A climate of optimism: the Lima UN climate talks

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Despite disagreements during the recent UN climate change conference in Lima, for the first time in two decades there might be a draft for a binding agreement by the end of this year.

The majority of climate change models suggest the world is set to warm by more than 2°C by 2100, which most scientists agree will put us on track to climate change and, therefore, exacerbate the social, environmental and economic impacts that are already being felt. Moreover, such impacts are not evenly distributed, with the poorest countries suffering the earliest and greatest as their political, social and economic infrastructure is the most vulnerable to climate change.

Climate change will affect the basic elements of life for people around the world, such as access to water and food production leading to hunger, water shortages, poor health and widespread coastal flooding.

Last December, at the 20th Conference of the Parties (COP 20) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations in Lima, Peru, 192 countries met to address these challenges and agree on the greenhouse gas reductions needed to combat climate change. The conference once again highlighted the urgency of international efforts to limit the increase in global average temperatures to less than 2°C, the point at which most scientific models show that climate impacts start to overwhelm human efforts to cope.

The deals negotiated in Lima are now set for inclusion into a future binding climate change agreement, the text of which will be decided at the next UNFCCC (COP 21) conference in Paris at the end of 2015. In doing so, the Paris conference will have an objective to achieve, for the first time in over 20 years of UN negotiations, a binding and universal agreement on climate, from all the nations of the world.

There was an air of guarded optimism at the start of the Lima conference following last September’s greenhouse emission reduction agreement between what are the world’s two largest economies, two largest consumers of energy and two largest emitters of greenhouse gases: the US and China.

Both nations promised to tackle climate change, which is seen as a notable breakthrough, with the US committing to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 by a minimum of 26% below their 2005 baseline level, with a stretch target of 28%. This essentially equates to doubling of the pace of its current greenhouse gas reductions programme. China, on the other hand, stated that it intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030, to make concerted efforts to reach its peak projections earlier and to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030.

Common but differentiated responsibilities
However, after running two days over the conference schedule, and following the trend of previous climate change conferences, there were disagreements between rich and poorer nations over the steps they should take to tackle climate change and associated greenhouse gas emission targets. Richer nations, including the US and most EU member states, had pressed for both developed and developing countries to be bound by strict rules to ensure that any pledges gave clear and measurable data, similar to the goals of the current UK Climate Change Act.

Developing countries, on the other side, raised objections, asked for reductions to be voluntary and to be allowed to develop their economies unhindered by restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. They cited a mix of financial, technical and social reasons why poorer countries could not commit to stricter rules as well as reiterating the principle of the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ in light of different national circumstances and capabilities in which to address climate change adaptation and mitigation.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon had asked the Lima conference to agree a draft text for the forthcoming Paris conference. However, critics have said that the final text has weakened language on national pledges, adding countries ‘may’ instead of ‘shall’ include quantifiable information showing how they intend to meet their emissions targets. Such softer wording would allow countries to take their foot off the pedal in reducing greenhouse gases.

Although the Lima conference ended in a compromise many optimists believe the final agreement from Lima does keep the world on track to reach a new global treaty. The fact that around 192 nations assented to this document means there is still momentum for a deal in Paris.


Green Climate Fund: too little, too late?
The contribution of countries to climate change, and their capacity to prevent and cope with its consequences, varies enormously. The UNFCCC therefore foresees financial assistance from countries with more resources to those less endowed and more vulnerable to climate change impacts as the way forward. To facilitate these aims, the UNFCCC has established a financial mechanism, known as the Green Climate Fund, to provide financial assistance to developing countries to overcome the cost and technical requirements to both adapt to, and mitigate, climate change impacts.

The Green Climate Fund’s ultimate objective is to promote, through grants and provision of technical expertise, the necessary change towards low-emission and climate-resilient development. The Green Climate Fund will pursue a country-driven approach to encourage and strengthen engagement at the national level through involvement of relevant local and national institutions and stakeholders. In many ways, the Green Climate Fund is a response to calls from the original Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change released for the UK government in October 2006. It stated that the investment that takes place in the next 10-20 years will have a profound effect on the climate in the second half of this century and in the next.

In November 2014, the UK government announced that it will provide £720m ($1.1bn) to the Green Climate Fund. The UK cash is not new money, instead it will come from existing funds earmarked for international climate work as part of the country’s commitment to giving 0.7% of gross national income for overseas development assistance.

In total, the Green Climate Fund currently stands at around US$10bn and is still growing. When the fund is fully operational, leaders from the developed world will have committed $100bn a year by 2020.

Notably, the Australian government, which had failed to commit to the Green Climate Fund, pledged $200m after pressure from other developed countries following November’s G20 meeting in Brisbane.

The financial commitments to the Green Climate Fund are considered as a fundamental step towards both richer and poorer nations securing an international binding agreement on greenhouse gas reduction targets in Paris later this year.

However, there has been some criticism of the Green Climate Fund as too little too late considering the likely global costs of climate change impact.

The African Development Bank’s head of climate change, Anthony Nyong, has said that the continent will soon require a minimum of $40bn per annum to counter climate change, including $30bn in adaptation, and $10bn in mitigation measures. Moreover it has been suggested that the private investments in fossil fuel-derived energy to support the development of new oil, gas and coal supply is around US$3,000bn per year, far in excess of the Green Climate Fund. Environmental groups argue this investment in fossil fuels should be redirected towards more sustainable energy provision.

Cost of inaction
Critics also cited the Stern Review, which estimated that if we don’t act, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more.

In contrast, the costs of action in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year. These projections highlight the fact that the Green Climate Funding target of $100bn a year by 2020 may still be inadequate and the need for more work to face the impacts of climate change.

Dr Keith Whitehead is senior environmental consultant at the British Safety Council


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