A first-timer's take on the UN Climate Change Conference

A first-timer’s take on the UN Climate Change Conference

COP20 in Lima, Peru, was chocked full of politics and tactics, activists and great minds, a mix of frustration and hope— it is hard to process everything that happened. I watched the negotiations as an official observer, a status that afforded me a spot in the negotiating room after extended waits under the baking equatorial sun. Amidst all the activity, viewing the negotiations live was a highlight of my week. The COP20 talks in Lima had two overarching goals:

  1. Get consensus on a draft text to be used in negotiations for a global climate agreement in 2015. This year was all about preparing for the new, legally binding global agreement which will be adopted in Paris in 2015 and implemented in 2020, when the second period of the Kyoto Protocol ends.
  2. Agree on the contents of countries’ Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) in March 2015. The INDCs are effectively countries’ national climate action plans that will be executed in 2020.
Inside the negotiations room.

Inside the negotiations room.

After two weeks of round-the-clock talks, the “Lima Call for Climate Action” was born—albeit 30 hours after the official end of COP. Getting countries (“parties”) to come close to a consensus was a very difficult task. There were a few sticking points:

  1. Common But Differentiated Responsibility. National negotiators fiercely debated the definition of differentiation, as they had in previous negotiations. Parties argued that the Annex I and II “differentiation” was outdated, given that the categories were created way back in 1992.
  2. Climate Finance. One after the other, Annex II countries called for higher financing commitment from Annex I countries. In Copenhagen, nations pledged $100 billion per year to the Green Climate Fund up until 2020. The final amount fell short, however, as the Fund hit only around the $10 billion mark during COP20 with Peru’s pledge of $6 million. Five developing countries made contributions: Peru, Colombia, South Korea, Mexico and Mongolia.
  3. Loss and Damage. The terms for a “permanent arrangement to help the poorest rebuild from the impacts of climate change” appeared and disappeared from the draft text after mixed positions from small-island states, but they eventually found room in the final version, taken wholesale from the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage.

For what had been a mellow COP, the last two days were nail-biting as countries struggled to emerge from gridlock. The last two days of COP in numbers:

  • 196: Parties in the UNFCCC
  • 50: pages of text being negotiated at the start
  • 30: hours after the official end of COP20 that the Lima Call for Climate Action was announced
  • 10: minutes that Norway and Singapore, and then the COP President, had to speak to each negotiating block for collecting inputs in the final hours
  • 4: pages in the Lima Call for Climate Action
  • (39: pages of the Annex of the Lima Call for Climate Action, with Options for parties)
  • 3: draft texts produced by the ADP co-chairs
  • 2: o’clock in the morning, when the COP President graveled the Lima Call for Climate Action

There are many reasons for not going to the COP: your carbon footprint (this COP had the largest of all COPs but is the first to be offset); the frustration of international climate politics; what difference can I make, anyways? While these are rational objections, I cannot deny that it was an exhilarating, unique experience to be among such a cosmopolitan group of like-minded people.

COP is, after all, the world’s largest gathering of climate decision-makers, intellectuals and activists. From NGOs to governments, businesses to indigenous people, everyone comes with an agenda of interests to discuss, whether from behind a podium or behind a pisco sour bar. Chances to network abound. I took selfies with my favorite ministers. The two end of the week TGIFs were incredible fun, giving me the chance to once again appreciate my extraordinary F&ES community, and the delicious Peruvian cocktails.

TGIF during the second week of COP. So great!

TGIF during the second week of COP. So great!

The COP was inspiring, if you took time to step outside the official halls of the negotiations. Activists brought energy and entertainment to the COP with their actions at Voices for Climate and the People’s Climate Summit. On the heels of the People’s Climate March in New York City, campaigners mobilized pacific demonstrations, theatrical parodies, candlelight vigils and a second People’s Climate March in downtown Lima.

The weight of the world had seemingly landed on COP 20’s shoulders, but I do not believe the meeting’s outcomes hold the hope of our climate future. Many more ongoing fruitful actions, both large and small, could have greater impacts, including national initiatives and growing social movements. I will be following closely the path to Paris, though I do not plan to go to the French capital in December. Rather, you could probably find me doing fieldwork in the rainforest or advocating for climate action in the halls of decision-makers.

With Ms. Christiana Figueres, Exec Secretary of the UNFCCC

With Ms. Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC

[For other analyses of COP20, see Peru’s national newspaper El Comercio, World Resources Institute, Harvard Kennedy School, and the dozens more out there.]