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Our verdict on the Lima climate talks – and what needs to happen now

Written by Tom Mitchell, Smita Nakhooda

​Parties went into this month’s Lima climate talks with more good news under their belts than they’d had in a long time. The world’s largest economic powers – the US, China and EU – had indicated they were prepared to take significant action to reduce emissions. The Secretary-General’s climate summit this September had corralled unprecedented public support for action on climate change and focused leaders’ minds on potential solutions. Governments had pledged nearly US$10 billion to the Green Climate Fund and the Peruvian hosts had carefully laid the ground work for a constructive discussion. 

After the talks concluded last week, it was roundly agreed that they represented a small – though vital – step forward. Long-standing divides over who is obliged to act, who should foot the bill, and how to assess whether proposed actions are ambitious enough proved difficult to overcome. But even though progress is slow and painful, it will be worthwhile if it ultimately brings us to a strong, workable agreement in December 2015.

Cutting emissions: let’s not lose the ambition

Agreed after 30 hours of overtime negotiation, the Lima Call for Climate Action lays out how countries will put on record how they plan to cut emissions, based on what each country is prepared to commit to. It calls on countries to communicate their ‘intended nationally determined contribution’ (INDCs) towards achieving the long term goal of the UNFCCC, which is to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic climate change. Countries may also report adaptation measures.

However, while the parties agreed that contributions must ‘represent a progression beyond current undertakings’ – or more than they were doing anyway – this goal is looking increasingly elusive. What countries are prepared to offer may be a considerable way off the level of ambition needed to avoid dangerous climate change. 

How this will be assessed was a matter of intense debate, with huge implications for national sovereignty and interests. The text recognises that the specific information the parties must provide to ‘facilitate clarity, transparency and understanding’ may include quantifiable information. This includes information on reference points (including base years as appropriate), time frames and periods for implementation, scope and coverage, process, assumptions and methodologies for estimating greenhouse gas impact. But overall it is open-ended.

Independent scrutiny will be essential to help us understand what it all adds up to. The UNFCCC secretariat will publish all contributions received, and prepare a synthesis report by 1 November 2015, just ahead of the next round of climate talks in Paris in December.

That won’t leave much time for the parties to review each other’s inputs before they meet in Paris and know if what’s on the table is enough to prevent dangerous climate change. But it does give countries more time to decide what they are going to put forward. Governments will need to use that time wisely.

In 2015, governments need to buy in to ‘zero zero’

It’s easy to lament the slow and painful pace of the UNFCCC negotiations given the gravity of the problem. But one of the defining features of the Lima negotiations was the emergence of new constituents for change – China announcing new commitments to peak emissions, and member states of the Independent Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Countries making the case for bolder action.

Contrary to the media characterisations, the battle fought in the UNFCCC was not one of rich countries against poor countries. It was a struggle between those who seek global policy that will help them do more at home, and those who fear that it will lock them into actions they can’t sell at home.

But with such loose guidance in the Lima decisions, countries really have to get it right at home. There needs to be robust national debate about how INDCs can advance more ambitious action, and this requires serious political processes within countries that recognise how low emission and climate resilient approaches can present better paths to poverty reduction and development.

While the idea of joint targets of zero poverty and zero net emissions (#zerozero) seems to be gaining ground, we’re not yet seeing this joined-up thinking around the key milestones of 2015 for both poverty and climate agendas: on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, on Finance for Development in Addis Ababa, on Sustainable Development Goals in New York, and on Climate Change in Paris. Decision-makers need to weave into these agreements the idea that there need not be a trade-off between low emissions growth and eliminating poverty and that continued growth fuelled by fossil fuels is entirely incompatible with sustaining zero poverty in the longer term. Only then will a sufficiently coherent international policy architecture emerge at the end of 2015.