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From Peru to Paris

Are the climate talks in Lima making progress? Here’s how you can tell.

Don’t expect the United Nations' climate change conference currently underway in Lima, Peru, to deliver major headlines—the negotiations are mostly over technical and bureaucratic issues. Wait, don’t leave yet. Some critical decisions are being made behind the scenes. And those choices could very well determine whether we have a meaningful climate change agreement at next year’s summit in Paris, when nations will seek to replace the expiring 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

So how will you know whether Lima was a success? Here are a few things to look for.

Photo: UNclimatechange

1. Demand Specifics on Carbon Commitments

Last year in Warsaw, countries agreed to announce a new set of carbon-reduction commitments by early 2015. They did not, however, agree on what kind of information must be included in those commitments. Note: Vague promises are often unverifiable.

China’s recent pledge to reach its peak carbon output by 2030, for example, left a number of important questions unanswered: What will be the peak emissions level in 2030? Will it include methane and other non-CO2 greenhouse gases? Other countries have been even more equivocal than China. At the 2009 Copenhagen conference, Indonesia agreed to reduce emissions 26 percent by 2020 compared to a “business as usual” scenario. It did not say, however, what its “business as usual” level would be. So once 2020 arrives, determining whether Indonesia fulfilled its obligation will be impossible. South Africa used the same trick, trying to distract us with percentage signs.

The Lima negotiators are supposed to close such loopholes by laying out exactly what information must be detailed in the upcoming 2015 carbon commitments. Look for requirements such as the type of greenhouse gases included, precise emissions levels, and the year that will serve as the baseline to compare future emissions goals to.

2. Move Deadlines Forward

There was a telling asymmetry in the carbon-pollution agreement that China and the United States made in October: The States committed to reductions for 2025, while China’s obligations don’t kick in until 2030. What gives?

The later deadline offers developing countries like China the flexibility to create the right technologies and incentives to cut their emissions. But it also takes the pressure off present-day leaders to do something meaningful to ward off warming. Even in China, where a president can stay in office for an unusually long 10 years, the carbon promises will become someone else’s problem.

“We don’t want countries to do nothing until 2026, then realize they can’t meet their commitments,” says Jake Schmidt, director of the international program at NRDC (which publishes Earthwire).

Most importantly, the atmosphere doesn’t concern itself with deadlines of political and economic convenience. A recent study shows that the emission of a CO2 molecule reaches its maximum warming potential within ten years, then continues to warm the planet for well over a century. Every year that countries delay cutting those emissions will have an immediate and lasting impact on the fate of the planet.

3. Focus on the Two-Degree Maximum

There’s a very good chance that once we add up all the shiny new carbon commitments coming out over the next few months, we’ll still be on course to blow through the maximum temperature increase that we agreed to try to avoid in the Copenhagen Accord. (That’s two degrees Celsius, in case you forgot.) What then?

Negotiators in Lima are discussing this eventuality (some might say probability) right now. There must be a mechanism by which nations can renegotiate their promised carbon reductions to ensure that the collective cuts have a legitimate chance of stabilizing the climate. (If countries are allowed to make inadequate commitments and simply walk away, then what’s the point?) Look for this provision in the agreement that comes out of Lima.

4. Minimize Unfinished Business Long Before Paris

The most important document that will emerge from Lima this week is the “elements text.” Think of this as the minutes that help set the agenda for the next meeting. The elements text will list the things that the countries agree to over the two-week negotiation, while explicitly highlighting any unresolved issues. Keeping this document—especially the unresolved-issues part—as short as possible is the key to success in Paris next year.

“Going into the Copenhagen conference, the elements text was 300 pages,” says Schmidt. “There was no way to turn that into an agreement in just two weeks.”

At the time of publication, this was the current version of the elements text. Twelve pages. Nice and short (as these things go). Let’s hope negotiators can keep it that way.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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