, and a something of a breakthrough after twenty years of difficult climate negotiations.

Just before two o’clock in the morning, the President of COP-20, Manuel Pulgar Vidal, Peru’s Minister of Environment, gaveled the approval of the text, without dissent. At that moment, the foundation was established for the next major international climate agreement, which – under the auspices of the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action – will be finalized and signed one year from now at COP-21 in Paris, France, for implementation in 2020.

After five days on the ground in Lima, where I participated in a variety of events and met with a diverse set of national negotiating teams, I’ve reviewed the agreed text of the Lima Call for Climate Action (which I abbreviate below as the “Lima decision”), and can now reflect on its gestation, its meaning, and its implications.

The Lima Call for Climate Action

By establishing a new structure in which all countries will state (over the next six months) their contributions to emissions mitigation, this latest climate accord moves the process in a productive direction in which all nations will contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Working to fulfill the promise made in the 2011 Durban Platform for Enhanced Action to include all parties (countries) under a common legal framework, the Lima decision constitutes a significant departure from the past two decades of international climate policy, which – since the 1995 Berlin Mandate and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – have featured coverage of only a small subset of countries, namely the so-called Annex I countries (more or less the industrialized nations, as of twenty years ago).

The expanded geographic scope of the Lima Call for Climate Action and thereby the incipient Paris agreement – and the emerging architecture of a pragmatic hybrid combining bottom-up “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs) with top-down elements for reporting and synthesis of contributions by the UNFCCC Secretariat – represents the best promise in many years of a future international climate agreement that is truly meaningful.

Importantly, the Lima decision provides that each country’s INDC shall include a clear statement of emissions mitigation, and may include quantifiable information on reference points (such as base year), time frame of implementation and coverage, assumptions and methodological approaches for estimating and accounting for greenhouse gas emissions, as well as each country’s own assessment of its INDC’s fairness and ambition.  These statements of national contributions are to be submitted by the end of March, 2015, although countries that miss that “deadline” can then make their submissions by June.

Compromises, Compromises

Because of the ongoing sharp divide in climate talks between developed and developing countries, the Lima decision was difficult to accomplish and could only be achieved through compromises that had the effect of watering down various aspects of the accord.  This suggests that the road to Paris may be difficult for the negotiators.

The substitution of the phrase “may include” for “shall include” in regard to the elements of the INDCs was one of the compromises that was necessary to gain the approval of developing countries. So, the U.S.-favored requirement for the use of transparent elements in INDCs that would facilitate comparisons among countries was dropped.

However, at least one negotiating team with whom I met in Lima maintained that the analyses and comparisons of INDCs that will inevitably be carried out by various NGOs and research organizations (including universities) will provide the needed transparency and therefore the needed encouragement to countries for greater ambition.

A review period for the INDCs, favored by the countries most vulnerable to climate change (sub-Saharan Africa and the small island states), was also scrapped. Instead, a synthesis report will be prepared by the UNFCCC Secretariat by November 1st, 2015 (based on INDCs submitted by October 1st).

The Key Roles Played by China and the United States

Throughout the time I was in Lima, it was clear that the joint announcement on November 12th of national targets by China and the United States (under the future Paris agreement) provided necessary encouragement to negotiations that were continuously threatened by the usual developed-developing world political divide.

The delegates from the vast majority of countries were well aware of the fact that the announced China-USA INDCs move the world from the 14% of global CO2 emissions covered by nations participating (a subset of the Annex I countries) in the Kyoto Protocol’s current commitment period to a future Paris agreement that now covers more than 50% of global CO2 emissions, with Europe already on board.

Under the decision text of the Lima Call for Climate Action, within the next six months the other industrialized countries will announce their own contributions, and — more importantly – so will the other large, emerging economies – India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, and Indonesia. Coverage of 80% to 90% of global emissions can be anticipated, although major questions remain regarding what can be expected from some key countries, including India, Russia, and Australia.

Broad, Then Deep

In a 1998 book, edited by Bill Nordhaus (Economics and Policy Issues in Climate Change), Dick Schmalensee wrote about “Greenhouse Policy Architectures and Institutions,” and lamented that the Kyoto Protocol exhibited narrow scope (covering only the Annex I countries) but aggressive ambition for that small set of nations. He presciently noted that this was precisely the opposite of what would be a sensible way forward, namely broad participation, even if the initial ambition is less. Based on the 2011 Durban Platform and the 2014 Lima Call for Climate Action, it now appears that with the 2015 Paris Agreement that approach is finally being adopted.

As I predicted in my previous essay at this blog, in which I previewed the COP-20 talks, the Lima decision will surely disappoint some environmental activists. Indeed, there have already been pronouncements of failure of the Lima/Paris talks from some green groups, primarily because the talks have not and will not lead to an immediate decrease in emissions and will not prevent atmospheric temperatures from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which has become an accepted, but essentially unachievable political goal.

As I said in my previous essay, these well-intentioned advocates mistakenly focus on the short-term change in emissions among participating countries (for example, the much-heralded 5.2% cut by the Annex I countries in the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period), when it is the long-term change in global emissions that matters.

They ignore the geographic scope of participation, and do not recognize that — given the stock nature of the problem — what is most important is long-term action.  Each agreement is no more than one step to be followed by others.  And most important now for ultimate success later is a sound foundation, which is what the Lima decision can provide.

Major Challenges Along the Road to Paris

The major sticking points from now until the Paris talks, where it is hoped that the new post-2020 agreement will be signed, are all associated with the divide between rich and poor nations.

The ongoing talks will need to satisfy the interests of both the rich and the poor countries in regard to finance mechanisms, including the realization of the $100 billion commitment that was made in Copenhagen.

Also, looming in the wings is the loss and damage mechanism created in the Warsaw talks last year to help the most vulnerable nations cope with the effects of climate change.  Island nations want that mechanism to become another stream of funding from the rich countries, but the rich countries are concerned that the mechanism might lead to some notion of legal liability (and thereby a blank check).  The loss and damage concept was reiterated (but not expanded) in the Lima decision.

These and other pending issues mean that the upcoming talks in 2015 in Geneva and Bonn, prior to the December 2015 Paris Conference, will continue to require difficult negotiations across the divide between rich and poor countries.

Difficult indeed.  Whereas the agreed decision text from Lima (the “Lima Call for Climate Action”) is less than four pages in length, the Annex (“Elements for a Draft Negotiating Text”) of additional options for the Paris Agreement extends to more than 37 pages!

The Bottom Line

Although it is true that the Lima decision text was watered down in the last 30 hours (as a result of very effective opposition by developing countries), the fact remains that a new way forward has been established in which all countries participate and which therefore holds promise of meaningful global action to address the threat of climate change.  So, despite all the acrimony among parties and the 30-hour delay in completing the talks, the negotiations in Lima these past two weeks may turn out to be a key step along the way.

Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.

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