Despite Lima: 2014 brought new momentum for climate action

Daniel Mittler, Outreach Magazine, 03/05/15

There is no question: COP20 utterly failed to translate the positive changes happening in the real world into the negotiated outcome. After China and the US had, for the first time ever together, agreed to reduce carbon pollution and to drastically increase the use of clean energy, there was hope that the global climate conversation could change at Lima. Though more action is needed from both, there was at least hope that we could move from a “you go first, you know this issue is important ” mentality to an attitude of  “I can act, if you can act.” This did not happen. Given that governments had already agreed in Warsaw last year that they would only put forward their pledges for Paris after Lima, may be it was unrealistic to expect that mental shift to already show up in the formal negotiations. But it would have been so nice… especially as Typhoon Hagupit, right during the negotiations, once again illustrated the urgency to act.

Instead, the US and other developed countries emphasised the need to be “realistic” and “nationally determined” with future emission cuts, and disgracefully resisted stronger action on finance and adaptation, in particular for the most vulnerable countries.

India and China, on the other hand, allied with oil-producing states in an effort to protect themselves from taking on tougher and more binding emissions cuts in future.

The result was a messy compromise that sets no common time frame at all for future pollution cuts. The Lima decision does require countries to submit basic information about the climate actions they plan to include in the Paris agreement. But instead of a proper process to assess whether these actions will be sufficient and fairly distributed, all we will see is a technical paper compiled by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat (UNFCCC) to assess these inputs.

The outcome in Lima also establishes no clear requirement for rich countries to include climate finance in their reported actions before Paris, and does not establish a clear roadmap for scaling up finance towards the 100 billion dollars a year promised by 2020.

This is all appalling. True. But Lima must also not be allowed to distract from the fact that 2014 has been a positive year in climate politics over all. And that a meaningful result could still be agreed in Paris.

2014 saw the rebirth of the global climate movement. People all over the world turned the latest, frightening warnings from climate science into a message of hope. Following over 400,000 people marching in New York to call for fast and just climate action in September, December 10th saw the largest ever climate march in Latin America in Lima. The march further showed the global reach and momentum of the climate movement.

And though the Chinese government failed to change their negotiation stance at COP20, the end of China´s coal boom is still excellent news. After all, it was that very boom that made the first ten years of the 21st century the worst ever for our global climate. Also, the current decline in coal use does still create the possibility of China changing their stance by the time governments meet in Paris...

2014 was the year when it became more and more obvious that acting on climate change delivers jobs, livelihoods and opportunities. The days when acting on climate change could be considered above all a burden are over (except, it seems, in the UNFCCC negotiations bubble). Renewables simply are the most economical solution for new power capacity in an ever increasing number of countries. China, this year, is installing as much solar as the US has ever (!) done.

Therefore, as the warnings are getting louder and louder – this year will, it is predicted, be the warmest on record – the bricks are quietly being laid in national policies around the world that could deliver much more decisive climate action.

Indeed, even governments in Lima – despite their lowest common denominator approach to the negotiations – were not entirely tone deaf to the growing demands of the people and the changing economics of climate action. For the first time ever, the official negotiation text now includes a carbon free future as a possible goal: The working paper outlining options for the new global climate treaty contains a proposal for the world to go zero carbon by 2050. Of course, this is just an option. But it is proof that a carbon free future is no longer just a green vision. It is a real possibility, even in the eyes of government bureaucrats. Retaining a 2050 carbon free commitment in the document – and strengthening it further, with proposals that accelerate a transition to 100% renewable energy for all – could be game-changing. Paris could still signal the end of the age of fossil fuels.

I am not denying that governments in Lima did their best to make us all wonder whether there has been any real progress on climate politics this year… The influence of the fossil fuel lobby on governments North and South was once again as obvious as it was odious (and hence the call by 350.org to end that influence extremely timely).

And yet, the urgency of the climate science, the increasingly attractive economics of renewables and the rising global climate movement, means that progress on climate action is now inevitable. Governments in Lima dithered. But the momentum is still on the side of climate action as we end 2014.