Old battles between nations have left many despairing, but business and civil society point to evidence of progress
By Ed King in Lima
While delegates inside negotiating rooms at the UN climate talks in Lima crawl towards a conclusion, many business and civil society leaders attending the meet say they feel cautiously optimistic.
The views of these individuals are a world away from the tortured lives of climate envoys, who are currently working through a complex deal to curb global emissions, due to be signed in December 2015.
Rachel Kyte is the World Bank’s chief climate official. In 2013 it channelled around US$2.3 billion to clean energy projects in developing countries.
In September it presented data showing that 73 countries and over 1000 businesses supported the concept of a carbon price, and were either operating with one or considering how best to do it.
“You have a unity of voice now from progressive business, civil society, indigenous leaders and government, and in the sessions I’ve been participating on carbon pricing and investment and the economic drivers, there’s a real sense that the things we talked about a year ago as a long way off are now being talked about as inevitable,” she says.
“Putting a price on carbon is something widely accepted as something we should be doing right now.”
Earlier this year the New Climate Economy report, a major initiative backed by seven countries including the UK and Ethiopia presented its findings in New York.
It found that US$6 trillion a year will be needed to invest in transport, energy, water systems and cities in the future.
Steering the global economy from high to low carbon growth would cost $270 billion a year more it said, but predicted this would be offset by efficiency savings and long term fuel costs.
It’s a theme Harry Verhaar from Philips, one of the world’s largest supplier of low energy LED lighting, is keen to expand on. Resource efficiency and smart technologies are the future, he says.
“The reason I’m positive is that if you really look at it – tacking climate change is an innovation agenda.
“We know it’s urgent but the solutions that come about not only reduce out footprint, they’re more economical, reduce public budget deficits, but also most of all they provide a better service.”
Philips see this as a massive business opportunity, with huge investments in China and Africa.
Verhaar hints that Paris could be one of his next customers. The hosts of next year’s climate summit – where a global agreement to curb emissions could be signed in December – have ambitions to radically cut their energy use and develop a “circular economy”.
Earlier this week France’s lead climate official, Laurance Tubiana, said the role of states and regions should be expanded at the UN climate talks. Actions taken at this level could unlock progress higher up.
That’s a message many regional leaders are adopting, some from unexpected corners of the world.
Canada’s federal government is not popular at the UN talks. In 2012 prime minister Stephen Harper pulled the country out of the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s only legally binding climate treaty.
That was followed by threats to defund the UN climate convention and strong backing for extraction of carbon-rich tar sands for oil in the province of Alberta.
But at this provincial level it turns out Alberta is the odd one out. In September the leaders of Ontario and Quebec signed a pact to enforce tougher climate laws, covering 20 million people and over half the country’s GDP.
Glen Murray, Ontario’s environment minister, says that by shutting coal plants and targeting a 25% drop in emissions the province hopes to boost its economy.
“We’re looking at a geothermal and insulation revolution,” he says.
“The number of jobs that creates for middle income families is huge. This is a socially equitable retrofit economy. It’s a re-wealth economy, that’s coming and it’s an exciting thing.”
Ontario’s not alone. In September 2000 cities and regions signed a “compact” the UN says could cut their greenhouse gas emissions 454 megatons by 2020.
Latin American campaigners are also hopeful this summit has alerted leaders and the wider population to the threats posed by environmental degradation.
The Lima meeting has been marked by a number of interventions from indigenous groups who say their traditional rights are being abused by rapacious developers keen to exploit forests for timber, oil, gas and minerals.
Last week four widows from a remote jungle village made it to the Peruvian capital, explaining how their husbands were killed – they say by illegal loggers tired of opposition to their activities.
The same week the body of Shuar leader José Isidro Tendetza Antún was found. An Ecuadorean Amazon leader, he had planned to travel to the UN talks to highlight the plight of his people to delegates.
For Monica Araya, head of the Nivela campaigning group and a former Costa Rican climate negotiator, this meeting has set these challenges up on a platform for all to see.
“There is a sense of threat that wasn’t there 5 years ago,” she says. “There is a sense we are vulnerable and that we need to rethink infrastructure.
“The question is whether they are willing to do it urgently, now or waiting 10 years. The question is not whether we will do something, but whether we will do it fast enough.”
Araya says it’s positive that leaders in Brazil, Costa Rica and Ecuador all accept they have to make a commitment to a global deal.
Latin leaders have flocked to this meeting to declare their green credentials. On Sunday eight countries announced new plans to restore 20 million hectares of forest.
Another challenge, says Araya, will be to fix their car-choked cities. She thinks this could be part of their pledges to a Paris agreement.
“We see a perfect storm building up in our cities. We have 82% of LA living in cities. That is a great opportunity for mixing commitments with the climate regime that wants to work for the people,” she says.
Latin people-power was in evidence on Wednesday this week when an estimated 20,000 took to the streets in Peru to walk for climate justice, the largest gathering of this nature ever on the continent.
It was the latest manifestation of the anger and urgency many people feel when confronted with the concept of climate change.
The last was New York on September 21, when campaigners say 300,000 marched through Manhattan, with thousands more walking around the world.
It’s a sign says Bangladeshi climate expert Saleemul Huq that momentum is growing outside the UN negotiations.
“I think my greatest sense of optimism comes not from the process inside Lima but from the reality outside,” he says.
In the middle weekend of these marathon conferences he organises a “climate and development” event outside the venue.
The aim is to discuss ways of cutting poverty and emissions, sharing knowledge, empowering local communities.
Since he started it three years ago numbers attending have grown, a sign perhaps of a desire to break out of the box and explore new ways of addressing what for so long has seemed an insurmountable problem.
“People are taking action, cities are taking, positive signs that the UNFCCC negotiators have to catch up with,” he says.
As for the negotiating teams stuck inside the conference venue?
They are locked in a two decade old battle over how developed or developing countries should share the burden of tackling the climate challenge.
For Huq, who works closely with the least developed countries bloc, which is desperate for everyone to slash emissions, it’s an old and jaded argument.
“They are stuck in the language of 20 years ago. When the US president and the Chinese president announced their agreement a few weeks ago, they didn’t call each other annex I and non annex I.
“That’s negotiator language. They’re insisting they need their language, but it is now out of date.”