At Climate Talks in Lima, Not ‘Same as it Ever Was’?

Originally published by the New York Times

Longtime readers will recall how I’ve cited the Talking Heads lyric “same as it ever was” quite often over the years in assessing negotiations aimed at forging a new global agreement on slowing global warming and limiting its impacts. Some observers at the latest round of negotiations, which ran overtime and ended this morning in Lima, Peru, insist things are no longer the way they were, and that a new theme song may be in order. I was not at the talks this year, so I’m drawing on input from a variety of contacts who were.

 On Monday I’ll be posting reflections from a batch of climate-policy analysts, climate campaigners and others with a range of viewpoints on what was, and wasn’t, a significant step on the path to an international climate agreement at next year’s negotiations, in Paris. I’ll weigh in tomorrow, as well. An excellent starting point is today’s post by Robert Stavins at Harvard.

To begin, here’s a “Your Dot” reflection on the Lima talks from James Fahn, the executive director of Internews’s Earth Journalism Network and a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. (He previously wrote for Dot Earth from Bhutan.)

Fahn was in Peru to lead the annual Climate Change Media Partnership, which brings groups of journalists – this year, mostly from Latin America, but also from China, India and Nepal – to cover the negotiations. (Full disclosure: I led a workshop at the 2010 climate meeting in Cancún, Mexico, for this group, which I’ve hailed as a valuable network for sharing coverage and journalism tips.)

Here’s his piece:

At Climate Talks in Lima, Only the Arguing Remains the Same

By James Fahn

As a reporter for a Thai newspaper back in 1997 covering the Kyoto Climate Summit, I managed to interview then-Senator John Kerry, one of the few elected officials who have frequently attended the annual treaty negotiations. Amid all the euphoria of the final night when the text of the Kyoto Protocol was agreed upon, he warned, “I think it’s going to be very difficult [for the U.S.] to ratify without more participation from key developing countries. That may take a long time.”

Flash forward 17 years to Lima, where Kerry, now with considerably more authority as Secretary of State, gave a riveting speech that was one of the highlights of COP20 – the 20th conference of parties to the U.N. Convention on Climate Change. His message, though, was largely the same: “I know this is difficult [but] … we have to remember that today more than half of emissions are coming from developing nations, so it is imperative that they act, too.”

But the circumstances have changed. The science behind human-induced global warming is far stronger, as documented by the latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The impacts of extreme climate events are far clearer, punctuated this year by yet another typhoon slamming into the Philippines during the summit, and helping to shift alliances in the talks. Here in Latin America, the Amazon rain forest seems to be drying at an alarming rate, Sao Paulo is beset by drought, and Buenos Aires could soon see a record amount of rainfall this year, according to Argentinian author and journalist Martin De Ambrosio. (During the summit, however, local Peruvian media seemed mostly focused on a dumb stunt from Greenpeace that desecrated an ancient Nazca geoglyph and drew an abject apology.)

And in a landmark agreement last month, the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, China and the United States, agreed on setting new limits to their carbon emissions. This has not only changed the dynamic of the negotiations, but cast the “villains” of past summits in a slightly different light, and pointed the spotlight on other emitting giants. One of our Latin American journalist Fellows remarked to me how enthused she felt by Kerry’s rousing speech. The reaction in the past to U.S. speeches has often between depression, anger or bewilderment.

Expectations have also changed. If the dream in Kyoto, and even in Copenhagen five years ago, was to legally bind countries in a global agreement that would spur changes domestically, the more modest goal for the Paris agreement next year is to have each country offer up what it can, based on its current actions and plans, through “intended nationally determined commitments” (or INDCs, to use the latest acronym to sweep the COP). This is the “bottom up” or “soft” approach described by Andrew Revkin at the start of the summit, although the combined commitments almost certainly won’t be enough to keep the planet below the politically agreed target of 2 degrees Celsius average warming.

Much of the debate in Lima centered on what countries should include in their INDCs; how long should the commitments be for; should the commitments include financing and adaptation goals; and that old chestnut: how should the commitments of developed and developing countries be differentiated.

“We stand behind the differentiation,” said Antonio Marcondes of the Brazilian delegation, which proposed this could now take the form of concentric circles of responsibility, rather than the heretofore division between Annex I (developed) and Annex II (developing) countries. “We stand behind ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ — these are issues we hold very strong and these are definite red lines,” he said.

Speaking at the Negotiator Media Clinic — an annual event organized by the Climate Change Media Partnership which gathers together key negotiators from multiple delegations to sit down together and, an all too rare occurrence, respond to journalists’ questions — Elina Bardram, a leader of the European Union delegation, said they respected the principle of differentiation, but that “going into the future we need to apply that principle in a contemporary and more nuanced way because the world is not static. We’re not in the world of 1992. There is much more diversity in the GDPs, in the trade potential, in the competitiveness of different countries, and in their capacity to tackle climate change.”

The agreement that came out of Lima mostly papered over such differences. Expect the arguments to continue right up through the COP 21 summit in Paris next year.

But perhaps most importantly, the economics have changed. The cost of wind power has declined 40 percent since the Copenhagen summit and the cost of solar power 80 percent, making the switch to renewable energy seem more feasible. Meanwhile, the costs of inaction seem ever clearer, noted Glen Murray, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change for the province of Ontario, even if they are often overlooked.

“Our food supply comes from California, and so our prices have risen 20 percent due to the drought. The drought in Brazil has driven coffee prizes up by 10 percent,” explained Murray. “Buffalo just had an extreme snowstorm even by its standards. Toxic algae made water undrinkable in Toledo. This is the reality of inaction.”

Murray was speaking at one of the most fascinating side events at the summit, where representatives of states and provinces in North America described the various steps they’re taking to put a price on carbon emissions and to foster renewables. Although you hear less about this “sub-national” activity by states and cities, or the steps being taken by businesses, than you do about federal policies. But this is where some of the most exciting changes are taking place.

Matt Rodriguez, the head of California’s Environmental Protection Agency and of a sizable state delegation to the Lima talks, outlined the various standards for low-carbon fuels, energy efficiency and greener buildings it has enacted. California has a market-based cap and trade program for emissions, developed in partnership with the province of Quebec, and “we want 1.5 million electric vehicles on the road by 2025.”

“The Lima draft agreement has a substantial role for sub-national governments,” added David Heurtel, Quebec’s Minister of Sustainable Development. “We have set up a true cross-country carbon market. On November 25th, we auctioned off a full round of carbon credits, above the floor price. All of them sold. This is true proof of concept. These are no longer just plans or dreams.”

Ontario is also considering whether to join the Western Climate Initiative and create a joint carbon market with California and Quebec, which would encompass over 60 percent of Canada’s population and over 50 percent of its GDP. Nine states in the eastern US have joined together to create the carbon market known as RGGI, which Pennsylvania looks ready to join. Meanwhile, British Columbia has implemented a revenue-neutral carbon tax, despite the general unpopularity of taxes.

“We were told it would destroy the economy and we’d never get elected again, but we’ve won two elections since it was enacted” five years ago, according to Mary Polak, the province’s Minister of Environment. “It’s the revenue neutrality that really makes it work. We collected C$1.2 billion last year and a little bit more was returned.”

“California and British Columbia have demonstrated that you can have strong economic growth in carbon-constrained economies,” said Margi Hoffman, an energy policy advisor to the Governor of Oregon, which has joined them and Washington State to form the Pacific Coast Collaborative. Together, they are discussing construction of a charging network to enable electric vehicles to travel all along the west coast.

Other countries are also getting in on the act. South Korea is launching the world’s second biggest carbon market next year, South Africa is planning to implement a carbon tax in 2016, and Chile in 2018. Of course, for every two steps forward, there seems to be at least one step back. Australia recently repealed its carbon tax, and the collapse of the European Union carbon market – due to a “lack of ambition”, according to World Bank vice president Rachel Kyte — has caused the price of carbon to drop precipitously there.

The real game changer could be the plan by China to launch a national carbon market in 2016-17. Much like in North America, although with more central guidance, China has been experimenting at the sub-national level, in seven provinces and cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Chongqing, Shenzhen, Hebei and Zhejiang. “The pilots are very successful,” said Minister Xie Zhenhua, the head of the Chinese delegation in Lima. “The signal of success is not carbon price, but the exploration of potential regulation and system on pilots that are in different developing levels.”

California has been advising China in its regulatory plans, as part of an active climate diplomacy that seems to extend far and wide. Asked whether they plan to join their carbon markets, officials made it clear it was being considered, but expressed caution. “We need an international agreement to set targets first,” said Jiang Zhaoli of China’s National Development Reform Council. “It’s not the right time for China to start a regional or global carbon market with other countries,” announced Xie. “We should establish our domestic market before cooperating with other countries on a global market.”

China will probably weigh just how much it needs external financing before deciding to link its market abroad, but it too is being driven by impacts. Although getting data about such issues can be hard, the Third Pole website, which chronicles and translates news about climate and water issues all around the Himalayan region and in downstream countries, recently launched a data site compiling scientific information that otherwise tends to be too closely guarded by security-conscious officials throughout South and Central Asia.

The data show that climate change is becoming real, and this is echoed by the experience of people around the world. “Our farmers plant at a different time of year than their grandparents did,” said Tracy Stone Manning, the chief environmental official from Montana, who was also in Lima. “Our fire seasons are gigantic now, and they’re followed by biblical floods.”

This is what has changed the most – the clear impacts and the responses to them. “We’re the great hope now,” argued Murray from Ontario, “because the people are quickly moving ahead of the government.”

Summits like Lima this year and Paris next year are a chance to let the diplomats catch up to what’s happening on the ground in cities, states and businesses, and for those driving the change to catch up on what’s happening around the rest of the world. Whether or not we get an effective global agreement, we’ve come a long way since Kyoto.