Climate negotiators from around the world came up with a modest agreement early Sunday for every nation to do its part to address global warming — but the Obama administration’s aggressive environmental regulations and last month’s landmark deal with China weren’t enough to keep the talks from nearly coming apart during a tense weekend of last-minute wrangling.
At the close of the United Nations negotiations in Lima, Peru, delegates from 196 countries aimed at paving the way toward a global deal next year in Paris, but they failed to resolve the most divisive issues facing the talks.
The most serious divisions remained those between the rich nations that have pumped the most carbon into the atmosphere and the poor nations that have the most to lose from a warming planet. And the U.S. position remained deeply at odds with that of China, despite last month’s much-touted agreement in which the two nations jointly announced pledges to curb greenhouse gas pollution in the coming decades.
The agreement reached in Lima would commit all countries to outlining domestic plans by early next year to slash their greenhouse gas emissions. Those plans would lay the foundation for a major climate accord that countries hope to clinch in Paris at the end of 2015. Sunday’s deal marked the first time that all countries agreed to reduce their emissions.
In the run-up to the talks, the United States and other major developed countries took pains to underscore their commitment to reaching a deal. Top Obama administration officials — including White House adviser John Podesta and Secretary of State John Kerry — spent months in secret negotiations with Chinese officials ahead of the November joint announcement in Beijing. And Kerry, who has made climate change a top priority at State, jetted to Lima for just a few hours on Thursday to jump-start the global negotiations.
But the efforts failed to erase the entrenched frustrations of poor nations. Instead, the Lima talks offered a clear signal that long-standing disagreements over the core elements of any future deal run deep. And the negotiations nearly collapsed at the 11th hour.
Negotiators huddled behind closed doors for much of the day and into the night on Saturday in an attempt to reach a last-ditch compromise. They announced a deal early Sunday morning, more than 36 hours after the 12-day talks had been slated to end.
Throughout the negotiations, poor countries insisted that wealthy nations should shoulder more of the burden for tackling climate change, including by committing to provide money to help developing nations deal with rising seas and other disastrous effects. Earlier Saturday, developing countries expressed opposition to a draft text, arguing it did not do enough to further those goals.
But in the end, exhausted negotiators reached a compromise. The result was a five-page text dubbed the “Lima Call for Climate Action” that offered few specifics about the path toward clinching a deal in Paris.
Todd Stern, the Obama administration’s top climate change negotiator, told reporters on the ground that the agreement represented progress. “It was contentious along the way but it fundamentally accomplished what we wanted it to,” he said.
Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework on Climate Change, said negotiators are leaving Lima riding “a fresh wave of positivity” heading toward Paris.
“The negotiations here reached a new level of realism and understanding about what needs to be done now, over the next 12 months and into the years and decades to come if climate change is to be truly and decisively addressed,” she said.
“Negotiators have managed to get the boat in the water from Lima’s shores without sinking, but choppy seas are ahead before they reach Paris,” said Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International. “This outcome can only be read as a call to action for people around the world. Governments will not deliver the solutions we need unless more people stand up to make our voices heard.”
“Against the backdrop of extreme weather in the Philippines and potentially the hottest year ever recorded, governments at the U.N. climate talks in Lima opted for a half-baked plan to cut emissions,” said Samantha Smith, leader of the World Wildlife Fund’s Global Climate and Energy Initiative.
Other green groups offered a more positive take on the talks.
“Here’s the good news from the Lima talks: Countries around the world now fully understand that early next year they must commit to ambitious reductions in climate pollution and bold measures to slow global warming,” said Jake Schmidt, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s international program. “Most key countries are laying the groundwork at home for more aggressive commitments to cut their carbon pollution. There is no question about this point anymore.”
Jennifer Morgan, global director of the World Resources Institute’s Climate Program, said a Paris deal is “within reach,” though she acknowledged that “more hard work remains.”
The interim Lima negotiations were never expected to result in any major breakthroughs, and its goals were relatively modest.
Nations were charged with deciding what precisely should be included in countries’ nationally determined plans to cut emissions. But the negotiations over the plans — which in U.N. parlance are known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions — proved to be difficult. Developed countries preferred that the plans focus solely on targets for reducing greenhouse gases, while poorer countries wanted wealthy nations to include adaptation and finance commitments.
Ultimately, the final agreement “urges,” but does not require, developed countries to “provide and mobilize enhanced financial support to developing country Parties for ambitious mitigation and adaptation actions.” It also “invites” countries to include an adaptation component in their plans.
Countries also agreed in broad terms that the plans, which would be published online, should “represent a progression beyond the current undertaking” of the country proposing them. And the agreement again calls on those countries “ready to do so” to submit their plans by the first quarter of 2015 so they can be reviewed and better understood by the international community ahead of the Paris meeting.
The agreement says the domestic plans “may include” details on the reference point (possibly a base year), time frames and periods for implementation of the cuts, as well as the assumptions and methodology used to account for and estimate the greenhouse gas reductions. The plan should also include an explanation of why it is “fair and ambitious” and how it contributes to the overall goal of tackling climate change.
It includes broad language sought by developing countries like China that underscores the so-called “principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances.”
The final text also includes a token reference to the so-called “loss and damage” issue, which developed countries have long argued has not received enough attention in the talks. But it does not offer any substantial approach to addressing the massive economic losses poor countries have suffered from the effects of climate change.
Negotiators agreed to a separate draft negotiating text that will form the basis for the Paris discussions. That agreement consists of a slew of often contradictory options that will be on the table at the December 2015 negotiations, though few issues are resolved.
The United States has set a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. The plan is based on what can be accomplished using existing executive authorities, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed limits on greenhouse gas pollution from coal-burning power plants. President Barack Obama has also pledged $3 billion to a global climate fund to aid poorer nations, but getting the new GOP-controlled Congress to provide that money will be difficult.
Countries are slated to meet in Paris at the end of 2015 to finalize the deal, which would go into effect beginning in 2020. That means they have only one year to bridge the formidable divide between rich and poor nations.
A slew of key issues still needs to be worked out over the next year, including the legal weight of the final agreement and how countries will meet their goal of mobilizing $100 billion a year by 2020 in public and private financing to help poor nations.
The talks began on Dec. 1 with a sense of optimism after last month’s U.S.-China announcement. U.S. officials and longtime observers of the talks hoped the news would build momentum and help break the logjam between developed and developing countries.
But countries quickly reverted to familiar negotiating positions. China, the world’s largest carbon polluter, poked holes in the draft negotiating text, arguing that rich countries aren’t required to do enough. The Chinese also opposed proposals requiring outside monitoring of countries’ plans to cut emissions.
Still, Stern told reporters that the U.S.-China deal helped make progress in Lima, asserting that the agreement “came in handy here.”
Environmentalists and officials from countries most threatened by climate change are growing increasingly disillusioned with the U.N. process. Even if countries reach a deal in Paris next year, it probably won’t do enough to avoid the most catastrophic effects of a warming planet.
The United Nations Environment Programme warned in a report released last month that there is a growing gap between the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions needed to prevent a disastrous rise in global temperatures and what the world is actually cutting. The final text of the Lima agreement notes “grave concern” about that gap but does not require countries to put forward emissions pledges that would hold the average global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels — the threshold that scientists say would avert catastrophic climate change.
Meanwhile, the World Meteorological Organization estimated earlier this month that 2014 is on track to be the hottest year on record.