I have been attending the annual meetings of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since 2006 and this rarified, diplomatic process has been inspiring, frustrating, and sometimes profoundly depressing. Having stepped back from engaging in the details of the negotiations the past couple of years, I was able to observe them this year in Lima from a new perspective. And I believe we are actually making progress.
Prospects for meeting the stated goals of these negotiations—keeping global average temperature rise below 2 degrees centigrade—has dimmed as more time has passed without significant reversals in emissions trends. But there were some encouraging signs that the global cooperation the UNFCCC was meant to foster could very well be able to guide the world toward that goal.
1) U.S.-China Deal Previews New Ways of Working: The U.S.-China deal is raising expectations for Brazil, South Africa, India, and other emerging economies to announce their plans for reducing greenhouse gases. The agreement in Paris is supposed to reflect a decision reached at last year’s annual climate meeting in Warsaw that all countries, except the poorest of nations, will publicly announce the actions they will take to lower levels of carbon pollution. Nations have until March 2015 to make their contributions known. The early actions of Europe, China, and the U.S. will put pressure on others to act.
2) Facing the Realities of Climate Impacts: Recognition has been slow in coming that we must simultaneously prepare for climate impacts while we reduce the risk. Over the past few years, the adaptation needs of poorer countries have been elevated, standards and processes have been established for assessing needs, and investments have been made. By specifically outlining the steps they will take in national adaptation plans–from emergency response measures to building sea walls–these countries stand a better chance of attracting the resources needed. Industrialized countries like the U.S. are beginning to ‘mainstream’ adaptation into its foreign aid around the world. There is still much to be done in this area, but the work to date is a great example of how the UNFCCC is evolving into a body that provides practical support for getting things done on the ground
3) Promises Are Being Kept: Progress at the talks have often been stalled because poorer nations needed to see rich countries deliver on promises to provide money and technological know-how to help them adapt to climate change and pursue green growth strategies. Traditionally, pledges of financial support have been sporadic and came from a handful of countries. In Copenhagen in 2009, countries agreed for the first time to a specific financial goal that was real money: $ 100 billion a year annually by 2020. The next year they established the Green Climate Fund to receive and manage much of those resources. Over the course of the last few weeks, commitments to the new fund topped $10 billion – indications that maybe this time, financial promises will be kept.
4) Moving from What to How: Until recently, the UN process was still focused on the ‘what’ and not the ‘how.’ The goal has been to get countries to commit to the most ambitious emissions reductions possible, without much attention on how to achieve those reductions. Earlier this year, small island nations urged the negotiators to launch discussions of renewable energy as a way to showcase a low-carbon development path—one that doesn’t rely solely on fossil fuels to provide energy access to the poor. As my colleague Rachel Cleetus pointed out earlier this week, renewable energy became a hot topic in Lima. Dozens of side events focused on energy, and environmental groups allied as the Climate Action Network (or CAN International) launched an ambitious effort to move the world to 100 percent renewable energy as a means to reaching the global goal of staying below 2C.
5) Peer Pressure is Powerful: The U.S., along with the world’s most industrialized countries, invited scrutiny of their policies and progress on climate change as part of a new process that may well be a key component of the Paris agreement. The U.S. reported that it is on track to reduce emissions 17 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, due largely to policies to reduce car and truck emissions, a suite of new energy efficiency standards, land use changes, and fuel switching from coal to gas in the power sector. China, South Africa, Europe, and other nations challenged the U.S. to explain why it wasn’t doing more and questioned whether new policies or the economy were driving the drop in emissions. Watching the U.S. and other countries be subject to examination by their peers provided a preview of how the new climate regime may work. It illustrated the potential for this approach to hold each other accountable and learn from others’ progress and challenges. The new process will also provide important information that calls out real climate leadership and exposes countries that are lagging behind to international criticism.
6) A ‘’Durable’’ Deal is Emerging: Climate change is not a problem that will be solved in a year or a decade. Combatting climate change requires wholesale changes in the way we operate our economies and live our lives. While immediate action is urgent, we will spend the next century getting emissions under control and managing the inevitable realities of the warming already with us. What the negotiations seem to be morphing into is an international system of accountability, support, innovation, and improvement.
The potential significance of the new agreement that is set to come out of next year’s meeting in Paris is not just the emissions and finance goals for the next decade that will make the headlines – though they are essential. It is the foundation it provides to make the next decade a stepping stone to the continual work needed to reverse global warming trends by mid-century. And that is a reason to be hopeful. Because the alternative–failure to effectively work together to address this uniquely global problem that can literally make the planet unlivable–is unthinkable.
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