Commentary

Shadow boxing in Lima sets stage for Paris Climate Agreement

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The climate negotiations in Lima were never intended to save the world. They succeeded in their main task of setting a forward agenda towards the critical Paris Summit in 2015. But the main story from Lima was in what it told us about the political dynamics to Paris and how open countries intend to be about what they will agree there.

Lima came after a rising tide of events driving climate change up the global political agenda. The New York UN Summit in September saw Heads of Government from around the world confronted with the largest ever citizens march for climate action. In October the European Union agreed a package of climate action to 2030, and then the US and China surprised everyone by jointly announcing their own targets in November. China’s announcement that it will peak its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 at the latest shifted the political landscape. Even the most cynical commentators now see an agreement in Paris as the most likely outcome.

The question coming into Lima was whether this new political momentum would shake up the usual battle lines in the UN negotiations. The first indications were good. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot was forced to back down from his hard line position and pledge cash to the UN climate fund. Traditional negotiating blocks started to dissolve and weaken, with countries like the Philippines finding a strong and distinctive voice even as they suffered yet another super Typhoon. Latin American countries breached the “north-south divide” by donating funds to help poorer developing countries. The US and China studiously avoided their traditional megaphone diplomacy. The Indian press was full of debate over how it should shift its strategy now China had committed to an emissions cap. The world of climate diplomacy was in flux and hope was in the air.

But progress in UN negotiations is rarely that straightforward. As the days passed concerns began to surface that the Lima negotiations lacked urgency and energy. Negotiators thrive on petty conflict and seemed uncertain how to handle the more positive attitude set by their political masters.

The result was that Lima turned into a shadow boxing contest rather than a title fight. The positive politics prevented real conflict. No one won – and no-one lost – and honour was satisfied on all sides.

This could be seen a pointless exercise, and many will report it as such. But behind the maze of textual amendments real debates were being rehearsed. How fast must we act to avoid catastrophic climate risks? When will the world need to phase out fossil fuels? How will countries make their promises to reduce emissions? Who will check they are delivering? How will we know emission reductions are deep enough? How can they be increased if they are inadequate? Who will help poor countries manage the impacts of climate change and shift to clean energy systems? If countries fail to reduce emissions enough who will give more help to the most climate vulnerable nations?

These are some of the real issues which must be resolved by the Paris Summit next year. The outcome of these debates will impact the prosperity and security of every person on the planet for decades. The shadow boxing in Lima gave countries a chance to limber up for these debates and begin to understand what others want from the Paris agreement.

However, the late night fight in Lima was not over the shape of the final Paris agreement, but on how transparent the process in 2015 will be to the outside world.

The Peruvians worked hard to make this the most open climate negotiation ever. Creating spaces for citizen’s groups, businesses, cities, unions, human rights activists and indigenous peoples to engage with the UN process. But inside the conference rooms African, Latin American and Pacific nations – backed by the EU – were fighting to get transparency over what emission reductions countries will actually commit to next year. Whilst countries allied with China and India were arguing against a proposed process where country offers could be transparently assessed and discussed before Paris.

The final result in Lima got just enough to give direction and basic guidance to countries for Paris. In Paris there must be complete transparency on what every country’s promises really mean in terms of lowering climate risk and reshaping their economy. Lima hasn’t guaranteed this. This really matters. The time is long past where citizens trusted their governments to travel to far off places, negotiate complex agreements and come back claiming victory in the national interest. As the Copenhagen Climate Summit showed, the success – or not – of Paris will not be determined by official press releases but by millions of conversations between citizens and in boardrooms. However, there is still time for citizens and businesses to ask countries to make their offers as clear as possible. In doing so they will help make a success in Paris more likely and start to redefine how international diplomacy works in an increasing open, interconnected and complex world.

Nick Mabety is E3G's CEO and tweets at @Mabeytweet

Our press release on the conclusion of COP20 in Lima is available here: COP20 in Lima shifts the battle lines for Paris

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