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Don't give up on climate change talks just yet

Getting international agreement on carbon emissions can feel like turning a supertanker

Flickr, Louis Vest

It's becoming as traditional as Christmas: every year ends with a set-piece UN-backed global climate change summit, the result of which produces a list of heavily fudged compromises, that are highly unlikely to stop global warming reaching dangerous levels by the end of the century.
The latest summit, held in the Peruvian capital Lima in December, almost collapsed and had to go into overtime in order for everyone to agree. But, while that sounds like business as usual, there are growing grounds for optimism. The talks are keeping alive a process that could yet result in a far-reaching climate change agreement emerging later this year.
Experience suggests achieving a worthwhile pact will be tough, given the long track record of bickering between the world's largest carbon emitters over who should shoulder responsibility for saving the planet. But it may be different this time around: not least because the leaders of the US and China – which account for around 40 per cent of global carbon emissions between them – now seem keen to forge an alliance on the adoption of climate change measures.
The main objective of the Lima talks – the latest in a long line of annual climate change meetings involving most of the world's countries  – was to establish the foundations for a meaningful binding agreement, to be signed at the next major UN climate change meeting in Paris in December. That gathering could set tough targets for carbon dioxide emissions reductions and other related issues, which could dramatically affect the way we use energy in coming years.
But getting there involves reconciling sharply differing views.
Ever since global climate change talks started gathering momentum in the 1990s, leaders of developing countries have argued that, as the industrialised nations got the world into the global warming mess, they should pay the lion's share of the costly measures needed to reduce fossil fuel use and tackle the environmental effects of climate change.
By contrast, Western countries, such as the US and European nations, say that all countries, including those in the developing world, will need to make large sacrifices if global temperature rises are to be kept low enough for the planet to be liveable. They argue that case has been strengthened by the extent to which fossil fuels use in the developing word has risen dramatically in the last two decades. China and India are now the leading and third biggest carbon emitters in the world respectively, with the US – once the undisputed emissions leader – wedged between them in second place.
Given the gulf between these differing stances, the fact that the Lima meeting did manage to produce enough for negotiators to work with in the run up to Paris could be regarded as a notable achievement – even if the language used in texts is more watered-down and vague than many had hoped for (see panel for some key outcomes from Lima).
But predictably, views on whether Lima was a success or an abject failure – or something in between – depends on who is talking.
Delegates left Lima “on a fresh wave of positivity towards Paris, with a range of key decisions agreed and action-agendas launched,” according to Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the body that organises global climate change talks.
But many environmental groups begged to differ.

Cutting carbon emissions

“We have to tell the truth – the progress is pitiful and fails us, given the scale of the planetary emergency. World governments remain far from where they need to be, if they are to make an adequate equitable agreement to tackle climate change in Paris 12 months from now,” said Susann Scherbarth of Friends of the Earth Europe's climate change team.
The main reason for such divergence in opinion is that no one really knows what is going to happen in Paris yet. The texts with which negotiators are working on contain so many options that could be included, discarded or modified that guessing the nature of a final agreement is impossible at this stage.
So the degree of optimism depends on how much faith you place in the commitment and skill of the backroom teams that will be hammering out the details of the Paris agreement.
As David Hone, climate change adviser for oil company Shell put it in a blog post on the outcome of Lima: “The draft negotiating text sets out some clear options for the future, although if the weakest of these is picked in every instance the end result will have hardly been worth the effort.”
But, as Hone and others say, that is unlikely to be what happens. There is enough emphasis on carbon emissions cuts in the text that some form of global emissions reduction goal is likely to be included in the Paris agreement, though the extent and degree to which it will be legally binding remain to be seen.
One option put forward is to target “net zero carbon emissions” by 2100 – with big intermediate cuts targeted for dates along the way – and there is an even tougher alternative in the text of attaining net zero emissions by 2050.

The Global debate on climate change

It is worth bearing in mind that achieving net zero emissions does not just mean reducing or eliminating the use of fossil fuels. Adopting measures that stop greenhouse gasses entering the atmosphere may also play a role, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) to bury carbon dioxide produced by power generation and industry underground – if it can be made to work on a large scale.
There’s no doubt that if stringent emissions targets were adopted globally, it would have a profound impact on what type of energy we use, how we use it and it would probably make energy a lot more expensive. But critics say that even the toughest measures outlined in the Lima texts are unlikely to prevent a rise in global temperatures by the end of this century below the 2C (35.6F) that is deemed acceptable by climate change scientists contributing to the UN reports.
The International Energy Agency, which analyses energy issues for industrialised countries, forecasts that the world is currently on track for a 3.6C (38.48F) temperature rise by 2100.
It seems unlikely that many, if any, participants would want to be accused of blocking an agreement next December in Paris, so some sort of deal should emerge – and an event that happened a month before the Lima conference suggests that it could yet have teeth.
In November, Chinese president Xi Jinpin and US president Barack Obama signed a bilateral agreement on climate change measures in Beijing – the first of its kind. As part of the pact, the US pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025 – a tougher objective than its existing targets – while China said it planned to ensure its carbon emissions would peak by “around 2030”, if not earlier.
On its own, this bilateral agreement isn't going to solve the global warming issue – and China remains very cautious over what exactly it is prepared to firmly commit to, at least in public. But the deal does indicate that the world's two largest economies and most influential players in the climate change debate are prepared to cooperate more closely.
While the uncertain outcome of the Lima talks shows there is still plenty on which these two superpowers don't see eye to eye, a closer working relationship between China and the US could yet provide the key to achieving a meaningful agreement in December.

Lima climate change talks: some key outcomes

  • Talks remain on track to produce a global agreement in Paris next December, which could commit 195 countries to make large cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.


  • The pact could include commitments to drastically reduce global carbon emissions by 2050, throwing the scale of demand for oil, gas and coal into doubt and giving a boost to renewable energy.


  • Countries are to provide the UN with their national global warming mitigation plans by mid-2015. The UN will report back on these pledges in November 2015.


  • These plans do not need to be as detailed or as comparable as originally envisaged, following objections from China and some other countries, which are said to be reluctant to subject their plans to too much international scrutiny.   


  • Developing countries insist the Paris agreement should reflect "differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities" of participating states – effectively a reiteration of a long-running demand for industrialised countries to take most action and shoulder most of the cost of emissions cuts and the impact of climate change.


  • Industrialised nations reaffirm a commitment to provide $100 billion of public and private funding to developing countries by 2020 to support climate change measures, but fail to reveal a timetable for its disbursement.

Ian is a writer and editor, specialising in economics, business, agriculture and energy for various magazines and organizations, including Sasakawa Africa Association, the African Development Bank, Energy Future, Petroleum Economist and Cleantech.