I am flying against the flow, leaving Hawaii on this beautiful Thanksgiving weekend for the UNFCCC COP-20 in Lima, Peru. What the heck IS that? It is part of a very complicated process that started 35 years ago with the first World Climate Conference. Early on the goal was to prevent a climate change, but unfortunately greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise instead of decline. So now the goal is just to adapt to the inevitable changes already underway and to keep the temperature from rising above (a somewhat arbitrary) 2 degrees celsius.
I will give a quick and dirty history. In 1988 an international group of scientists were brought together as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to create a report, signed off on by all member governments, on everything that was known about the causes, trends and predicted impacts of climate change. Their first report called for a global treaty which was launched in Rio in 1992 as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), along with sister conventions on biodiversity and desertification.
Meetings of different bodies of the UNFCCC are held regularly, but only those locations that yield key innovations are immortalized in catchy names that define the evolving agreements. The Kyoto Protocol tried to give the UNFCCC teeth in 1997 by introducing legally binding emission reduction targets for developed countries. The 192 countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol have current commitments that extend till 2020.
The upcoming meeting in Lima is the 20th Conference of Parties (COP-20) and it is focused on paving the way for an agreement that will be made next year in Paris that will set the rules for the period after 2020. These were started in 2011 as the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action and added to since with the Doha Amendment and Warsaw Outcomes. These call for closing the “ambition gap” — the difference between what governments have pledged and what is actually needed to keep temperature rise at 2 degrees celsius.
The most recent IPCC report is fresh off the presses. This is what they say needs to be done to close the gap. We need to have 80% of energy provided by renewables by 2050, and phase out fossil fuel power generation completely by the end of the century, unless all the carbon it produces is captured and stored. The IPCC scientists write what goes in the reports, but politicians take bits out that are too strong for them. So the irony is that their conservative, watered-down estimates still require action the world just isn’t gearing up to take. Well maybe in Hawaii we are, but we are pretty special. On the mainland, the fossil fuel industry continues to buy politicians and win elections. They are not going to give up their expected earnings on all that fuel locked up in the ground.
Countries are asked to make their reduction commitments early next year. That is why the recent US-China deal is so timely. Together they account for over half of all greenhouse gas emissions and others might not want to take painful steps if their efforts are overwhelmed by US-China pollution anyway.
So year after year the UNFCCC has been gathering political support and commitment, developing a bureaucracy to manage funds, administer programs and verify progress, developing scientific consensus, and figuring out to help those least likely to adapt. This has been going on most of my adult life while I lived in a parallel universe (with most of you) where it is pretty much business as usual. I am crossing over just for a week to see what it is like in their imaginary world where governments take bold collaborative action to save our planet. Will it be called the Lima Last Ditch Effort?