International climate talks in Lima, Peru, are entering their final week, with few hints of whether a newfound optimism that marked the start of negotiations will ultimately translate into an agreement that would rein in climate change.
Convened by the United Nations, the talks aim to craft the framework for an international accord to curtail heat-trapping emissions and adapt to changes already occurring on the planet. The final agreement is due to be signed in Paris next December.
Despite more than 20 years of discussions about what nations must do to contend with climate change, the world's emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases are higher than ever, as negotiations have continued to snag on the contradictory priorities of different countries.
The latest round in the discussions began last week with fresh momentum, in large part thanks to steps the U.S. took last month, including a major deal with China to curb emissions and a $3-billion commitment to help developing nations fight climate change.
Yet over the days since the Lima conference began Dec. 1, clashes have flared between developed and developing countries over issues such as whether emissions cuts should be mandatory and how much money rich countries should provide to help poor nations cope with damage from climate change.
Many conflicts stem from countries hewing to familiar hard-line bargaining positions. The question remains whether the brinkmanship will give way to an agreement by the end of the week on key issues, the most pressing of which is ground rules on emission-reduction pledges that countries are to make early next year.
"It's disappointing that countries can't rise above these petty differences, but it's not surprising," Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said from Lima. "Everything always comes down to the wire. [Cabinet-level] ministers have the chance to rise above this when they arrive this week because this is their chance to create their legacy on climate change."
The window is closing fast for countries to cut greenhouse gases enough to avert the greatest global temperature increases and natural disasters associated with them, climate scientists and organizations such as the World Bank warn. The current round of talks would shape efforts to address climate change after 2020. A 2009 agreement reached in Copenhagen delivered voluntary commitments from some nations, including the United States, to take steps before 2020.
A Paris agreement is not expected to curtail heat-trapping emissions in one stroke. But the ambitious plans announced by the U.S. and China over the last month have fostered cautious hope that this time nations will reach a series of accords that can put the world on a path to curtailing emissions sooner rather than later.
There are several broad areas of negotiation in Lima in which about 200 countries are participating, including the legal force any agreement might have and how long a deal would last. Most need to be sorted out by the Paris meeting, though it would not be unusual for countries to delay decisions until the last minute or even until after 2015. Decisions are reached through consensus, but they do not have to be unanimous.
The Lima meeting, however, is meant to decide at least one basic issue: what the emissions-reduction pledges from countries should look like. Countries are to announce their plans during the first three months of 2015. The three largest emitters, which account for 50% of greenhouse gases, have already put forward three options. The U.S. announced that by 2025, it would reduce greenhouse gases at least 26% from 2005 levels. The European Union pledged to cut emissions 40% by 2030, based on 1990 levels. China, the world's biggest polluter, said it would cap carbon emissions by around 2030, earlier than previously announced.
A Lima agreement probably would give countries flexibility on the rate of emissions reductions and the deadline year, said Nathaniel Keohane, vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund's international climate program. Negotiators are determining the basic information that countries must provide when they make pledges: the target year, the base year from which reductions would be measured and whether they would be economy-wide or made by certain industries.
Yet efforts to make sure the steps taken to meet the pledge goals can be independently verified are already hitting roadblocks, Keohane said.
"In an ideal world, there would be sufficient and comprehensive information on how you intend to do the accounting on pledges and to make sure there's no double-counting," he said. But a few major developing countries, led by Brazil, Bolivia and Saudi Arabia, are complicating discussions. This could involve routine bargaining tactics, Keohane said, but it could also be a step toward "slowing things down, and I'm leaning toward the latter."
Poorer nations are struggling to nail down significant, steady funding from industrialized countries to help them cope with the damage from climate change and to develop their economies without relying on fuels such as coal. Research has shown that the poorest countries that emitted the least greenhouse gases, such as those in Africa, stand to suffer the most damage from climate change.
Developed countries, including the U.S., have balked at new funding commitments after 2020. Yet without agreement on funding for poor countries by December 2015, any hope of a larger agreement in Paris would crumble.
Over the years, participants at U.N. climate talks estimated that $75 billion to $100 billion annually in public and private funding was needed to help poor countries cope with climate change. But on Friday, the U.N. Environment Program issued a report saying that even if emissions were drastically reduced, "the cost of adapting to climate change in developing countries is likely to reach two to three times" the previous estimates by 2050.
It's unlikely that the financing question will be sorted out at the end of the Lima conference. The main criteria for success at the fractious talks seem to be some kind of agreement on a basic checklist of pledge information and the avoidance of high drama, such as a walk-out by participating states.
"They usually meet the bare minimum they have to do," Keohane said.