Climate change commitments: From weaker to weakest

Delegates left the Lima conference on climate change dangerously uncommitted.

Delegates from more than 190 countries met in Lima for a climate change conference [Getty Images]

With yet another United Nations-hosted climate change conference making very little, if any, real progress, a near miracle will be required if countries are to reach a meaningful and binding global agreement on carbon emissions in Paris next December.

The “Lima Call for Climate Action” document, agreed to on Sunday by 194 countries, is not a new “deal” for the climate. It is a 12-month work plan leading to COP21 a year from now.

The four-page document calls on both rising economies as well as rich economies to pledge action on climate change. However, the pledges are not binding and countries are not required to provide details of their plans.

An agreement in principle that required wealthy countries to carry the burden of cutting carbon emissions brought into place 20 years ago was abandoned.

One of the very few moves forward was a promise that countries already seriously threatened by climate change – such as small islands being swallowed up by rising seas – will receive special compensation for their losses.

Rising temperatures still a threat

Following the meetings, which had to be extended by two days to reach any sort of an agreement, the European Union said “we are on track to agree to a global deal” at the Paris summit.

Weakened deal reached in Peru climate talks

But a frustrated Sam Smith of the World Wildlife Fund, the largest environmental group in the world, said that “the text went from weak to weaker to weakest and it’s very weak indeed”.

NGOs warned the plan was not nearly strong enough to limit warming to the internationally agreed limit of 2C above pre-industrial levels. Already more than seven million people, mostly in developing countries, are dying prematurely yearly from pollution

If the world is to have a meaningful climate change agreement 12 months from now, countries will need to overcome some enormous challenges.  

It is hard to see how developing countries will be satisfied with what is likely to happen in Paris. For many years the south has demanded that rich countries pay them a whopping $100bn compensation over several years to make up for the damage the industrialised countries have caused to their environment.

But rich countries have come up with only about $10.2bn.

The new Peru document says only that wealthy nations will help developing countries fight climate change by investing in energy technology or offering climate aid.

Twenty or 30 years ago, the United States and European countries likely would have been willing to provide several billions a year to poor countries, but now practically every so-called rich country is broke. The US has committed the largest amount, but only $3bn.

Pressure on major emitters

Northern countries reiterated in Peru that they expect the south’s major emitters to begin cutting back on carbon emissions. But this is unlikely to happen any time soon. China and India, the two biggest polluters in the south, say they will need to burn millions of tonnes of coal in the coming years so they can develop their economies.

The public interest group, Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) says that powerful multinational corporations played a big role in making sure that the conference did not meet the expectations of many people present. They say that companies and their lobbying organisations convinced western governments that if stronger emission controls were introduced, many thousands of jobs would be lost.

Climate change conference tackles health of oceans

To the shock of many participants, Shell Oil was permitted to speak at the main session about its preferred way of fighting carbon emissions – carbon capture and storage (CCS) – a still unproven technology. Another oil giant, Chevron, was permitted to sponsor side events inside the negotiations.

No wonder the energy giants want to protect their interests. A well-researched study released in September 2013 found that just 50 corporations were responsible for 73 percent of the greenhouse gas emitted by the world’s 500 largest companies. Of the carbon-polluting corporations, the most egregious offenders were within the energy sector and, as a whole, these companies were doing little to change their ways.

NGOs kept on the sidelines

Eighty-two NGOs and one onternational NGO were accredited as observers at the conference. The various drafts of the agreement were negotiated in secret, and any party making a statement was kept to three minutes.

NGOs had so little status in Lima that they had to get approval from the UN for the slogans placed on their protest banners. Neither countries nor corporations were allowed to be named on the banners. A march by 10,000 protesters had no impact on the proceedings.

Several other broader issues contribute to the lack of progress in combatting carbon emissions.

Civil society in the US is often a leader in the world, but the environmental movement appears so far to have lost the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans.

The false claims of climate change sceptics have damaged the campaign to tackle climate chaos.   

Another problem is that mainstream US media, instead of seeking out the truth about the dangers of carbon emissions, has confused the public by publishing articles expressing both points of view.

A Gallup poll earlier this year concluded that only 24 percent of Americans are worried a great deal about climate change; 25 percent were worried a fair amount; and 51 percent were worried only a little or not at all.

The weaknesses of the US protest movement means there is not nearly enough public pressure on the government to make it move.

Countries to report by March

Looking ahead to next year, the Peru agreement calls on countries to show by March how they will cut carbon emissions, but there’s no penalty if they fail to do so. If they receive enough detailed information, the UN will then see if the pledges will be enough to limit climate warming to 2C.

But given the track record of most countries of holding back on climate change commitments, it’s likely the UN and all 194 countries will be operating in crisis mode again next year.

For now, the delegates are returning home to get some well-deserved rest. But they can be expected to be back working hard within a few days in their effort to try and pull off a miracle 12 months from now.

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and social activist. His work at the CBC over more than 30 years included the broadcast of several investigative documentaries. He was a member of the editorial board of THIS magazine and was a founder of the Canadian Association of Journalists.