Why The Peru Climate Summit Matters

CREDIT: AP/Rodrigo Abd

A delegation from South Korea poses for a photo as they arrive to the Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru, Monday, Dec. 1, 2014.

The global community of climate negotiators, leaders, and activists has gathered for the next 12 days in Lima, Peru to lay the final groundwork for what is hoped to be a new and powerful agreement at the climate summit next December in Paris. More than just a stepping stone, this conference — which brings together representatives from over 190 countries — will be critical in reaching benchmarks and important agreements that will make the Paris treaty possible.

With the world’s three biggest emitters — the U.S., China, and the European Union — all announcing emissions goals or limits in the last couple months, negotiators will attempt to parley these commitments into similar 10-15 years targets from other countries. Not all countries are expected to have equal cuts, but all are meant to participate.

Countries are expected to put forward their contributions towards the 2015 agreement in the form of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) by the end of March. These will then be used to craft the Paris treaty. The Lima gathering will help provide guidelines and clarity for what these INDCs must entail, especially for developing countries still reliant on fossil fuels to meet fast-growing energy demand needed to achieve developmental goals. These options could range from sector-wide emissions cuts to energy intensity goals to renewable energy targets.

The Peru talks are intended to prepare a draft text for the Paris summit. This would be the first time that every nation commits to a domestic plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Paris agreement may also include a goal on global emissions reductions, such as net-zero emissions by 2050 or a 40-70 percent reduction in emissions from 2010 levels by 2050, according to Gwynne Taraska, who focuses on U.S. and international climate and energy policy for the Center for American Progress.

“In order to encourage participation, the agreement will be country-driven in the sense that Parties will determine their own targets,” Taraska emailed to ThinkProgress. “In order to encourage ambition, other countries and civil society will be given the time and information necessary to examine the targets. This is thought to pressure Parties to submit their best efforts.”

The unexpected U.S.-China agreement announced last month, in which the U.S. agreed to cut its emissions 26 to 28 percent below their 2005 levels by 2025 and China agreed to peak its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 or earlier, has given these talks a sense of optimism absent since the lackluster 2009 Copenhagen COP. On top of this, the E.U. recently pledged to cut emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030.

Taraska said that the fact that “the U.S. and China jointly announced their targets indicates that the antagonism between developed and developing countries that has burdened the negotiations may be starting to lift.”

Tony de Brum, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, an island-archipelago especially endangered by sea level rise, said he’s never felt more optimistic.

“There is an upbeat feeling on the part of everyone that first of all there is an opportunity here and that secondly, we cannot miss it,” de Brum told the Guardian.

Another positive indicator is that the Green Climate Fund, which supports countries in their efforts to develop in a low-carbon manner, is approaching its goal of raising an initial capitalization of $10 billion as the U.K., Germany, the U.S. and other countries have recently made pledges. The U.S. pledged $3 billion at the G20 summit in November, the largest national pledge yet.

Then there’s the bad news. Scientists have warned that the deadline to keep temperature rises below the agreed-upon goal of 2 degrees Celsius is fast approaching and may have already passed. In any case, preventing further damage and more dire outcomes requires dramatic action, including a sustained shift to renewables and possibly the deployment of cost-effective carbon capture and sequestration. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report warned of the “high confidence” that “irreversible impacts” will occur even with action in the future.

With these stark physical realities in mind, those at the climate talks must focus on the nuts and bolts of a politically plausible, economically feasible treaty. The U.S. is pushing for a treaty that does not impose legally-binding emissions targets, as this would set up a painful standoff with a Republican-controlled Congress in no mood to pass climate treaties let alone help fund international green development. The Kyoto Protocol was legally binding, and the U.S. never signed on as Congress failed to ratify it.

“The U.S. position is that making the mitigation contributions legally rather than politically binding would imperil both participation and ambition,” Taraska said.

This puts the U.S. at odds with the E.U. delegation, which is of the mindset that legally binding cuts applying to all countries are necessary in order to instill the confidence and credibility needed for a worldwide low-carbon transition. This difference of opinion could be one of the major sticking points in Lima as neither contingent is likely to back down easily.

According to Jake Schmidt, Director of the International Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the new agreement will be centered on several key issues, new emissions reduction targets; investments to support developing countries in their efforts to address climate change, and tools to ensure that countries meet their commitments.

“For a number of issues, the agreement in Paris won’t likely establish new international mechanisms but instead will seek to expand their reach and impact beyond 2020 — taking them to the next level for a new era of international climate action,” Schmidt wrote.

Schmidt also says the Lima conference and subsequent Paris treaty will focus on strengthening pre-2020 ambitions, when the next treaty is scheduled to go into action. This could include bolstering other international agreements like the Montreal Protocol, which deals with heat-trapping HFCs. Action-oriented initiatives will also be a focus of talks over the next year, which are meant to derive commitments from key actors such as private companies, cities and municipalities, and financial institutions on top of or alongside country commitments.

“We need global commitments, but we need local commitments as well,” said Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), during the opening remarks in Lima on Monday. She said that with around three-quarters of the global population expected to live in urban areas by 2035, it is critical to plan and design sustainable cities and to primarily invest in ecologically green infrastructure.

“We should think like Aristotle,” said Figueres. “How we can we live the good life? There are many examples of civilizations that are capable of existing without destroying.”

During the opening remarks, emphasis was put on the importance of living in a sustainable fashion. The significance of the location in Peru, where Amazonian and other tribes have lived off the land for centuries, was not lost on the orators.

“This is a land of ancient human history, home to many cultures and many mysteries,” said Figueres. She said those at the talks could be inspired by these ancient people to work creatively and accomplish ambitious aims.