Climate Change Conference in Lima: “Unilateral measures at the national level are not enough”

Climate Change Conference in Lima: “Unilateral measures at the national level are not enough”

Interview with Barbara Unmüßig, Co-President of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, about the prospects for the COP 20 climate summit in Lima, Peru; the future of the multilateral climate process; the perspectives for the new Green Climate Fund after its successful initial resource mobilization; and the role and contribution of Latin America in addressing global climate change.

The 20th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will take place December 1-12 in Lima, Peru. The following year, in December 2015, a new international climate treaty is to be signed in Paris. What are the prospects?

First the good news: Following the agreement between the US and China, there has definitely been movement in what was so far a mutual blocking game. US President. Obama’s acknowledgment that he has nothing left to lose after the latest mid-term congressional elections may have played a role. In this regard, the announcement that US emissions will be reduced by up to 28% by 2025 is a liberating move in any respect. China’s announcement to increase the portion of non-fossil fuels to around 20% by 2030 is also noteworthy. However, we need to wait and see how much of this will be achieved by including nuclear energy. In addition, China has given within the scope of the UN climate change negotiations no statement on accepting a binding reduction in emissions. Furthermore, the joint US-Chinese statement is mostly referring to bilateral cooperation and coordination.

Therefore, the prospects for a binding international treaty under the umbrella of international law remain unclear. When the EU forged a progressive alliance with the poorest developing and African countries in Durban in 2011 and implemented a timetable for negotiations for a treaty in Paris for 2015, expectations were raised.  However, they have been dampened since then. It is impossible to ignore the fact that various industrialized countries have turned their back on international climate change policies, and we are experiencing right now a downright Renaissance in the exploitation of fossil fuels. This also applies to China, despite the latest declaration of intent, which is continuing the strong expansion of coal-fired power plants. I also remains to be seen whether Canada, Japan, and Australia will continue to block the climate change negotiations.

Unfortunately, the EU has also lost its leadership drive. The latest adopted climate change and energy package for 2013 represents the lowest common denominator with a 40% reduction in emissions compared to 1990. Even Germany as the climate model student is criticized for increasing the number of coal-based power stations and its emissions, and rightly so in my opinion.  The bottom line is actually quite clear: Without stopping the use of coal, there will not be any ambitious climate change policies in Germany or in Europe. The two-degree goal cannot be achieved with any of the reduction announcements which the largest polluting countries have made so far.

What we can hope for Paris is a package consisting of relatively ambitious national contributions. Holding governments to account and agreeing on more extensive reduction goals in the coming years will only be possible, however, when there is a robust system of monitoring, reporting and verification . While this is not much, it is more than nothing. We will see if the agreement between the US and China can inspire the international process in Lima. Jointly, the US, China, and the EU are still responsible for about 55% of emissions in the world and are now at least ready to significantly reduce emissions, independently of one another. The individual reduction intentions are actually quite impressive and certainly increase at least the chances that the two-degree limit to the global temperature increase can be maintained. However, this goal cannot be achieved through unilateral measures at the national level or bilateral treaties that are not binding and have no clear strategies. A UN multilateral regulatory system that integrates all of the participants and thus contributes to reaching a fair compromise is still needed. We don’t have any other comparable system.

And what exactly will governments be negotiating in Lima?

In order to still stick to the agreed-upon schedule for the Paris treaty, decisions must be made in Lima regarding the form, scope, and ambition of this treaty. It was for this reason and others that Ban Ki-Moon invited the heads of states and governments to a climate change summit in New York in September.

The chances for an agreement have increased, as mentioned, with the US-Chinese agreement. Mandatory  agreements regarding national and multilateral policy instruments are, however, still essential. Examples include concrete measures such as carbon taxes and trading as well as subsidy policies for renewable energies. In mid-November in Berlin, the initial resource mobilization for the Green Climate Fund was addressed after all – a good sign for the developing countries. But industrialized countries still need to add a lot more financing for climate protection in developing countries. For finance, there is an own very tough negotiation path. The negotiation text for Paris should be established by spring 2015 – this is not impossible but there is also not much time left.

Why is this process so lethargic and why have we not seen any progress? Do you have any suggestions for how to change this?

Of course, there are many reasons for this. But a central one is the power of the fossil fuel industry. Research from American scientist Richard Heede has shown that o90 producers of oil, gas, coal and cement (the so-called carbon majors) have been responsible for about two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions since the beginning of industrialization. They sell these climate-damaging products and earn billions in profit by doing so. In addition, their powerful lobbies prevent the implementation of climate change policies and finance climate change skeptics on a large scale. On the other hand, millions of people are already suffering from the impacts of climate change. Typhoon Haiyan alone, which raged in the Philippines a year ago, killed more than 6000 people, resulted in more than 4 million refugees, destroyed over 1 million houses, and caused economic damage in the billions. We propose that the carbon majors pay a tax on fossil fuels that will directly benefit the poorest victims of climate change through a new  UN mechanism for loss and damage. That would be a direct and immediate implementation of the polluter-pays principle. To ensure that such a mechanism for innovative climate financing can be established, the issue  of loss and damage must first be incorporated into the Paris treaty. Several developing countries are fighting for this.

Last week (on November 20), the donor conference for the Green Climate Fund (GCF) took place at the invitation of German Federal Minister for the Environment Barbara Hendricks and German Federal Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development Gerd Müller in Berlin. How would you assess the results of the conference, particularly with respect to the COP in Lima and next year in Paris?

The set minimum goal of US$10 billion for the initial resource mobilization of the fund was not reached, even if collective pledges come close, mainly because Australia, Russia, China, and India did not make any financial commitments and did not even show up at the conference. A few European countries such as Austria, Belgium, Ireland, or Portugal have yet to contribute. It is also unclear as to when the officially confirmed US$9.3 billion will actually start flowing to developing countries. Germany has promised EUR 750 million as a grant. However, according to some sources, in the 2015  federal budget apparently only 18 million have been set aside for the GCF.

Despite this, it still appears as if the fund will be able to commence its funding  work next year in any case; this is not the least also thanks to the financial contributions  from emerging market economies that actually did not have any financing  obligations. This means that an important hurdle has been overcome for successful negotiations in Lima and subsequently in Paris. However, the devil is in the detail: On one hand, the fund is supposed to finance measures and investments for reducing emissions and slowing down climate change; on the other hand, it should finance adaptation measures to address impacts already being felt, particularly in the poorest countries that have contributed the least to climate change. For this reason, it is a good thing that half of the fund’s expenditures have already been promised for adaptation measures. Mainly, the projects and expenditures of the fund must not, under any circumstances, be tied to any conditions or even counted against previously planned investment cooperation or loans.

Some Latin American countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, or Chile are considered to be – or like to present themselves – as pioneers of renewable energies and climate change policies. Is this correct, particularly in light of the negotiations in Lima and next year in Paris and what role can Peru as the host country for this year’s COP play for the climate change and energy policies on the continent?

Primarily Mexico, but also Brazil or Chile tries to take on a perceptible mediator role between the advocates of a binding treaty and the blockers. Mexico deserves particular recognition here because the country has contributed financial means to the Green Climate Fund voluntarily, without obligation. Thus, Latin America certainly plays a role in the climate negotiations and can actively contribute to achieving more ambitious climate goals and agreements in Paris, by way of Lima. In addition, some countries in the region, such as Mexico, Brazil, and even Uruguay and Chile, have actually developed new approaches in recent years, at least on paper, for introducing renewable energies and emission reductions. That said, it is important to take a more precise look at the respective national energy mixes. With the exception of Uruguay, many countries are further developing their fossil fuel energy sources, such as coal or diesel-based power plants.

The efficiency strategies are only halfhearted, and the development of renewable energies is only tackled hesitantly or delayed due to existing fossil-fuel oligopolies. What is happening in many Latin American emerging countries is exactly what is being rightly criticized here in Germany: Those that continue to rely on coal for their power supply or that exploit fossil fuels have a credibility problem and are contributing to increasing emissions. Of course, it is true that Latin America’s portion in the worldwide total of emissions is low and in many cases can be traced back to deforestation; however, that is no reason to rely on old fuels. Emission-free and economical technological alternatives do exist and there is great potential in many countries, the potential, particularly for solar or wind energy, which means that the advantages are also apparent from a cost perspective. In this respect, the role of Peru as the host country may provide the continent with the opportunity to put words into local actions on a global stage.