2014 UN Climate Conference in Lima, Peru: Same Old, Same Old

2014 UN Climate Conference in Lima, Peru: Same Old, Same Old

The 2014 UN Climate Talks leave once again a bad taste in the mouth of many after the Lima Accords were passed on Saturday night in Lima, Peru. The devils of the past are, unfortunately, still alive. A usual impasse has marked every single UN Climate Conference ever since the groundbreaking Rio Summit in 1992, and the Lima Talks are no exception. On the contrary, the UN Climate Conference in Lima has, as no event before, demonstrated the sluggishness of the international community in acting together on climate change and has exposed the radical disbalance in standpoints between the rich North and poor South. In case someone expected a global breakthrough in tackling climate change in Lima, I have to disappoint you. This was the wrong place to visit.

Delegations from more than 190 countries gathered in Lima, Peru in the last two weeks to discuss the details of a global post-Kyoto deal expected to be finalised at the UN Climate Conference in Paris next year. Building on the momentum gained at the US – China climate talks only one month ahead of Lima, where the US has pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2030 whereas China promised to peak its emissions in 2030, the stage was set for an ambitious overture to next year’s climate conference in Paris. Sad to say the level of ambition was not met.

The goal of the Lima Conference was obviously to pave the way for a legally-binding protocol in Paris with the purpose of obliging all interested countries to carbon emission reductions after the expiry of the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol in 2020 in order to keep global warming below 2° C compared to pre-industrial times. The 2° C threshold was dramatically signaled by experts as the critical point of no return for the mankind. Preceding the event in Lima, the Fifth Assessment Report by the international expert panel on climate change (IPCC) warned that ”the window of opportunity is closing”, hence action must follow immediately if catastrophic scenarios are to be avoided.

And there they were, delegates from all around the world, ready to draft the negotiation text for the 2015 Climate Conference in Paris. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, was the highest ranked American to take part at the talks, trying to spread optimism before the final agreement was scheduled. In an impassioned speech delivered at the Conference, he reminded delegates that ”22 years later, we are still on a course leading to tragedy”, urging them to ”look further down the road” by diverting from the fossil fuel-driven pathway as soon as possible. Nevertheless, both Kerry and the US Special Envoy for Climate Change and lead negotiator in Lima, Todd Stern, did not bother commenting on the Keystone XL pipeline expected to deliver Canadian dirty tarsand oil to US shores, although President Obama denounced its potential to create jobs and communicated his climate related concerns at the Colbert Report earlier that week. Nevermind that, delegates at the conference finally discussed the real deal – phasing out fossil fuels completely, unlike previous modest pledges expressed in carbon emission reductions or percentage falls.

Much talk, little action

However, the conference witnessed a deadlock as the negotiations continued unexpectedly until Saturday evening. The result: much talk, little action. The same old caprices that have plagued these negotiations decades before continue. The everlasting debate on how to share the burden of global warming between the developed countries and the developing countries has brought us to a watered down version of the Lima Accords (full title: Lima Call for Climate Action) in which solutions are bundled around the least common denominator. The majority of discussions were centered around only a few paragraphs of the 4-page paper. Finally, delegates agreed that the future protocol would apply to all countries under the principle of ”common but differentiated responsibilities”, a trope that has not changed since the Rio Summit in 1992. To the shock of many activists and NGOs, the final draft of the Lima Accord switched the phrasing in the crucial part of the document. Namely, countries will not be obliged to provide information on their intended nationally determined contributions, but instead only ”may include” quantifiable provisions such as the foreseen reference point for carbon emissions, periods for implementation or time frames. As a consequence, the future agreement already falls short in providing the needed level of coersion in order to meet the carbon emission reduction commitments. Furthermore, without relevant quantitative information or common reference points it will be incredibly difficult to calculate the science behind politics, that is, to what extent the proposed pledges contribute to mitigating a climate disaster and meeting the 2° C levels. The consolation prize for the developing countries was, however, the agreement on implementing a ”loss and damage” mechanism aimed at providing logistic and financial help to countries affected the most by calamitous events such as droughts, floods and typhoons.

The settings of the Lima Conference explain much of the stalemate in the global action against climate change. The greatly intricate background of the formal talks discloses the true reasons for lack of ambition.

Activists vs Fossil Fuel Industries

As we speak, tens of millions of people around the world succumb to climate related calamities. Just recently Typhoon Hagupit hit the Philippines killing more than fifty people, displacing many more. The latest, US West Coast area was flooded amidst a major storm that hit the area. This spring, the Balkans were struck by the worst floods in history, followed by landslides and the spread of infective diseases in the aftermath. But speaking up, demanding more ambitious targets and more plentiful finance for the countries witnessing the destructive power of nature and the abhorrent effects of fossil fuel extractivism is doomed to fail. In short, we are eyewitnesses to (1) reprisals and shushing of climate activism, (2) the rise of ”corporate conquistadors” (CEO 2014), and (3) the covert nature of climate policy-making. This was confirmed in Lima, Peru.

First of all, activists around the world who dare to question the extractive industry and their activities face horrendous vengeance for their actions. An estimated 57 climate activists have been killed only in Peru since 2002, the latest being the Peruvian indigenous leader and anti-logging activist Edwin Chota who was found dismembered and decapitated by loggers conducting illegal logging. More than 20 US companies are estimated to be involved in illegal logging in Peru’s Amazon forest, an activity adversely affecting the Yasuni National Park, a true reservoir of nature’s biodiversity. Meanwhile, Peruvian authorities roll back deforestation legislation in attempts to attract investments – a true suicide. Another group in Nigeria, the Ogoni tribe keeps alive the memory of Ken Saro Wiwa, their group member and activist killed 20 years ago due to his opposition to extractivist activities in the Niger Delta. The list of examples is endless. One may remember the desparate outcries of Jeb Sano, the lead climate negotiator for the Philippines in 2012 and 2013 when in an emotional speech referring to the Typhoon Hayan he implored the delegates to act by asking them: ”If not now, then when? If not here, then where? If not us, then who?”. This year he was nowhere near the Climate Conference as he was removed from the position for his overly ”radical” positions implicating the developed countries’ responsibility to take more ambitious action. Jano’s tweet preceding the conference demonstrates the power of censorship. ”They can silence my mouth, but they can not silence my soul” – he wrote.

And yet, Jep Sano is only emblematic of a far bigger problem – the disproportionate influence of extractive industries at the UN climate talks and the criminalization of environmental justice movements around the world. Not only were fossil fuel industries like Shell and Chevron allowed to participate at the climate talks in Lima, but they sponsored events where they talked about ”capture and storage” (CCS) as the grand scheme of future extractivism. The same industries that caused the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, who glorify tarsands and fracking, approve illegal logging in the Amazon, violate indigenous peoples’ rights, bribe them to accept extraction, destroy livelihoods, agriculture, water and fishery, and polute the environment, now offer the solutions for tomorrow – not a zero-emission, zero fossil fuel future, but convoluted market-based instruments and storage methods without shifting to green energy. At the same time, the business world organized their own World Climate Summit in Lima in parallel to the UN Climate Conference. A radically opposite movement emerged on the streets of Lima as the protestors rallied in the Peruvian People’s Climate March, the largest climate march in the history of Latin America reminiscent of the recent People’s Climate March held in New York. Neither did mainstream media cover these types of stories, nor did the UN organisers approve of the activities. They rather imposed restrictions on demonstrations at the sight, as NGO groups explain (i.e. SustainUs). Slogans and banner information needed to be checked by the UN Secretary before approval. Mentioning names, shaming and blaming countries or project – strictly forbidden. This is the kind or reality we live in. The polluters get to sit at the table, but those exposing them are censored and dismissed. Curiously, the sight where the UN talks took place is popularly known as ”El Pentagonito” since it features a military base known for torture and killing of dissidents during and before the regime of former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori. Clearly, the authoritative legacy of the place marches on.

Finally, a genuine impact in climate policy-making is concentrated in the hands of a few people sitting behind closed doors. No governance mechanism exists, there is no way to influence the decisions as stakeholders’ opinions are not represented but a ”contact group” discusses the specifics of the agreement at their mainly informal meetings. Clandestine as it is, weighting the power of any actor would be purely speculative. But if we presume that the power is where the money is, it is not difficult to realize who are those with the upper hand.

By now it has become clear as a day that the world leaders have hardly dealt with the real problems around climate change, the underlying causes for land – and – biodiversity devastation, the likely effects,  but most importantly – the climate finance. So, what are the truly disturbing policy issues which are constantly miscarried  by policy-makers at the global level?

Market failure all over

One serious problem of contemporary global climate policy is its bias towards market-based solutions. A pertinent example is the so called Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) which, in lieu of investing in green development project in developing countries, grants higher carbon emissions for polluters in developed countries. Hereby, the responsibility for carbon cuts is just shifted towards the developing countries. Moreover, these kinds of projects have proven to be detrimental to local communities and their sustainable, in-balance-with-nature lifestyles. Thus, keeping in mind that market solutions go hand in hand with market failures, violations and abuses is indispensable to an effective climate policy. I would not go that far as Bolivian president Evo Morales who sees capitalism as the root cause to climate change, hence ending capitalism would save the planet. Still, it is true that fossil fuel extraction activities are motivated by profits on the market, which in turn can contribute to land degradation, biodiversity loss, water contamination, respiratory and other diseases, oil and gas leakage, air pollution, popular displacement, indigenous peoples’ rights violations and other side-effects. Curbing the market incentives is one way forward.

Secondly, a much broader problem is the dominant mindset which adheres to inertia and responsibility denial.  Developed countries need to acknowledge their historic responsibility in creating the climate crisis and its externalities that hit the most vulnerable countries the hardest. On the other hand, developing countries need to acknowledge the responsibility for more than 50 percent of carbon emissions at the moment, but at the same time they also have the right to arrive to the point of development as the developed countries. This is where the North-South dispute steps in – another moral/ideological dichotomy which leads to clashes and confrontations, not constructive solutions.

Thirdly and most importantly, climate funding is the most detached element of all. Climate change diffuses all kinds of accidents, ranging from natural catastrophes to famine. Mitigating climate change but also adopting to it requires indefinite amounts of finance. Up to date, pledges have been humble to say at least. When Hillary Clinton announced at the Copenhagen UN Climate Conference in 2009 that the US is going to pour a 100 billion dollars into the Green Climate Fund by 2020, the reaction was quite positive. Five years later, only 10 percent of the amount has been contributed. When Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa proposed to keep fossil fuels underground to the benefit of the Yasuni National Park and the global levels of CO2 emissions, he had little success. Although keeping fossil fuels intact is the way forward, Correa couldn’t raise enough money from the international community to compensate for Ecuador’s opportunity costs. Climate mitigation and climate adaption stays seriously underfunded.

There is plenty of solutions to tackle these problems, and I shall present briefly only those I find most alluring.

Fossil Fuel Divestment as an Option

It is of utmost urgence to start promoting local community-led development. Protecting the rights of indigenous peoples would be the first step in proceeding so. For instance, providing land rights can be a strong asset against extractive industries. Furthermore, localized economies are incredibly self-sustainable, they preserve the balance in the nature, hardly pollute and contribute to preservation of biodiversity. Instead of imposing market-based instruments, one could promote community-based approaches and cooperatives to the benefit of everyone.

Next, if a fair share of responsibilities is the goal, then governments should take into account the voices of the people who experience the hardships of climate change and start changing the mindsets to a zero-emission circular economy. Stopping government subsidies for fossil fuel exploration must follow, sending a strong signal to the fossil fuel industry that priorities have changed. Carbon taxation is another strong incentive to shift activites from extraction to green technologies. Divestment from fossil fuel industries is the latest trend, growing in popularity. Universities, governments, investment funds, pension funds – they all have the opportunity to say no to dirty practices and reinvest their money into sustainable development projects.

Eventually, a consensus has to be reached as to what extent developed countries inherit a historic responsibility to act upon development aid need since they were the ones extracting fossil fuels and natural resources during colonization. Only legally-binding solutions, agreed democratically between developed countries, developing countries, the scientific community and the non-governmental actors can result in a just distribution of responsibilites. Any type of funding should imminently be dedicated to building a climate resilience infrastructure and other preventive actions, but also to helping achieve the desirable levels of development by means of sustainable energy sources and technologies.

No matter what you think

I will finish this report by a tiny disclaimer. I hereby do not promote any climate change theory. Neither did I raise my voice as a proponent of the human-driven climate change theory nor as a climate skeptic (denier). This is essentially trivial for the points I make. I do however acknowledge that climate change is happening, but warn about existing pitfalls in assigning weights to different elements in contributing to climate change, as well as the causal links that are often made without basic research groundwork. The history of our planet taught us that a great number of factors caused temperature variability in different periods of time. Similarly, no one can deny the destructive potential of the fossil fuel industry in total or the fact that climate change is happening. The former may be in correlation with the later, but their is no doubt that the former is impeding us getting in sync with nature. Indeed, the fact is that in the last hundred years surface temperatures embarked on an upward trend, and it is causing us trouble for sure. But temperature rise is not the only problem we face today. Let us broaden the picture so we can see the full spectrum of effect that both our industry and natural disasters combined have on our planet. No matter if you are a climate change denier or not, the world will have to bear the burden of climate change. It is the responsibility of all of us to make sure everyone gains, and no one looses in this hazardous game of twisting responsibility.

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