The UN's 20th climate-change conference in Lima – Cop20 – could easily have fallen apart, and it looked as if it would on Saturday. But the irreconcilable differences that threatened to derail it were papered over in the end by a superb exercise in Peruvian diplomacy.
The conference was meant to conclude on Friday, but ran into overtime because of deep divisions between the 190-plus countries involved about what should, and shouldn’t, be included in the framework for an international agreement to tackle climate change.
Negotiations continued until after 3.30am on Saturday, when they were adjourned to give delegates time to study yet another revised draft compiled by tireless co-chairmen Artur Runge-Metzger and Kishan Kumarsingh, based on feedback from the various parties.
But when a plenary session resumed later at 10.40am, it soon became clear the consensus was as elusive as ever,despite earnest pleas from the conference president, Peruvian environment minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, who was determined to secure a result.
As delegates cancelled flights home or long-booked trips to the Inca sanctuary of Machu Picchu, he tried to persuade them that they were “very close” to building a solid foundation or “stepping stone” to reach a global agreement on climate change in Paris next December.
“We need to tell the world that we can deal with this problem,” the very affable Pulgar-Vidal said. Calling on countries to show more flexibility, listen more and find the right balance, he warned the conference that “there will be no Paris if there is no [outcome in] Lima”.
Despite having spent three or four days in “line-by-line negotiation on very difficult issues”, as Runge-Metzger put it, a split quickly emerged between delegates who saw the text as the best they could hope to achieve and those who insisted it didn’t go far enough.
Lining up on one side were the EU, the US, Japan, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland as well as developing countries Chile, Mexico, Turkey, South Korea and – more surprisingly – three "frontline states": the Philippines, the Marshall Islands and the Cook Islands.
Vocal opposition came from Brazil, China, India, South Africa, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as African, Arab and Least Developed Countries groups, Malaysia, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Venezuela, Paraguay, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the Solomon Islands.
Issues at stake
Main issues at stake included the absence of any differentiation between developed and developing countries in terms of what they would be expected to contribute to a Paris deal, and the removal of any reference to compensating poorer nations for “loss and damage”.
Ian Fry, representing the low-lying Pacific island state of Tuvalu, said a loss-and-damage mechanism was "a crucial issue for the poorest and most vulnerable. Communities are suffering from floods and drought, storms and sea-level rise, and they are often left with nothing." He used a medical metaphor, calling for "a little bit of surgery" and urging delegates to "put on our gowns and use our scalpels to insert some vital organs". Singapore, meanwhile, likened the process to male circumcision, cautioning participants to "be very sure it doesn't become an amputation".
The support of typhoon-battered Philippines for the compromise text was a surprise, with Filipino environmentalists accusing their government of “selling us down the river”, while its former climate envoy, the charismatic Yeb Sano, was left to tweet furiously from Manila.
Turkey, in backing the text as it stood on Saturday morning, said its delegation was leaving at 5pm and would not agree to any changes made after that time. This was a potential problem, as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) rules require consensus.
US climate change envoy Todd Stern described the seven-page draft as a "hard-won balance" and bluntly warned that, if it wasn't adopted, "the success of this Cop [Conference of the Parties] in Lima is at stake, Paris is at stake and the future of the UNFCCC is at stake".
Co-chairman Runge- Metzger assured delegates that there would be “no huddle” involving selected ministers and then passed the baton back to Pulgar-Vidal, who spent hours holding meetings , cajoling countries and groupings to make textual changes to achieve consensus.
So when it came to the final session in the early hours of Sunday, a few tweaks of text here and stronger language there were enough to take it over the line. All paid tribute to the Peruvian minister who, as Stern said, had “inspired all of us” to make changes.
Although the Lima Call for Climate Action – as the UNFCCC secretariat dubbed the agreement – was widely criticised by environmentalists as inadequate, it preserves the timetable on the road to Paris next December and will perhaps encourage a little bit more ambition then.