Six Things You Need to Know About the UN Climate Talks in Lima, Peru

Here’s everything you need to know about the most important conference you’ve never heard of.

On the eve of the first day of COP20, the UN climate talks in Lima, a Vigil for the Climate was held near the Pentagonito where the UN talks are to be held.
On the eve of the first day of COP20, the UN climate talks in Lima, a Vigil for the Climate was held near the Pentagonito where the UN talks are to be held. (Photo courtesy of Our Voices / Flickr)

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The 20th Conference of the Parties (COP20) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an acronym nightmare. It’s also a watershed moment that may just help us avoid a climate disaster. Here’s everything you need to know about the most important conference you’ve never heard of.

1. What’s this conference all about?

Every year, members of the international community meet to negotiate steps to combat climate change, a global problem desperately in need of a global solution. Over the next two weeks, delegates from 195 countries will meet in Lima, Peru. There, they’ll hash out a draft framework that will hopefully set the stage for a major international agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions at next year’s conference in Paris.

2. International agreements seem so broad. Why should I care what they decide?

Virtually all of the world’s scientists believe that if we don’t start slashing carbon emissions very soon, we risk locking in temperature increases that will have catastrophic climate impacts and affect every part of the globe.

So whether you live on the east coast or west, in a desert or a tropical island, you really should care whether the nations of the world are able to come to a significant agreement to take steps to avert a climate disaster.

3. This is the 20th meeeting. Why haven’t the nations of the world made more progress on climate action?

Bringing together nations with wildly divergent views on responsibility for climate change and vastly different stages of development and levels of poverty to forge a deal is extremely challenging. For example, the average American citizen emits 20 times as much CO2 as the average Indian citizen. Up until recently, historic greenhouse gas emitters like the U.S. were unwilling to budge on climate negotiations until other countries particularly China, who are now major greenhouse gas emitters, reduced emissions as well. Meanwhile, small islands nations are watching their islands literally disappear while the big dogs argue. 

4. Why would it be any different this year?

We understand your hesitancy, especially after the disappointing talks in Copenhagen in 2009 and the heartbreaking failure to pass climate legislation in the U.S.

There’s some reason for hope, though. For starters, the recent climate announcement by the U.S. and China to cut carbon emissions is widely believed to have opened up negotiating space and made it more difficult for other countries to drag their feet. Secondly, nations have finally set up the framework for the Green Climate Fund, by which financial assistance can be provided by developed nations to take advantage of the vast opportunities for emissions reductions that still exist in developing nations, which are comparatively cost effective and help them avoid locking in high carbon infrastructure by leap frogging to modern low-carbon technologies. Although the money in pot thus far is still tiny compared to the $100 billion per year starting in 2020 that the US and other nation have pledged to raise it’s a hopeful start. Nations are also paying attention to opportunities for reducing the short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon, or soot, and methane that can be quickly addressed. Reduction of SLCPs would also bring huge human health benefits in contaminated cities around the globe. Finally, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, a long-time friend and colleague of Earthjustice—and founder and former president of our Latin American partner organization, AIDA—is the President of this year’s COP. Although neither Manuel nor the Peruvian government can deliver a successful outcome on their own, having such a skilled diplomat and true environmentalist at the helm certainly helps smooth the path to a positive result.

5. Okay, you’ve convinced me that this is worth paying attention to. So what’s happened so far?

  • Opening the talks, Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, laid out the high-stakes urgency of addressing climate change now. The latest IPCC report for the first time includes a carbon budget that shows how much CO2 the world can emit and still have a good chance at staving off the most disastrous climate change impacts. It’s sobering. The world had already used up two-thirds of the total carbon budget in 2011—and at current rates will burn through the rest in less than 30 years! And despite recent pledges from the United States, China and Europe, countries’ emissions trajectories are still headed the wrong way. Pachauri added that for the best chance of avoiding climate catastrophe governments need to peak emissions, rapidly phase fossil fuels down to zero and transition to 100% renewable energy.
  • Germany made a major announcement of its goal to cut an additional 62 million to 78 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions—about the annual output of about seven million German households. That would triple emission reductions from current levels, spreading the cuts across sectors like agriculture and automobiles. The program, which still needs to be approved by Parliament, focuses on improved energy efficiency through billions in tax breaks and other incentives.
  • On Wednesday, the World Meteorological Organization said Wednesday that 2014 was on track to be the warmest year on record. High ocean temperatures in particular contributed to very heavy rainfall and floods in many countries and extreme drought in others, including many parts of the U.S. The evidence of climate change’s devastating impacts on human beings, livelihoods and nature is all around us. We need to act now.

6. What’s expected to happen after the conference?

Next year, the nations of the world are scheduled to formally announce their pledges for action for the years after 2020. A primary task of the talks in Lima is to decide what those pledges should include. It’s not easy. Countries have hugely different levels of annual emissions, hugely different levels of development and poverty alleviation challenges, and needs for funding to transition away from dirty energy like coal to clean renewables. These differences erupted into the first major disagreement of these talks on as rich countries led by the U.S. and Switzerland demanded that references to the obligations of rich developed countries to make new commitments of finance to poor countries post-2020 should be dropped from the 2015 agreement text.

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.

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