Looking Back on Lima and Looking Forward to Paris

So, was the Lima climate accord enough? Take a look at some of the highlights (and low lights) and decide for yourself.

The UN climate talks in Lima, Peru.
The UN climate talks in Lima, Peru. (PHOTO COURTESY OF UN CLIMATE CHANGE)

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After a long slog in overtime, the gavel came down at the UN climate talks in Lima in the wee hours last Sunday. Reviews are wildly mixed, with some heralding a major step toward a new global regime and others despairing that governments, beholden to fossil fuel interests, are committing us to a calamitous future. 

2014 is on track to be the warmest year on record, and scientists tell us that the window of opportunity to reduce carbon emissions and stave off disastrous climate impacts is closing fast. 

So, was the Lima climate accord enough? Take a look at some highlights below and decide for yourself.  

Item #1
The Lima accord marks the first time that all nations, rich and poor, agreed to reduce carbon emissions. Previously only developed countries that became wealthy burning fossil fuels were obligated to reduce emissions. The new deal reflects the more complex world of today where the bulk of future emissions growth comes from developing countries like China, which must play their part in averting climate catastrophe.  

The Fine Print
To bring all countries on board—especially the U.S.—the agreement allows nations to determine their own emissions reduction targets rather than following the science and striving to divide up the world’s fast-shrinking remaining carbon budget.

Item #2
The Lima accord puts the world on a path to new climate deal in Paris in 2015.  

The Fine Print
To close the Paris deal, the negotiators still need to confront deep disagreements over major questions, like what is each country’s fair share of emissions reduction, and how much finance should rich countries provide to  help them reduce emissions and adapt to worsening climate impacts?  

There is also an issue with transparency. Individual countries don’t have to provide standardized information on emissions reductions, which makes it difficult to determine if countries are living up to their pledges and if collective global action is enough to give us a chance of staying below a 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise.

Finally, no progress was made on how to scale up finance for developing countries to meet the $100 billion/year pledge that the U.S. and other developed countries made five years ago in Copenhagen.

Item #3
Outside of the climate talks, there is great public support for the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables. There’s also a growing understanding in communities around the world of the urgency of accelerating the transition to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Countries like Germany, states like California and cities like Vienna are already proving that we can transition to a clean energy future now.

Meanwhile, the price of renewables has come down dramatically, and the recent U.S./China announcement, with China promising to build as much renewable energy by 2030 as all the current power generation in the U.S.—will push prices down even further.     

The Fine Print
Despite all of this real world progress, the Lima text failed to take obvious steps to incentivize the transition to a clean energy future, steps like putting a price on carbon, eliminating perverse fossil fuel subsidies and increasing support for developing countries to leapfrog to modern, low-carbon economies.  

Over the next 15 years, $90 trillion will be invested in infrastructure in the world’s cities, agriculture and energy systems. These investments will quite literally determine the fate of the earth. If this sum is invested in low-carbon growth, we have a fighting chance at avoiding the most disastrous impacts of climate change. Along the way, we will reap multiple co-benefits such as improved air quality and health, access to modern energy services for the poor and energy security for all nations.

Item #4
Recent actions by the U.S. to cut carbon pollution led to the U.S./China announcement and created optimism in the run up to Lima. The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which will cut carbon pollution from the power sector by 30% from 2005 levels, is a huge step to show the world that the U.S. is serious about climate change. 

The U.S. is also showing leadership to reduce short-lived climate pollutants like methane and black carbon. The Obama administration is poised to release a national action plan on methane, a potent greenhouse gas leaked from fracking, coal mines, and oil and gas development.  And the U.S. will make reducing black carbon—soot that accelerates warming and ice melt in the Arctic—a priority when it takes over as chair of the Arctic Council in 2015.

The Fine Print
The Obama administration announced ambitious carbon emissions cuts of 26-28% by 2025—about 2% per year, the same as the European Union.  But the U.S. is coming late to the game after years of do-nothing Congresses. The EU will reduce emission by 40% from the 1990 base year by 2030—the U.S. will only reduce 10-12%.  The U.S. must do so much more if we’re going to avert a global climate disaster.  We need an all-of-the above approach to a clean energy future including renewables, efficiency, innovation and saying no to dirty energy like tar sands. This is the path to boost prosperity and create jobs at home, lead internationally and do our part to leave the children of the world a cleaner, safer and more stable world.

Winston Churchill once said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”  

The race to the clean energy future is on. We have much work to do at home to ensure the rapid implementation of the Clean Power Plan and to strengthen its requirements over time, making the U.S. a clean energy leader. If we can pull it off, future generations may yet look back on 2015 as the year the tide turned, and the transition to a low-carbon, clean energy future took off.

Part of the International program, Erika's work focuses on climate change, at international negotiations and with U.N. Environment Programme and regional bodies like the Arctic Council to reduce emissions of atmospheric pollutants.

The International Program partners with organizations and communities around the world to establish, strengthen, and enforce national and international legal protections for the environment and public health.