What the Lima Climate-Change Talks Mean for You

What happens over the next week in Peru will set the stage for a low-carbon future.

(Photo: Reuters)

Dec 4, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Hannah Hoag reports on the environment, global health, science, and science policy for Nature, Discover, Wired, and others.

The world is going to look a lot different in five years. Just how different depends on what happens in Lima, Peru, over the next 10 days—and some participants at the United Nations climate-change talks are starting to get antsy.

Temperatures today are roughly 0.85 degrees Celsius warmer than they were 150 years ago. By 2020, we’ll likely hit 1 degree, according to projections made by the U.N.’s climate-change panel, and that could climb to 2.5 degrees by 2050.

But if the climate negotiators gathered in Lima manage to nail down some meaningful text that leads nations to adopt a new agreement on curbing carbon pollution in Paris next year, 2020 will mark the launch of a low-carbon society.

To limit global temperature rise by 2100 to 2 degrees, a threshold scientists have said should not be crossed if we are to avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change, the global peak in emissions must occur by 2020.

Decarbonizing life in the United States would mean transforming buildings and transportation. We’ll live and work in buildings heated and cooled by electricity generated from renewable resources and residual heat, and we’ll read, eat, and socialize under LED lights. Our commutes will take place on lightweight electric trains and biofuel-powered planes. And no coal will be burned for power generation unless the carbon it produces is buried deep underground.

Transforming city transport can benefit both public health and the economy by creating more jobs and reducing the amount of particular matter in the air—the main cause of air pollution and respiratory problems. It’s technically feasible to drop greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 in the U.S., according to a recent report.

The U.S. and two other large carbon polluters have already pledged to cut their emissions. In November, China and the U.S. agreed to limits on their future emissions. Under that deal, the U.S. will reduce its emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and China’s emissions will peak by 2030. In October, European leaders reached a decision to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent, compared with 1990 levels, by 2030.

“I think we’re heading into these talks in a more optimistic place than I can remember, largely because of the announcements in the run-up to the meeting,” said Lou Leonard, vice president of climate change at the World Wildlife Fund, based in Washington, D.C.

The meeting in Lima is the last big get-together before the Paris negotiations begin in December 2015. The goal there is to adopt a new agreement on greenhouse gas emissions that will take effect in 2020. Lima could produce the draft document that nations can sign in Paris and start bringing down their carbon emissions. (Global emissions rose 2.3 percent in 2013.)

“This isn’t the end point but a stop along the way,” said Jennifer Morgan, global director of the climate program at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C.

“What I’d hope to see coming out of Lima is a clear signal that is more specific than the 2 degree Celsius goal,” Morgan said. “If you’re a company, if you have a 2 degree goal, you probably don’t know what that means, but if you have a phaseout goal and you have to get to zero emissions, then you may have to leave fossil fuels in the ground. A phaseout goal is more clear for them.”

But four days into the meeting, representatives of the World Wildlife Fund have become concerned with the pace of the negotiations. Delegates have only two days left to prepare for the talks that will start when global leaders fly in.

The Green Climate Fund (GCF) is another barometer of the talks’ success. More than 20 countries had committed nearly $10 billion to the fund by the opening of the Lima conference. The goal is to collect $100 billion in pledges by 2020, mostly through the GCF, to help developing countries meet the demands of reducing their emissions and adapting to climate change.

“Things are going pretty well so far,” said Morgan. “But we need to raise the momentum and ambition—there is such a gap for what the science is saying and what the pledges are for pre-2020.”

Observers at the talks have pushed for strict rules over how money from the GCF can be spent after Japan claimed $1 billion spent on new coal-burning power plants in Indonesia qualified as climate finance because they were cleaner than older designs.

In addition to commitments from individual nations, observers hope the draft document that emerges from the Lima talks will recognize any shortfalls. “We need a system that will add up the commitments on the table and figure out how close we are to where we need to be,” said Leonard. “Then we need to have a serious conversation about how to close that gap.”