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UN Climate Talks Face Long, Hard Road to Paris Next Winter

With yet another United Nations high level conference making little real progress on slowing climate change, a near miracle will be required if countries are to reach a meaningful and binding global agreement on carbon emissions in Paris next December.

The ‘Lima Call for Climate Action’ document, agreed to on Sunday by 194 countries, is not a new “deal” for the climate, as conference observer Green Party Leader Elizabeth May pointed out. It is a 12-month work plan leading to the final meeting in Paris.

The conference shifted more responsibility for coping with climate change to the developing world. For the first time, an agreement calls on countries with rising economies, such as China, India and South Africa, to pledge action on climate change along with rich countries.

Developing countries have been expecting the North to provide billions-of-dollars to carry the burden of cutting carbon emissions in the South that are cause by northern industrialization. But a special fund set up for this purpose received barely a mention during key sessions.

One of the few positive advances was a promise that countries already seriously threated by climate change – such as small islands being swallowed up by rising seas – will receive special compensation for their losses.

Following the meetings, a spokesman for the European Union said “we are on track to agree to a global deal” at the Paris summit. But delegates agreed that so much was put off until next year that reaching an agreement will be very difficult.

Many NHOs were very unhappy. A frustrated Sam Smith of the World Wildlife Fund said “the text went from weak to weaker to weakest and it’s very weak indeed.”

2C in danger under this plan

NGOs warned the plan was not nearly strong enough to limit climate warming to the internationally agreed limit of 2C. Even at current levels more than seven-million people, mostly in developing countries, are already dying yearly from pollution. 

Canada, represented by a delegation that included Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, once again failed to speak out in favor of steps that would reduce carbon emissions. Because it plans to make use of its huge coal reserves, Australia was the other outcast at the conference.

Meanwhile, an Environics survey of 2,020 Canadians last week revealed the public is concerned about climate change. Fifty per cent of respondents were "extremely" or "definitely" concerned about a changing climate, and 78 per cent of those fear the kind of legacy it will leave for future generations.

It is clear that if the world is to have a meaningful climate change agreement 12 months from now, countries need to overcome enormous challenges. For Canada this will mean addressing the Alberta oilsands, the country’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, Canada will need to pitch in to help developing nations make a quick transition to clean and renewable sources of energy.

The new Peru document says that wealthy nations will help developing countries fight climate change by investing in energy technology or offering climate aid. And although the goal of $10 billion in climate finance for the developing world was reached, onlookers are saying vague commitments are likely to get in the way of meaningful climate action from wealthy, developed nations.

Corporate lobby dictating to northern countries

The public interest group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) said lobbying by powerful multi-national corporations is preventing developed countries from making a stronger commitment to the climate change fight. “Rich countries and their dirty industries are setting the agenda,” the group argues, with corporations and their lobby arms arguing, for example, that strict emissions limits could damage their economies, prolong poverty and limit job-creation.

A new campaign by Peabody Energy called “advanced energy for life” makes the case that developing nations must rely on coal to bring electricity and education to their growing populations. Yet participants at the climate negotiations argued it is precisely the responsibility of developed nations to help the developing world “leapfrog” dirty sources of energy, instead advancing their social well-being and economies with renewables and clean energy.

Because of pro-oil and pro-coal arguments like these the presence of the corporate sector in Lima drew strong criticism from the NGO community. Many groups argued it was inappropriate for Shell Oil to speak at a side event advertising carbon capture and storage (CCS), a still unproven technology, as an actionable climate solution. Oil giant Chevron also sponsored side events alongside the negotiations.

Representatives from the Canadian Youth Delegation argued corporate influence generally dominates climate conversations, suggesting the UN international climate negotiations should be off-limits for industry. More than 80 NGOs attended the talks but were limited in their participation because they were only granted ‘observer’ status.

Leading to even greater frustration from the NGO community, groups wanting to protest corporate influence were required to gain approval from the UN for protest slogans or banner text. The UN ruled that countries and corporations could not be named on any protest materials. A people’s climate march, which drew an estimated 10,000 participants, was held far from the conference grounds and, for all intents and purposes, appeared to have little impact on the proceedings.

NGOs plan to be more powerful in lead up to COP21

NGOs are upset over the limited role they are permitted to play in UN climate talks, as well as the lack of impact they are having around the globe. As a result, the International Institute of Climate Action and Theory released a 118-page document outlining plans to strengthen the movement leading up to and during the Paris conference.

Looking ahead to next year, the Peru agreement calls on countries to show how they intend to cut carbon emissions by March 2015, but there’s no penalty if they fail to do so. Once individual countries outline their emissions reduction plan, the UN will determine if the pledges are enough to limit climate warming to 2C.

Given the track record of most countries of holding back on climate change commitments, it’s likely the UN and all 194 countries will be operating in crisis mode again next year.

For now, delegates are returning home to get some well-deserved rest. But they can be expected to be back working hard right after the New Year, working toward pulling off a miracle in Paris.

Image Credit: El Ministro de Relaciones Exteriores via Flickr

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist and blogger who specializes in climate change and financial issues. He worked in…

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