Just weeks after Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping breathed unexpected life back into the Paris climate change talks, unveiling a bilateral pact on reducing emissions, another slightly fainter puff has come from the direction of Lima.
True, given the mutual backslapping among the 194 countries that gathered in Peru to pave the way for next year’s landmark French summit, one might be forgiven for thinking they had just achieved a huge breakthrough. That would, of course, be too much to hope for. But they have at least concocted something of value in light of the low expectations that have dogged international climate discussions ever since the debacle at Copenhagen in 2009: they have agreed not to disagree.
The communique inked in Lima may be more of a road map than a call to action. It puts off plenty of hard decisions and dodges some altogether. But the deal drives forward the preparations for the Paris summit, which will be the biggest opportunity the world has had for some years to reach a comprehensive deal on climate change.
The biggest step taken in South America was that all the participating countries agreed to submit national plans for curbing carbon emissions by the end of March. These documents should set out figures for base emissions and annual targets. It may not sound like much. After all, there is no compulsion to do much more than generate some numbers, nor are their provisions even set for regular review.
Nonetheless, the deal starts the process of putting most of the world’s countries on the spot for the first time. Their commitments will not just be filed away in some dusty cabinet in Bonn, home of the UN climate change secretariat. They will be published by the organisation, along with an assessment of whether their cumulative effect is sufficient to meet the UN’s objective of limiting future temperature rises to no more than 2 degrees centigrade.
A second plus is that the deal blurs for the first time an outdated convention under which the world is split into rich and poor countries — with the rich (in practice almost exclusively Europeans) obliged to lead the way. Politically and practically, it is essential for non-European states to begin meeting their share of the burden. The relative poverty of emerging economies does not absolve them of responsibility, especially not fast-growing countries such as India and China. This is certainly the case for the latter, which now has per capita greenhouse gas emissions that are higher than the EU.
Lima leaves plenty of questions unanswered. The biggest is how the burden of cutting emissions should be shared. The draft text talks about nations having “common and differentiated” responsibilities, and promises that cuts will respect “different national circumstances”. For such a critical issue, this is worryingly vague.
Another missing piece of the jigsaw concerns the financial contribution the advanced economies will make to the cost of whatever emissions the rest of the world agrees to forgo. While the breezy talk at Lima was about them setting aside $100bn per annum from private and public sources, it is neither clear where the money will come from, nor whether there is the political will to deliver the public component.
With goodwill on all sides, there is still time to pull the details together ahead of the Paris summit. Critically, however, the momentum created by Lima and the US-China pact must not be lost. That requires realism all round — not least from emerging economies. Unless countries such as India accept some share of the burden, a deal in Paris will remain beyond reach.
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