What actually happened at the Lima climate talks and are we all doomed?

World leaders have been meeting year after to year to tackle climate change. Did this year’s talks in Lima manage to get anything done? Or are we all still headed for a worldwide climate apocalypse? We asked Matt Sellar from the UK Youth Climate Coalition to explain what happened at Lima, and how it affects our future.

Accompanying comics provided by Oisín McGann, Writer in Residence at Tallaght Community Arts as part of our ongoing Weather Stations project.

A little over twenty-two years ago almost all of the countries in the world gathered together and decided it was time we urgently put a stop to climate change. Full of bold words about the importance of their task they established the (catchily-named) United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to be the forum for the countries of the world to combat this dire threat. Since then, needless to say, we have most definitely not tackled climate change. In fact WWF is now saying that we are on track for 3–4 degrees of warming, double the level deemed acceptably catastrophic by the UN. So is there any hope? And what has the UNFCCC been doing all this time? As the world reflects on a the lack of progress at the Lima climate talks we look at what actually happened at the negotiations, how we got here, and how we can move forward.

Comic by Oisín McGann for globalweatherstations.com

Every winter since 1992 in an annual migration, world governments fly off to a dreary conference centre somewhere and tell each other that time is running out to tackle climate change. They occasionally say that this year is the year they need to fix everything, they often have spirited shouting matches, and they always run out of time. During these meetings states have been trying to formulate an agreement that would ensure the world cuts its emissions by enough, and quickly enough, that we avoid disastrous levels of climate change. Countries also need to agree global solutions to the host of hugely important problems associated with how we deal with climate change as a planet.

How do we tackle climate change in a fair and equitable manner?

The negotiations have made some pretty good attempts at dealing with these problems but they always fail in one crucial factor, namely actually stopping or limiting climate change. Most notable of these attempts is The Kyoto Protocol. Signed in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol, or KP to its admirers, strove to be a kind of “gateway” protocol that would lead the world onto bigger more ambitious climate change agreements. Unfortunately for the KP, it had several major flaws that hit at the heart of why the climate negotiations have so far failed. Firstly it was not nearly ambitious enough in terms of emissions reductions. This caused resentment from countries who felt that historically polluting nations had a responsibility to deal with the crisis they had caused. Secondly not all developed nations were taking part, crucially including the USA. The fact that the world’s wealthiest and most polluting state was not taking part made many question the value of the protocol. Lastly the protocol only applied to countries that were classified as developed in the original 1992 convention, meaning that on its own it stood no chance of actually tackling climate change.

Comic by Oisín McGann for globalweatherstations.com

When the convention was created it established the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR). This means that although climate change is the common responsibility of all states, there are differences in the level of action countries are expected to take, based on historical responsibility for emissions and the wealth of the state. The issue of ensuring that developed countries take responsibility for climate change is hugely important, however many felt that the KP’s interpretation of the issue rendered it ineffective. Indeed, the US in part blamed their own lack of action on the fact that high emitting nations such as China were not compelled to reduce or limit their emissions. The question of if or when developing nations should limit their emissions is perhaps the most divisive issue in the talks and one that we are yet to resolve. Indeed this could be seen as the central question of the negotiations. How do we tackle climate change in a fair and equitable manner? Unfortunately for the world, climate negotiators seem to be vying with each other for the title of world champion procrastinator. Countries are now engaged in negotiating the first truly global agreement on how to tackle climate change which will be finalised in Paris next year. However so consistently have negotiators avoided addressing the issue of CBDR, that many nations now have completely different, contrasting assumptions regarding which countries will be required to reduce their carbon emissions in the new agreement. In Lima we saw the lack of progress on this issue threaten to derail the talks entirely.

…as the conference progressed, it became clear that for all the newfound optimism, the negotiations had still made no progress…

This brings us to the recent climate negotiations in Lima. The build up to the conference was marked by an unusual amount of optimism. In early November the US and China jointly announced their plans to curb emissions. Although neither of these plans comes near the level of action required, they represent a huge shift in the way countries collectively respond to climate change. A world where US and China are working together to act on climate change is a very different world from that of the Kyoto protocol, where both countries seemed to use the other’s inaction as an excuse for their own. However as the conference progressed it became clear that for all the new found optimism, the negotiations had still made no progress on many of the issues that had held them back in the past. Developed countries were seen as failing to lead on mitigation and climate finance and it was evident that richer countries were not providing the necessary levels of climate finance to help poorer states develop sustainably, and adapt to the impacts of climate change. This meant that going into the final day of negotiations bad feeling between the parties was running high and the old divide between developed and developing countries was increasingly pronounced. Countries failed to come to an agreement on the negotiating text and eventually it became apparent that the majority of states were simply not satisfied with the agreement as it stood. Late on Saturday night, with the conference already running a day over schedule, it was decided to rewrite the agreement. One of the main reasons for this was that many were unhappy about the lack of differentiation between the responsibilities of developing and developed countries. After two days negotiators announced the Lima Call for Climate Action. The main achievement of the Lima agreement is that it stopped the talks from falling apart altogether. After twenty-two years of negotiations this simply is not good enough. Unsurprisingly it does not put the world on course for avoiding climate change. It doesn’t even really address differentiation, it just yet again comes up with wording so ambiguous that all negotiators can claim a victory. The best that can be said for the agreement is that it keeps the process alive for now, and gives countries a chance to learn from Lima in the year before the Paris summit.

Comic by Oisín McGann for globalweatherstations.com

So is that it then? Have our governments failed to do their jobs properly to such a degree that we should all move to the forests and start hoarding tinned food and solar panels? Well, although our politicians have definitely failed us, there is still hope, but it comes not from political leaders but ordinary people. Over the past year we have seen an explosion of climate activism. From the 400,000 strong global demonstration that marked the New York Climate summit in September to the continued rise of the fossil fuel divestment movement, people are taking it upon themselves to act on climate change. The divestment movement in particular, with their clear message that it is morally and financially wrong to invest in fossil fuels, has begun to alter the way the world thinks. Recently we’ve seen a host of big names accept this argument and start to divest, including the University of Glasgow, the City of Oxford, and the Rockefeller Brothers. The fact that the Rockefeller family, of oil wealth and fame, now views it as morally unacceptable to invest in oil is a powerful symbol of the way the world has changed in the past year. Vitally this message has started to break through to the climate talks. This year for the first time we saw a broad coalition of countries arguing that the world must set a date for when it will end its reliance on fossil fuels. Many countries independently announced dates when they will become fossil fuel free and a version of the concept even found its way into the final agreement. This may seem like an obvious move in a treaty aimed at stopping climate change but it has only come about because of the change in the way we see fossil fuels. From an important industry that we will eventually outgrown to something that is actively harming people which we have a duty to give up. In a way this shows that many states are finally taking the issue of climate change seriously and facing up to a difficult and necessary task. If negotiators learn from the Lima talks and if governments are forced to re-evaluate their attitudes to fossil fuels, then just maybe we stand a chance of getting a workable deal in Paris.

Matthew Sellar works with the UK Youth Climate Coalition, and other organisations, on tackling climate change. He recently graduated from Edinburgh University with a Masters in International Environment and Climate Change Law.