For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice. – T.S Eliot
In the dead of the night, in a spotlit marquee in the suburbs of Lima, the twentieth annual UN climate change conference came to a bizarre and sudden ending this week. After two decades of politicking, two weeks of intense negotiations, two days of overtime, and finally, two hours into Sunday morning, the nations of the world appeared to reach consensus on global climate action. The purpose of the Lima conference was to lay forth a pathway to a landmark meeting in Paris next year, where a global treaty will hopefully be signed. Technically, we got this. In some senses, we have never been closer to tackling climate change than we are right now. However, the Lima deal has sent shockwaves through the international community. It has been variously slammed and celebrated, it has divided former allies, and it has sparked more controversy than any climate deal since Copenhagen. In this final reflection on a momentous fortnight, The Verb believes that the Lima Call is a won battle, but that the real war lies before us. If we want to be ready for Paris, we must know the extent of the challenge that faces us. In the words of T.S. Elliot, next year’s words must have another voice. That voice might sound something like this.
The Road to Lima
In the build up to Lima, change felt possible. Last year’s underwhelming Warsaw conference left the climate world braying for more aggressive action. Where expectations were low for the heavily coal-dependant Poles to push action, this year’s Peruvian hosts played all the right cards, particularly in the appointment of the formidable and enormously well-respected environment minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal as president of the conference.
Worldwide, too, 2014 was the year the citizens of earth kicked into gear for climate action. Almost half-a-million marched through New York City in September for the People’s Climate March, days before the Secretary General of the UN convened national leaders to discuss climate change.
Then in November, the presidents of China and US announced a historic bilateral agreement for emissions reduction. This was the first time the world’s two largest economies (and emitters) made major, coordinated and autonomous decisions on climate action.
Soon after, thirty countries gathered in Berlin to pledge US$9.3 billion to the Green Climate Fund.
These were all things we had not seen before.
The world came to Lima believing that for the first time in years, or at least since Copenhagen, we might have genuine progress on the climate talks. The aims were two-fold: to identify what each country’s commitments to climate change, known in the convention as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs); and, to lay out a basic blueprint for the Paris agreement next year.
Lima: The Nitty-Gritty
This hope was still-born. Week one were marked by total immobilisation of the negotiation process, the resurgence of bitter infighting between negotiating blocs and vigorous attempts by developed nations to stymie progress. Glimmers of hope came in the form of Belgium and then, from nowhere, Australia, putting forth contributions to the Green Climate Fund. As ministers from across the planet flew in, grand statements on the importance of climate action flew across the plenary. The EU was “in Lima to find solutions”, the USA rallied everyone “to act with more despatch” and Canadawas “proud to be part of the frontline of international efforts to combat climate pollutants”. In the privacy of the negotiating rooms, however, far from the cameras and the microphones beaming their words to the world, these countries sung a different tune.
Canada changed mandatory reporting to aspirational reporting (which means it’ll never happen), and the USA demanded ‘loss and damage’ be excluded from the text. Evidently when a superpower stamps its foot, it gets it way. In a shockingly audacious move, Australia moved to eliminate the notion of ‘fairness’ from the treaty altogether. The small island states, many of which are literally being engulfed by the rising seas, could but look on as dilution of the text further imperilled their survival.
By the Friday deadline for the conference to conclude, the fractured talks looked doomed. The major rifts—on equity, responsibility, finance, adaptation—appeared irreconcilable, or at least, unlikely to be reconciled that day. The co-chairs of the negotiations went back to the drawing board to create a new draft text that they hoped would be acceptable to all. Delegates waited at the slowly emptying centre as night fell, waiting for the new text to be released. By 2am on Saturday morning, it made its explosive arrival.
Developing nations had not been consulted. All of Africa, for instance, had been left out of the consultation process. Developed states had been given advance access to the text. It was instantly clear that the co-chairs had delivered a sub-par text through an unmitigated failure of process. The anger was already palpable, when the embattled co-chairs moved to give countries just thirty minutes to review the text before it was passed. Pandemonium erupted. The speakers list instantly filled up as developing countries sought to speak against the unreasonable proposition. As the clocked ticked to 3:30am and the gridlock deepened, the co-chairs adjourned the session, to resume at 10am for a final marathon session.
Sleep-deprived and frustrated, delegates filed in with the sunrise. Things did not look better in the morning. The same issues arrested the talks and began to divide negotiating blocs. The Marshall Islands and the Philippines, small island developing states that are generally vocal in representing the vulnerable, reluctantly assented to the text, desperate to avoid failure before the Paris agreement. Others remained violently opposed. In a radical move, the co-chairs closed the Lima negotiations, taking the extraordinary decision to pass the gauntlet to the conference president Pulgar-Vidal in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the talks.
As things crumbled around him, it came down to this single man to find consensus among the warring parties where the co-chairs could not, to produce something out of Lima that could keep the talks alive until Paris. Unpretentious and widely popular, Pulgar-Vidal committed to meeting with all parties before drafting a final agreement. The session broke on what was to become a 12-hour interim as the fate of the talks hung in the balance. By dusk, as the conference settled for another seemingly interminable wait, the French delegates were handing out free wine. The Australians, beer. Tactical or friendly, perhaps both, it was a welcome break to the tension. At 2am, Pulgar-Vidal emerged from his ordeal, and took to the plenary microphone.
“This new text heeds everybody’s concerns in a balanced way” he announced, assuring the room that with this text “I believe we all win”.
However the strain showed. Straying from his official role, he shared with the room: “I am a 52 year-old man and I have learned more in these last two days than I have learnt before them”. The enormity of the moment was visceral.
Copies were physically handed out to the room, and with just an hour to read it, countries frantically pored over the outcome. By 3am, Pulgar-Vidal brought the plenary to attention, and within seconds, slammed his gavel. It was over. Agreement was found. From the ashes of the negotiations, the Lima Call for Climate Action miraculously emerged.
The Lima Call
This final draft of the Lima Call was in many ways a drastic departure from previous versions. There were two key environmental wins, namely the prominent inclusion of differentiated responsibility (that wealthier countries had managed to keep out of previous drafts); and the retention of adaptation as a core element. The climate fails, though, trumped the wins. Provision for loss and damage compensation is all but precluded; plans for finance have been gutted; and, critically, there is no longer any review process for countries’ individual climate policies. This last point basically means that individual states will be able to come up with their own climate policies irrespective of what the science is saying needs to be done, they will be ‘marking their own homework’. With Australia already accused of some less-than-honest climate accounting, this backpedal is deeply troubling.
Reactions from civil society groups were swift and damning. Director of policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists Alden Meyer, speaking to The Verb just minutes after the decision had been handed down, described the text as “the bare minimum we need to keep the process moving towards Paris”. By watering down the text to sufficiently ambiguous language, the president garnered agreement, but it was a superficial agreement that thinly veils the persistence of major conflicts. The big issues were not resolved but “kicked down the road”.
WWF’s Tasneem Essop slammed its weak mitigation criteria warning “we are on a path to three of four degrees with this outcome”. Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam said “negotiators have managed to get the boat in the water from Lima’s shores without sinking, but choppy seas are ahead before they reach Paris”. Perhaps most ominously, the Climate Justice Network, speaking to the plenary just minutes after the decision was handed down, declared:
“They tried to bury us here in Lima, but we are seeds, and we will grow into a forest of resistance”.
Conveying the most wonderfully scant praise possible, the Malaysian negotiator told the plenary the Lima Call is filled with unhappiness, but that “the unhappiness is of the kind that is sufficiently marginal as to warrant our applauding of this text”. The Lima Call was certainly no glorious triumph.
Where to From Here
The Verb is of the view that science should not be compromised for political expediency. When compromise involves your island sinking into the ocean, it is not to be sought after. When compromise involves locking in catastrophic climate change, it is not to be sought after. This Lima text is a compromise with the future of the planet. The climatic system will pay no heed to the deals struck between people. Irrespective of what progress we have made, if it is not enough to avoid the catastrophic threshold, nature will punish us. By this measure, Lima failed.
Whilst much of Lima’s affected and tense dialogue was a bad dress rehearsal for Paris, there is cause for hope. Cracks emerged in the ‘firewall’ that has traditionally defined talks between developed and developing countries. Mexico courageously came out in favour of language that encourages developing nations to do more on climate financing. Peru, Colombia and Panama have all now contributed to the Green Climate Fund. Brazil’s notion of concentric differentiation, meanwhile, has caused ripples of excitement and may form a blueprint for the way forward. The firewall needs to crumble for action to take place, and Lima may have delivered it its fatal blow. We shall see.
For the moment, however, the world can but stand in trepidation of the task before us.
If an effective and binding treaty does transpire in Paris, some groups will certainly lose out in the short-term: the fossil-fuel industry for one. But that is a loss the world must sustain for its very survival. A confrontation looms then, between those trying to protect the climate for the ultimate benefit of all, and those seeking to prevent action for the benefit of a few.
In Lima, that confrontation was avoided, and so the storms brew ever angrily ahead of us. The Lima Call is certainly empty, but it may yet prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. The race for consensus in Lima may have locked in such weak language that real action in Paris is now an impossibility. Time will tell. What we can be sure of is that the main game is still ahead of us. And when billions of lives depend on the outcome, that is a struggle for which we must prepare.