The Lima Summit: Initiatives not obligations!

The obstacles impeding climate change negotiations have remained the same since the first framework convention was ratified in 1992, and as expected the essence of the global debate did not differ in Lima, where the 20th Conference of the Parties concluded its proceedings yesterday on how to best confront the phenomenon. The divisions between rich countries and developing nations were the same, give or take some minor adjustments, such as the relabelling of certain “developing” countries as “growing” countries. The question of who is to bear the “historical responsibility” for global climate change remained without a clear answer, which might be translated into concrete reparations and radical changes to both economic and policy-making infrastructures—this, despite the use of phrases such as “shared and variable responsibilities”, which refers to a proportional division of responsibilities according to size. Yet all these years of debate have had no impact in light of the continuing dominance of a model of development espoused by the so-called “advanced” nations, a model foisted on the rest of the world and which has, in one way or another, been the cause of the phenomenon of climate change. How is it possible to create a binding treaty chiefly focussed on reducing emissions that cause climate change, with agreed-on measures for evaluation and implementation, in light of a vicious and untrammelled global competition over production and consumption?

The 20th Conference of the Parties failed as usual to come up with a draft for the treaty to be signed next year in Paris and to define emission-reduction targets for individual nations, but it attempted to mask its failure with small-scale, symbolic initiatives. Instead of national obligations we encounter initiatives at the level of cities, municipalities and institutions, such as those which aim for efficient energy production and consumption, or cooperation with local communities to protect forests, or setting up fantasy alliances between representatives of governments, companies, non-governmental organizations, regional associations and investors to engage in small-scale projects that have not the slightest effect on the catastrophic course of climate change. It suggests that these nations—especially the major, influential nations—have no real intention of producing a binding agreement in Paris next year, and that the world must expect more climate-related disasters before realization dawns.

These were the outcomes expected from the intergovernmental panel’s line-by-line interrogation of the Fifth Assessment Report, which is meant to help heads of state and policy-makers draw up a new climate-change treaty in 2015 and which was already the subject of debate prior to Lima. During the debate, the Swedish representative objected to the use of the term “measures” to refer to the issue of adapting to treaty obligations and proposed “options” in its place, to avoid the sense of obligation associated with the former word.

If, now that all nations have accepted that human agency is at fault, the nature of the debate over emissions shows signs of major and influential nations attempting avoid defining the problems, responsibilities and measures that might be required later—particularly the Swedish representative who objected to the limited reference to emissions from land use, fossil fuel burning and cement production and proposed that all emission sources be included, or the US representative’s proposal that all emissions be referred to as greenhouse gases and not broken down according to source, or the Chinese representative’s proposal that further discussion be held on the topic—this is readily understandable. Less expected, indeed ridiculous, was the debate over the following sentence: “Over the last two decades Greenland has lost its ice cover, glaciers have continued to shrink across the globe, and the sea-ice around the northern pole and the spring ice cover in the northern hemisphere also continues to shrink…” There was an argument about whether, after the first mention of “ice cover”, the words “at an increasing rate” or “at an increasingly rapid rate” should be inserted!

Given debates like these, and the failed rounds of negotiations between state representatives and experts that have been going on interminably ever since 1992, it is not difficult to imagine the nature of the debates that will take place over coming reports that predict the extinction of the human race. Will mankind be wiped out at an increasing rate, or increasingly rapidly?