UN climate chief Christiana Figueres and predecessors Yvo de Boer and Michael Zammit Cutajar offer thoughts on Lima talks
By Ed King
The global mood on climate change is shifting, but there’s little sign that the proposed 2015 agreement will be enough to avert dangerous levels of warming.
Envoys from over 190 countries meet in Lima, Peru next week to continue work on efforts to slow greenhouse gas emissions, which the World Meteorological Organisation says are rising faster than ever before .
They will arrive with warnings from leading scientists that nearly 1.5C of warming is already locked into the atmosphere, potentially causing sea levels rises, crop failures, flooding and drought.
It’s a bleak scenario, but after years of inaction there are signs of movement – notably from the US and China, which recently announced a joint plan to curb emissions by the end of next decade.
“It is politically striking they chose to do this together,” says Michael Zammit Cutajar, the man who set up the UN’s climate body back in 1991, and ran it until 2002.
“The fact they have done it together may have an impact on the way negotiations are carried out – normally they are on other sides of the fence.”
So long rivals at UN climate summits, the Washington-Beijing rapprochement has raised hopes among seasoned observers that a global deal could finally be in the offing.
The last time countries tried was in 2009 in the snows of the Danish capital, eventually agreeing a loose set of proposals that have only seen carbon pollution accelerate.
The UN climate chief then was Yvo de Boer, now head of the Seoul-based Global Green Growth Institute.
“The process is in a much better place than it was a year before Copenhagen,” he says.
“Partly due to a lowering of the level of ambition and partly due to improved climatics… what the US and China have done helps to unlock the logjam.”
Speaking from Bonn, days before she flies to Lima, the UN’s current lead climate official is keen to paint this as more than just a US-China effort.
Christiana Figueres points to the EU’s new goal of cutting CO2 40% on 1990 levels by 2030, as well as US$9.3 billion of pledges towards the UN-backed Green Climate Fund as results of four year’s hard work.
“We’re starting to see the fruits of that,” she says. “The EU, China, US, GCF are the first evidence of how we are going to address the problem.”
The primary task for envoys in Lima is to craft an early version of an agreement that will be acceptable to over 190 countries on different economic and development trajectories.
UN regulations stipulate this needs to be presented to governments six months before any agreement is signed, meaning it has to be ready by May 2015.
A 24-page “non-paper” was presented earlier this month, which offers what Figueres says is a vision of how participants see a deal working.
It’s a deliberately vague piece of work, aimed at stimulating debate rather than starting arguments, but it will need to be distilled in the 11 days of official talks.
Areas of contention are the provision of finance to developing countries, technology transfer, methods to measure emissions, climate compensation and the nature of national commitments ahead of 2015.
This is a lot of work to get through, but the goal is evidently different to Copenhagen, where the prospect of a tough international treaty was dangled before delegates before politics intervened.
Instead countries appear to be veering towards a looser, long term process where they gradually increase their commitments through national acti0ns, known as a “bottom up” approach in negotiating jargon.
“I think that collective peer pressure and engagement is more encouraging and realistic then the notion that any international process can impose a trajectory on a sovereign nation,” says De Boer.
He believes says a “single agreed negotiation text – even with brackets” would represent a positive outcome.
“I think people are more realistic in terms of what to expect from Lima,” he adds.
Zammit Cutajar, in many ways the father of this process, concurs. Any deal agreed next year will not on its own be a solution, he says.
“I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that Paris will be enough… it should give a strong signal about the pathway.”
The problem is that on its current trajectory, this agreement will not limit warming to below 2C, a ceiling politicians agreed on in 2009.
This limit on man-made global warming is used to assess all carbon cutting commitments and according to scientists governments are not going far enough.
Political miracles perhaps, but the new GHG reduction targets set by the EU, China and US covering 50% of emissions have been branded inadequate by analysts.
Two recent reports in recent weeks stand out.
One was from the UN Environment Programme, which said there was a huge and growing gap between the carbon cuts needed and those on the table.
It said countries need to deliver more ambitious reductions by 2020.
The other was from the World Bank, which warned over 3C of warming is likely by 2100. Its president Jim Kim spoke of “short term sacrifices” political leaders needed to take.
De Boer says not in his “wildest dreams” will Paris offer a package that will meet the 2C goal, stressing that pledges will, in time, need to be reviewed.
He adds that expectations of further carbon cuts before 2020 are “not very realistic”.
Figueres’ position means she has to be more optimistic.
Further actions pre-2020 are realistic she says, suggesting that the promises made by cities and businesses at a UN climate meeting in New York this September will make a valuable contribution on this journey.
“We expect more to come forward throughout next year,” she adds.
And she stresses that an outcome in the French capital “does need to put us on track to 2C”, but agrees with De Boer that a system of quantifying, monitoring and verifying emissions is essential.
Such a process, she believes, could allow countries over time collectively improve on their short and medium term pledges – meaning those up to 2030.
For Zammit Cutajar, this element of accountability for emissions is critical. “That could be the legally binding element,” he says.
A possible alternative to hammering at the 2020 door could be taking a longer view, perhaps up to 2050.
The idea is that countries could agree to target a global emissions peaking year by mid-century, which is roughly in line with the science.
An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change study published on 2 November said there is a “likely chance” of avoiding 2C if emissions hit net zero between 2050 and 2100.
Figueres says this is a “very active part of the conversation” between countries, pointing to the proposal’s inclusion as one element for a 2015 agreement.
“We do need long term integrity,” she adds.
Zammit Cutajar agrees. Paris “should be a first important step along a pathway towards what will be enough by mid-century,” he says.
It has other high level backers.
In September UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon called for a long-term goal, saying conversations with ministers has convinced him there was political support.
60 countries including Germany, Norway, Mexico, Grenada and Nepal have supported the concept, according to Farhana Yamin at Track 0, a veteran negotiator who argues a zero goal is “essential”.
Off the record, some EU officials say it’s a complication the talks could do without and gaining support from countries keen to avoid any last minute meltdown could be difficult.
That points to what many in civil society and science will see as the unpalatable truth about these talks – the desire of participants to avoid a repeat of the diplomatic car-crash that was Copenhagen.
Add in too many elements and you risk slowing talks. But strip away longer term goals and you could fail to stop dangerous temperature rise.
Figueres says for her the US-China climate deal “was not a surprise”; the consequence of years of hard negotiations between the countries.
But it did surprise many seasoned observers, and there is likely to be a move from envoys to hold what they have, rather than continue climbing in the hope for a better deal.
It’s a theme de Boer concludes his interview with – a warning that progress at UN climate negotiations usually comes slowly and painfully.
There is no silver bullet, and he hopes lessons have been learnt from Copenhagen and the quest for an elusive treaty that will in a stroke solve climate change.
“We have a second chance in Paris,” he says. “To smother that opportunity in unrealistic ambitions would be a dreadful mistake.”