Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 8 December 2014

Renewed battles on climate change

Peru is the venue of this year’s UN Climate Change Conference, where old battles are being fought anew on how to share the burden of acting to curb climate change.


It’s that time of year again, when the United Nations gathers 192 countries and thousands of people, to discuss actions to tackle climate change.

This year’s climate conference is in Lima, the capital of Peru. The country is home to 51 indigenous peoples who comprise 45% of the population of 30 million.

At the time of the Spanish invasion around 1500, the Incas were dominant in the Andes, and they had a sophisticated civilisation with cities, temples and buildings in the mountains that are a marvel admired by legions of visitors, epitomised by the famed ancient city of Machu Picchu.

Unfortunately many of the indigenous people died after the Spanish conquest due to diseases brought in by the invaders, and to battles and ill treatment at the hands of the conquerors.

Peru is also famous for being the centre of origin of the potato.  It was here that the local communities, thousands of years ago, learnt to grow that crop which today is the staple food in large parts of the world.

It is thus fitting, geography-wise, that Peru is hosting the 2014 conference.

The first week of this two-week affair has already passed and it exposed the difficulties in finding solutions to possibly the biggest threat to humanity’s survival.

Our planet’s atmosphere can absorb only another 1,000 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide if we are to avoid the global warming exceeding 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

But global emissions are running at about 50 billion tonnes a year, and in 20-25 years the “atmospheric space” available to absorb the Greenhouse gases would be exhausted.

How to share this atmospheric space in a fair manner, especially between developed and developing countries, is the core issue being discussed in Lima.  And it will remain the major issue until a new agreement is concluded, hopefully, in Paris a year from now.

Delegates from developing countries are increasingly worried that the developed countries are trying to avoid their previously agreed roles of cutting emissions deeply and quickly, and of providing funds and technology to developing countries to support their climate actions.

The US has pledged to cut its emissions by an equivalent of 6% by 2020 and around 15% by 2025 as compared to 1990, a far cry from the 20-40% by 2020 that the scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had said the developed countries have to do.

Japan, Canada, Russia and Australia have indicated they no longer prioritise climate change in their national agendas.  Even the European Union, usually the global leader in climate actions, has slackened, having put forward targets that are less ambitious.

The rich countries have also pledged almost US$10 billion for the Green Climate Fund to help developing countries.  This is however for four years, so there will be $2.5 billion a year. 

Although there are also funds through other channels, this is far below the US$100 billion a year that they had pledged to mobilise.

Meanwhile, in Lima, the developed countries are making many proposals to push more obligations onto the middle-income developing countries, including:

  • Doing away with the distinction between the types of commitments on climate actions to be made by developed and developing countries.
  • Removing the link between the actions by developing countries and the funding and technology support they are to get from the developed countries.
  • Introducing the concept that “major economies” and “emerging economies” should be treated in the same way as the developed countries in reducing their emissions and even in providing funds to poor countries.
  • Removing or diluting references to “common but differentiated responsibilities” and “equity”, which are key principles of the Climate Convention.

If these attempts succeed, they would undermine the main features of the presently balanced Convention and pave the way for a new agreement in 2015 which would be unfair to the developing countries.      

However, the developing countries are putting up a stout defence of their interests.  

Most of them are refusing to do away with the North-South distinction in obligations, insisting on keeping the equity principles, and fighting to maintain that funds must flow to developing countries for mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage (for example from storms and heavy rainfall) caused by climate change.

The highlight in the first week was the fight over how decisions are to be made. The two Co-Chairs of the most sensitive group, the Durban Platform, which is negotiating the new 2015 agreement, have insisted for months now that they be the ones who write the texts of decisions to be adopted by the Conference.

Many developing countries were disgruntled because their views were not or were poorly represented in the Co-Chairs’ drafts.

They stopped the discussion during the first session last week, and insisted that the proposals and texts of the countries be put on the screen in the room and also be compiled in a paper which would be the basis for detailed negotiations towards the final decisions.

In the face of this “rebellion”, the Co-Chairs had to reluctantly agree to change the negotiating method.

The suspicion is that the Chairs would keep producing drafts which eventually would have to be accepted by all, and that the final draft would be biased against the developing countries.

The new method is supposed to allow the countries to have more say in the decisions, as is normally the case in United Nations conferences.

It was a victory in a fight that should not even have taken place.  As a delegate told me: “We had to fight so hard just to have negotiations take place in the normal way!”

The second week in Lima will be much more intense, since the Ministers are coming, the discussions will become more political, and final decisions have to be taken.

The climate change nut is very hard to crack, and what is taking place in Lima just confirms this.