Winners and losers at the UN’s Lima climate talks

No country left Peru with everything it wanted, but the building blocks of a global deal remain in place

The ancient town of Cuzco in Peru is now on the frontline of a changing climate, causing Andes glaciers to melt (Pic: Paul Williams/Flickr)

The ancient town of Cuzco in Peru is now on the frontline of a changing climate, causing Andes glaciers to melt (Pic: Paul Williams/Flickr)

By Joe Curtin

Expectations preceding Lima were high. A bottom-up approach to negotiations was making progress, evidenced by EU, Chinese and American pledges to control emissions in the lead-in.

Lima was an opportunity to road-test this new approach, and the Lima Call to Climate Action was the final outcome.

The appendix to this agreement, which runs to some 37 pages of options, can be seen as the genesis of an international Treaty. This was the ultimate objective of the meeting – to get a draft text on the table.

The key to interpreting the Lima Call to Action, however, is to understand national mitigation pledges and their central role in ongoing negotiations.

Top-down to bottom-up 

The Kyoto Protocol, agreed in 1997, involved a top-down apportioning of legally binding targets between major developed economies.

The problems were that the US never ratified, Canada withdrew, and developing countries were not covered in the first place.

While legally ambitious, therefore, it was not very inclusive. It has not been possible to agree an effective successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol.

The Copenhagen Accord of 2009 started a process where developed countries would “commit to economy-wide emissions targets for 2020″.

Developing countries were requested to submit and implement sectoral “mitigation actions” (later to become Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions, or NAMAs), to slow growth in their carbon emissions in the period to 2020.

Developed and developing countries were therefore required to take different kinds of actions on a voluntary basis, marking a new departure from Copenhagen.

At COP 19 in Warsaw in 2013, it was agreed that all countries would “initiate or intensify preparation” of pledges (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs) applying to the post-2020 period.

These pledges were required from all, and would form the main building blocks of a new international treaty.

At Lima clarity was brought to these pledges in several respects, which we look at in turn below.

Legal nature 

Going into Lima the EU had reluctantly accepted the primacy of INDCs, but was looking for these commitments to be legally binding.

According to Elina Bardram, head of the EU delegation, “The EU is of the mind that legally binding mitigation targets are the only way to provide the necessary long-term signal, the necessary confidence to the investors”.

The US, on the other hand was looking for a hybrid agreement combining legally binding and voluntary elements.

Todd Stern, the US Special Envoy for Climate Change, had called for a legally binding obligation to submit a “schedule” for reducing emissions, plus various legally binding provisions for accounting, reporting, review and periodic updating of the schedules.

But the content of the schedule itself would not be legally binding at an international level, he had added.

The US position is circumscribed by political reality: a legally binding mitigation commitment would need ratification by the Senate, which would likely never be achieved.

The Lima Agreement refers to “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force”, which leaves all options on the table.

Specifically it states that “arrangements specified in this decision in relation to intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) are without prejudice to the legal nature and content” of this agreement.

Thus, while the text fails to offer full clarity on this issue, it seems unlikely that INDCs will ultimately have international legal force.


Perhaps more important than their legal nature is the architecture for objective evaluation of pledges, and reporting on implementation.

Good reporting protocols and rules can enhance the likelihood of pledges being ambitious.

They also increase the likelihood that pledges will be implemented, and measuring, reporting and verification (MRV) can be developed which enables and supports good policies by triggering additional supports or technical inputs.

MRV was a key issue at Lima and may well emerge as the key issue in the months ahead.

The EU in particular hoped that countries’ pledges would appear by Q1 2015, and could then reviewed by the UN (or peer reviewed) for ambition and equity, known as ‘ex-ante review’.

The EU and the US had also argued for robust international monitoring of pledge implementation (in the post-2020 period).

China has traditionally been opposed to international MRV of emissions.

This may be because, according to the Climate Policy Initiative, some of China’s MRV systems lack transparent expert and public review of data and methods.

Nor have the Indian authorities been particularly well disposed to international MRV of efforts to reduce emissions.

These positions were sustained at Lima.

The text established that INDCs should be developed in a manner “that facilitates …clarity, transparency and understanding”. It states that they “may” include several elements (timeframes, scope, assumptions etc.) that would enable comparability.

While these components would provide a robust template for INDCs necessary for effective MRV, the use of “may” instead of “shall” means that countries are not required to include these components.

Furthermore, pledges are only now required “well in advance” of Paris in December 2015, which represents a weakening of the current deadline (Q1 2015).

Nor is provision made for UN or peer review of INDCs. The UN is at least required to publish these INDCs, which will enhance transparency.

Nor was there any indication in the agreement of how MRV would work post-2020. This is perhaps a crucial issue especially considering INDCs are unlikely to be legally binding.

The outcome can therefore be seen as a victory for China and India, but a weakening of the “bottom-up” architecture.

INDC ambition

A related issue is the ambition of INDCs. The agreement notes “with grave concern” that current pledges leave a “significant gap” to an aggregate emission pathways consistent with a 2C or 1.5C target.

The agreement calls for INDCs to “represent progression beyond the current undertaking of that Party”.

The UN is also required to publish a synthesis report by November 2015, “on the aggregate effect” of these commitments.

Crucially though no provisions were agreed for either UN or peer review of individual commitments.

These outcomes suggest that it will be challenging to identify in a scientifically robust manner if a county’s pledge is lacking ambition.

It is perhaps therefore unlikely that this ambition gap will be significantly closed before Paris. The agreement leaves a gap for think tanks and NGOs to fill.

Developed v developing 

China, India and others have argued that mitigation commitments should only apply to developed economies in keeping with the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”.

It should be noted, however, that INDCs and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities are not necessarily incompatible.

This was demonstrated by the China-US climate agreement, where the pledges of these two key actors were very different.

The final agreement references the “special circumstances” of Lesser Developed Economies and small island states when it comes to INDCs.

On the other hand, the text reaffirmed the requirement for all parties to submit INDCs.

Taking these considerations into account, it would appear that the views of developed countries have prevailed.

On the other hand, Indian environment Minister Prakash Javedekar told reporters that he had got what we wanted, saying the document preserved the notion that richer nations had to lead the way in making cuts in emissions.

But for developed economies that was never at issue.

Adaptation and finance

Developing countries argued that INDCs should not just cover mitigation, but should include finance for adaptation also.

The US and EU called for INDCs to apply only to mitigation, and for finance and adaptation to be dealt with discreetly.

The final agreement invites “all Parties to consider communicating their undertakings in adaptation planning or consider including an adaptation component in their intended nationally determined contributions”.

This would appear to reflect the negotiating position of the EU/US more closely, as there is no binding requirement to include finance and adaption, and they are unlikely to do so.


The key to interpreting the Lima Call to Action is understanding INDCs.

The Lima outcome brought quite a bit of clarity to these pledges but also highlighted a number of differences between major blocs and challenges to be overcome.

Pledges now on the table are not sufficient to keep global warming to within 2 degrees, and on the basis of what was agreed it is difficult to see the ambition gap being closed by the end of 2015.

Nor is it clear how the progress on implementing non-binding pledges will be monitored post-2020.

While ambition can be increased over time, a robust architecture for monitoring of pledge implementation needs to be delivered in Paris.

Joseph Curtin is Senior Fellow at IIEA, Dublin, with responsibility for climate policy. This article is a summary of a longer piece which first appeared at Follow him on twitter @jmcurtin

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