UN climate talks in Lima: it's about trust Opinion Article

Dec 01, 2014 - 11:00am

This article first appeared on ABC Environment on 1 December, 2014.

 Erwin Jackson    
Deputy CEO, The Climate Institute

International climate change efforts have smashed their way into the Australian policy debate in recent months. The United Nations Secretary General's climate summit in September was closely followed by announcements on post-2020 emission reduction targets from the USA, China and the EU. Climate change became a central discussion at the Brisbane G20.

These developments highlight the political momentum building towards the UN meeting in Paris next year, where countries will seek to agree a long-term international framework that supports additional domestic action. This year's meeting of the UN's climate convention, which starts today in Lima, Peru, is the next important milestone on this road.

The path to Paris is unlike that to the 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen. Firstly, as the G20 meetings highlighted, the big players want a successful outcome in Paris. While commentary has focused on the announcements made by the USA, China and the EU, other nations are also very engaged. For example, South Korea, Mexico and India have also highlighted the importance of climate change, and are supporting strong investment in low carbon technologies including renewable energy.

Secondly, many more countries have now set up domestic policies to control their emissions. This year alone China has announced strong policies to control air pollution, Chile and Mexico legislated carbon taxes, and the USA is developing additional regulations to control emissions from the power sector.

In some cases, the primary driver behind these policy initiatives has not been climate change but this does not matter. Countries are increasingly recognising that reducing carbon emissions also delivers significant non-climate benefits — reductions in health-damaging air pollution, improvements in energy security, and the building of new industries and export opportunities.

As benefits stem from actions that reduce emissions, a virtuous cycle is created: these actions make practical progress on emissions reductions but also signal a country's ambition, and commitment to the international community. The combination of domestic progress and international credibility adds momentum to the UN climate talks, and gives countries confidence that they can commit internationally to further and stronger actions.

This cuts to the heart of the post-2020 climate change framework that will be discussed in Lima.

International agreements don't reduce emissions. Domestic actions do, and the key test of the international framework is whether it helps or hinders stronger domestic emissions reductions through time. Decisions in Washington, Beijing, Brussels, Canberra, and elsewhere decide whether we avoid irreversible climate change impacts, not decisions in the halls of the UN.

To promote this facilitative role, the delegates at Lima will discuss three major political issues, and seek to narrow down a draft Paris agreement.

The first major political issue is the level of transparency required when countries announce their initial post-2020 targets early next year. Clarity around exactly what countries are offering is critical to trust-building among nations. It's also necessary to work out whether the targets are consistent with the agreed global goal of limiting global warming to less than 2°C.

The key test of the international framework is whether it helps or hinders stronger domestic emissions reductions through time.

The second issue is the treatment of adaptation. As climate change impacts have grown, the most vulnerable countries are increasingly seeking help and assurances that they will not be left behind. The World Bank has noted on numerous occasions that climate change threatens to set back decades of development in many of the world's poorest nations. African nations, small island states and many countries in Latin America are seeking to ensure the post-2020 framework recognises this reality and helps countries manage the risks and costs of unavoidable climate change.

The third major political issue is related to both emissions reductions and adaptation. International climate finance for the world's poorest nations, through both public and private sector sources, is critical to building resilience to climate impacts but also supporting low-carbon economic development. Since Copenhagen, the international community has been working to establish the Green Climate Fund to help facilitate climate finance. Around $10 billion has now been committed to the international pool of money, with contributions from most major developed nations (not Australia) and even some emerging economies like South Korea and Mexico.

Although the underlying trends remain positive — in fact, because they are — the Lima meeting is likely to be a messy, difficult negotiation. There is much to thrash out — and because countries want it to be thrashed out, there will be political fireworks, posturing and tough debates long into the night. This is inevitable as countries seek to find the right balance of these core political issues.

No one is likely to leave Lima happy — indeed it will indicate a successful meeting if all the major countries leave equally unhappy.

Recent post-2020 target announcements and contributions to the Green Climate Fund should build confidence and allow countries to focus on setting out a clear run into next year's negotiations. Success is not assured and will not be easy, but clear progress on the transparency of commitments, adaptation and climate finance can ensure Lima sees us stride, not shuffle, towards Paris.

Erwin Jackson       
Deputy CEO, The Climate Institute
Erwin Jackson       
Deputy CEO, The Climate Institute

Erwin Jackson

Erwin is Deputy CEO of The Climate Institute. With nearly 20 years practical experience in climate change policy and research, Erwin has developed and led many national and international programs aimed at reducing greenhouse pollution. This work has been undertaken in Australia, Europe, North and South America, the Pacific and Antarctica. He has represented non-governmental groups and advised government and business in national, regional and international fora, including being a non-governmental expert reviewer of the reports of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Erwin has written, researched and produced many publications on climate change and energy policy including a number of review papers in scientific journals such as the Medical Journal of Australia.
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