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Lima climate change talks avert a disaster

“It is so decided,” the Peruvian environment minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidalsaid as his gavel hit the table and the torturous 13 days of UN climate change negotiations ended with 196 countries adopting the document  ‘Lima Call to Climate Action’ at around 1 am on Sunday morning.

Several hours of closed door negotiations led by the hosts late on Saturday night brought about a compromise, rescuing the talks from the brink of disaster. However eventually, nothing much had been gained and nothing substantial lost. Neither for climate change nor for countries.

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The low-on-ambition decision left each country’s red lines intact in two ways. Some fundamental battles – such as those over differentiation between rich and poor countries – were largely postponed to be fought next year when the negotiations for the 2015 agreement are carried out over at least three rounds. In other instances, the carefully-crafted legal ambiguity in the decision document left room for even countries with conflicting non-negotiable issues to claim that their respective interests had been safeguarded at Lima.

As countries congratulated themselves for having reached a conclusion, the gathered civil society and environmental groups– and there were many – with near unanimity, called the Lima Call to Climate Action a cop-out for failing to set the path for next year’s crucial talks towards ambitious climate change action. By the same time next year all the countries have to agree to a new global climate agreement.

Many international civil society groups blamed the developed countries for shirking responsibility from existing commitments and on increasing their ambition levels for finance or reducing emissions in future. Some of them also expressed disappointment that the developing countries had not fought assiduously towards a more effective future global climate regime.

The Lima talks had originally meant to be less ambitious. Countries were to only decide the kind of information they would offer next year to be anchored in the new (and yet not negotiated) global agreement. They were to prepare a basic sketch of ideas for this new agreement. But the developed countries tried to fix the terms of the new global agreement at Lima itself, lower the bar for their future obligations and break the existing provisions of the UN climate change convention. The developing countries, including India and China, in a rare sign of unity, led a rearguard action to recover lost ground. They believed the battle was tougher because the referees – the two co-chairs of the talks were biased in favour of the developed world. They did to a large extent recovered the ceded ground, but in the face of as united a developed world determined not to raise ambition levels, the Lima decision only got more watered down to suit all.

The countries, building on the decision taken at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s annual meeting in 2014, committed to present their ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ or INDCs before the main annual meeting in Paris next year  end. The INDCs are meant to be the set of actions or targets that all countries will volunteer next year to fight climate change under the new agreement.

The developed countries had wanted these to focus only on mitigation – or emission reduction actions. The developing countries had wanted that all the pillars of climate convention – mitigation, adapting to inevitable climate change, financing the actions and enabling it with technology, addressing loss and damage and transparency – be part of the INDCs. Eventually countries lived with a compromise. Under the Lima decision, everyone will provide mitigation actions and those willing to do so could also provide adaptation actions. Respecting the red-lines of US, Australia and hard-lines drawn by EU, finance did not make it explicitly to the INDCs list even as an option. But in deference to developing countries, flexibility was also provided to prescribe about the kind of mitigation actions all nations should put up next year – a proof of how compromises had been made lowering the benchmark to keep all countries).

Postponing a huge battle to next year, it was agreed that the Lima talks would not decide or pre—judge how legally-binding these INDCs would be upon countries in future, if at all. Many countries including the US, India and China so far believe that their actions should not be bound too onerously in the international forum.

The developing world enjoyed two clean victories. At the last moment the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities was re-inserted. A paragraph from the joint announcement between US and China was inserted in to the Lima decision. It said that the countries “Underscore (their) commitment to reaching an ambitious agreement in 2015 that reflects the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances.” Also as demanded, the provision for reviewing the adequacy of volunteered emission reduction targets without assessing the linked obligations of the rich countries to provide finance and technology – called the ex-ante review was dropped.

Developing countries were unable to insert a direct reference to the principle of equity in the decision document. But they revived several references to previous UN decisions and the climate change convention itself from which the principle of equity originates.

The developed countries in return had their way on two key issues. Under the Lima Call to Climate Action they were not put under any great pressure or obligation to do more to cut their emissions or put finance before the end of 2020. They also got away with watering down provisions in the Lima decision on finance. No hard road-map could be drawn for them to provide the already committed US $ 100 billion annually starting 2020. So far only about US $ 10 billion has been pledged against this sum with great lack of clarity about the nature of these pledges.

The absolute hardline position of the developed world as a collective also ensured that the issue of Loss and Damage was pushed to next year as well. It took a long fight to get even a mention of it in the decision. The developing countries, especially the poorest, had pushed that payment for loss and damage caused by inaction of developed world to reduce emissions should be a separate pillar of climate change talks under the 2015 global agreement. The rich nations wanted it struck off entirely from the future agreement. Eventually everyone lived with some amount of lip service to the idea for this year.

At the end, on Sunday morning, many exhausted developing country leaders thanked the host Peruvian government for working with transparency to rescue the talks and respecting their views. But bruised from the unexpected scrap with developed countries and the perceived bias of the two co-chairs of the negotiations, several, including India, also demanded that next year see a more structured, open and honest round of talks.

The next round of talks is now slated for February 2015. By June the first draft negotiating text for the new global arrangement should be ready and by December 2015 at Paris this new agreement would be sealed. One that is more ambitious than the call countries gathered at Lima made to climate action, many environmental groups hoped in their closing statements. 

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