December 16, 2014

For the past 2 weeks, Lima was host to over 190 countries that took part in the 20th Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  While talks began optimistically with the announcement of a China- U.S. climate deal, historical issues that plague the COP negotiations continued to hamper productive discussion. Instead of a focus on keeping average warming at or under 2°C annually, there was a continued focus on the rift between developed and developing nations.

In Canada, a number of provinces have been taking steps to address climate change. British Columbia’s Carbon Tax has led to a decrease in fuel usage by 16%, while economic growth remains strong. In Ontario, coal-fired power plants have been phased-out and a feed-in tariff has precipitated an uptake of renewable energy generation. Québec has linked-up with California’s Western Climate Initiative (WCI) cap-and-trade system as of 2013. And just days ago in Lima, the three provinces signed an agreement in principle with California to work together to cut mid-term greenhouse gas emissions; this could be a signal that B.C. and Ontario may again consider joining the WCI and begin trading carbon emissions with other member states. Ontario and Quebec also recently signed an MOU with a strong focus on aligning reporting systems and supporting the use of market mechanisms.

Why the 2°C target is so important

We often lose sight of the big picture, getting caught up in the practicalities and systems associated with carbon (emission trading schemes, carbon accounting, policy, etc.). Since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s, developed nations have enjoyed the luxury of cheap fossil fuels to progress at an incredible rate. This led to many advances both economically and socially, as mechanisation and electricity became cornerstones of modern society. As we now know, the downside is that increased output of greenhouse gas emissions due to fossil fuel combustion is altering the planet’s climate.

The 2°C target is not an arbitrary number: it is an estimate that many scientists believe will give us a reasonably good chance of avoiding catastrophic climate damages. The Earth has ice ages (glacial) and ‘in-between’ (inter-glacial) periods that are well-known to scientists. The global average temperature between a glacial and inter-glacial period is 5°C, but temperatures change over thousands, even millions of years. The 2°C target is measured from pre-industrial revolution levels and globally, we have already seen a 0.85°C change from 1880 to 2012. While the planet and all its species are used to drops in temperature, they are not adapted for rapid global warming. This is why there is a great deal of concern regarding the rapid temperature increase that Earth is going through. Warming at the rates now anticipated will lead to an unknown impact on ecosystems that humans rely on for basic needs such as fresh air, water, and more generally, human health. To see only a 2°C change, global carbon emissions would need to be reduced to zero by 2100. If business is to continue as usual, there will be a 3-5°C change by 2100. However, a consensus that we have already passed the 2°C target, regardless of future action, is beginning to emerge.

Outcomes from Lima

There are major issues that delegates have to get through if we are to see a deal at the Paris climate talks at the end of 2015. Most issues stem from the great divide between developed and developing nations; a split remains on what is known as ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’. The argument, in its simplest form is as follows: Developing nations want developed countries to step up and take stronger action, as they have already economically matured by combusting ‘their share’ of fossil fuels over the past 200 years. Developing nations hold that it is unfair to restrict their own use of fossil fuels when many of their citizens still do not have their basic needs met, let alone, reliable electricity.

Additionally, many developing nations have already started feeling the impacts of climate change – and it is often the case that those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are the least equipped to deal with them. While the Green Climate Fund (GCF) is supposed to help developing countries adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change, the GCF has not received anywhere near the $100 billion per year target from developed countries. The involvement of the World Bank also makes some nations question the independence of the GCF, as the World Bank has a controversial reputation in developing nations. Perhaps for this reason, China has announced a South-South alliance that will have an impact on how developing nations determine how they would like to develop and meet targets without wealthier nations being too prescriptive.

Despite the roadblocks, there are definite positives: While the GCF remains contentious, countries that have traditionally resisted contributing to the fund have given in to international pressure.

On the mitigation side of the equation, while the China-U.S. deal is not enough to reach the 2°C target, the fact remains that the two largest global emitters have agreed to take climate change seriously. This adds pressure to nations that have typically played the ‘let’s wait and see’ or ‘the largest emitters aren’t doing anything, so why should we?’ cards. Another major shift is the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which allows each country to determine their own carbon reduction plan. This is a major shift from the Kyoto Protocol, which focused on absolute emissions reductions and binding targets for developed countries. The INDC will allow each country to develop their own plan, but within a framework that will allow plans to be compared. The UNFCCC is hoping to have the INDCs in by March 2015, so that by December 2015 the majority of the work will be completed, leading to productive outcomes in Paris.

The talks in Lima extended long into the weekend, until a consensus was finally reached on Sunday. Negotiators agreed that all countries, regardless of their state of development, must pledge measures to mitigate climate change. There are no longer two types of countries – developed and developing – but rather a recognition that each country is unique and should approach the problem in light of different national circumstances. The details of each country’s contribution remain to be seen, and there will no doubt be heated discussions on the details along the road to Paris.

By: Shruchi Bhargava