from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

The Lima Climate Agreement Isn’t As New As It Seems

December 15, 2014

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After the usual overtime negotiations, the annual UN climate talks have wrapped up. And while no one seems thrilled, a common and seemingly encouraging theme has apparently emerged: for the first time, every country, not just wealthy ones, will be required to take emissions-cutting steps.

There is undoubtedly progress in the “Lima Call for Climate Action” that the summit produced. (One should set a low bar when measuring progress in UN climate negotiations.) But it is even less than the headlines suggest. The inclusion of poorer countries isn’t nearly as novel as much of the analysis would have it.

Here’s a sampling of the reactions. The Financial Times says that “the deal blurs for the first time an outdated convention under which the world is split into rich and poor countries”.  The New York Times says that it’s “the first deal committing every country in the world to reducing the fossil fuel emissions that cause global warming.” Vox.com says that “every single country has agreed to submit a plan next year for addressing their greenhouse-gas emissions”, which it claims “would be a first”. I don’t mean to pick on these outlets, which have some of the best climate coverage around, but they’re representative of the broader take.

Many of the reports make their case by comparing the Lima outcome to the Kyoto Protocol. But a lot has happened since Kyoto. In particular, the Copenhagen Accord, followed by the Cancun Agreements, did a lot what Lima is being lauded for.

People are correct that this is the first time that every country is required to submit a plan (loosely defined) as part of the UN process. The Cancun Agreements only required that developed countries submit plans. But many developing countries submitted plans anyhow. (They did so in part because, after much negotiation, the Copenhagen and Cancun deals “blurred” the line between rich and poor enough to allow them to.) Indeed there would have been no Copenhagen Accord or Cancun Agreements had China and India decided to sit out.

Some will also point out that, for the first time, all countries are expected to do the same thing. In Copenhagen and Cancun, developed countries were supposed to submit numerical emissions-cutting targets, while developing countries could craft their contributions however they wanted. Now everyone gets the developing country treatment. This is progress for equality, but it doesn’t raise anyone’s bar.

There are other points of progress. In particular, countries are submitting to a review process that attempts to reconcile bottom-up climate action with top-down goals through analysis of each country’s efforts. That’s a good step, though as review processes go, it’s pretty weak. (I made the case for something similar, though more robust, several years ago.) I worry in particular that the time allotted for the analysis – basically a month – isn’t anywhere near enough to get the job done right.

The Lima talks were also a reminder that climate diplomacy isn’t nearly as focused on emissions-cutting as most people imagine. Haggling over money (what people who deal with climate change euphemistically call “finance”) apparently threatened to blow up the talks once again. Expect that to return as a central point of contention when the climate talks reconvene in Paris next year.

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