The 20th annual UN Climate Change Conference (Conference of the Parties, or COP) is currently taking place in Lima, Peru. It’s a dress rehearsal for talks that should conclude a new international climate agreement in 2015. But with several strands of negotiations between governments, as well as hundreds of events being held in parallel, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. So we’ve compiled a quick guide to some of the key trends shaping this year’s talks.
1. Zero emissions (but beware the small print) Addressing climate change means rapidly weaning ourselves off the greenhouse gases that cause it. So what could be more welcome than a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050? A “net zero” movement is now pushing for carbon neutrality within one generation. But there’s a catch: “net zero” means you can still emit a lot, as long as emissions are somehow sucked out of the atmosphere elsewhere. That provision is already being used to support expensive and unproven measures to capture and store carbon from fossil fuel power plants and industry, as well as controversial, climate-manipulating geo-engineering. Striving for zero emissions is a step in the right direction, but we’ll need more than a catch phrase to motivate investments in renewables, grassroots empowerment, and straight-up significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
2. Setting your own target “Intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) is the latest acronym in the alphabet soup of jargon that is routinely generated by UN climate talks. INDCs are a way for countries to declare what concrete actions they’ll be taking to address climate change, in the hope that these ingredients can be baked into a new international climate agreement. The guidelines on what INDCs can be are intentionally flexible and ambiguous, allowing states to declare anything from economy-wide emissions targets to long-term national climate action plans. Predictably, negotiators are now struggling to articulate INDCs in a way that is fair, equitable, and transparent. A number of developing countries are concerned that INDCs are becoming a ruse for developed countries to ignore tricky questions about their fair share of climate action, based on their current and historic responsibility for causing the problem in the first place. There’s also a concern that INDCs will just focus on “mitigation” (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) even though, for many countries, adaptation (coping with the climate change that’s already locked in), finance and technology transfers are vital to any new international climate deal.
3. Everyone’s talking about justice Until recently, if someone said “climate justice” they’d more likely than not be referring to the fact that climate change was mostly caused by a handful of industrialized countries and big corporations, who should pollute less rather than pushing “solutions” with negative impacts on Indigenous Peoples, people of color and the world’s poor. But this year we’re seeing “justice-washing” throughout the COP. Even Lord Nicholas Stern, a leading capitalist climate economist, has been speaking the language of climate justice. While we are happy to hear that fat cats now have to open their eyes and ears to “local ownership” and “gender sensitivity,” these words shouldn’t be tossed around the point of meaninglessness.
4. Time to clean up climate finance “Climate finance” is money from developed countries that is meant to help developing countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions (via mitigation) and deal with climate impacts that are already happening or unavoidable (adaptation). To this end, developed countries have promised to mobilize $100 billion dollars a year by 2020. The reality of the climate finance delivered to date is not all rosy. For example, Japan provided $1 billion in loans to build coal-fired power plants in Indonesia, then counted it as their contribution to a “fast start” climate finance package that ran from 2012-2012. There are plenty more examples of dirty deals masquerading as climate finance, but we can’t afford sparse climate finance wasted on polluting projects. It’s time for the COP to clearly define what can count as climate finance, including following the demand of civil society groups to adopt an exclusion list that prevents a new, $10 billion Green Climate Fund from funding fossil fuel projects.
5. Big oil everywhere Last year’s UN climate change conference was awash with corporate sponsorship, which we warned could become “the new normal.” Twelve months on, big oil firms are everywhere. Shell and Chevron even co-hosted an event where the aforementioned Lord Stern spoke against divesting from fossil fuels (particularly oil and gas). Meanwhile, these same companies are lobbying hard to water down any potential climate deal. What happened to climate change being “the biggest market failure the world has ever seen?” as Stern once wrote? We guess the oil companies never got the memo.
6. Forest conservation gets a makeover The initiative to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) has been a hot topic at the climate talks for several years, but the means of financing forest protection remain unclear. The initial REDD+ idea, pedaled by the World Bank, was to build a market for forest carbon offsets: big corporations could compensate for their own pollution by paying to preserve tropical forests. But REDD+ has increasingly negative connotations, as many of the initial schemes have been associated with displacing and disempowering indigenous and peasant communities and undermining their land rights. In light of all the bad press, many forest projects are dropping the REDD+ branding and are simply being labeled “conservation projects” or “administrative agreements.” It remains to be seen whether or not these are any better at helping local people to preserve forests without compromising their livelihoods.
7. Gender, and arguing about its relevance Developing “gender sensitive” policy is an increasingly important part of emerging climate finance schemes. But some governments object, including those of Sudan and Algeria. They want references to gender removed from the policies being negotiated in Lima. The European Union and Mexico, amongst others, insist that gender is a priority. The impasse continues.