Lima was never going to save the world. What the UN's 20th climate change conference (Cop20) was meant to do, however, was to lay firm foundations for next December's crucial summit in Paris at which world leaders are expected to finalise an international agreement – a treaty, in all but name – about how to tackle global warming from 2020 onwards. In that context, Lima delivered something so soft and inadequate that it may not be possible to build anything of real significance on it at all.
The weak outcome of Cop20 is all the more disappointing because it followed this year’s publication of the most comprehensive scientific assessment yet by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that record global emissions of greenhouse gases must peak quite soon and then start falling if the world is to have a fighting chance of achieving the internationally agreed target of containing the increase in average global surface temperatures below 2 degrees.
Indeed, based on the compromises made in Lima and the pledges made so far by the EU, the US, China and others, there is still a yawning gap between what's on the table already and what may be added to it in the run-up to Cop21 in Paris, on the one hand, and what would actually be needed to prevent "dangerous anthropogenic [HUMAN-INDUCED] interference with the climate system", in the words of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted by acclamation at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Despite the impassioned speech by US secretary of state John Kerry on a flying visit to Lima last Thursday, his own delegation at the conference repeatedly resisted more ambitious language on issues of concern to poorer developing countries. The EU was little better, having long since lost its leadership role on climate change at UN conferences. It has less than a year to re-assume that role in the interests of a world under growing risk of climate chaos.
It took determined opposition from developing countries, notably the poorest of the poor, and sustained pressure from climate activists – including former Philippines enjoy Yeb Sano – to prevent Lima becoming another Copenhagen-style train wreck. The role played by Peruvian environment minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, as Cop20 president, was also pivotal in securing an outcome and was no doubt being studied closely by French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who will preside at Cop21 in Paris.
But it will take more than making a few judicious tweaks in bland, lowest-common denominator texts over the next 12 months to ensure that the UN’s 21st climate change conference sets the world on a safer path. That must mean adopting strong measures that could over time actually contain rising temperatures below 2 degrees.