Monday, December 15, 2014

Climate Deal Would Commit Every Nation to Limiting Emissions

By CORAL DAVENPORT, The New York Times

Negotiators from around the globe reached a climate change agreement early Sunday that would, for the first time in history, commit every nation to reducing its rate of greenhouse gas emissions — yet would still fall far short of what is needed to stave off the dangerous and costly early impact of global warming.

The agreement reached by delegates from 196 countries establishes a framework for a climate change accord to be signed by world leaders in Paris next year. While United Nations officials had been scheduled to release the plan on Friday at noon, longstanding divisions between rich and poor countries kept them wrangling through Friday and Saturday nights to early Sunday.

The agreement requires every nation to put forward, over the next six months, a detailed domestic policy plan to limit its emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases from burning coal, gas and oil. Those plans, which would be published on a United Nations website, would form the basis of the accord to be signed next December and enacted by 2020.

That basic structure represents a breakthrough in the impasse that has plagued the United Nations’ 20 years of efforts to create a serious global warming deal. Until now, negotiations had followed a divide put in place by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which required developed countries to act but did not demand anything of developing nations, including China and India, two of the largest greenhouse gas polluters.

“This emerging agreement represents a new form of international cooperation that includes all countries,” said Jennifer Morgan, an expert on international climate negotiations with the World Resources Institute, a research organization.

“A global agreement in Paris is now within reach,” she said.

On its own, the political breakthrough will not achieve the stated goal of the deal: to slow the rate of global emissions enough to prevent the atmosphere from warming more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over the preindustrial average. That is the point at which scientists say the planet will tip into dangerous and irreversible effects, such as melting sea ice, rising sea levels, increased flooding and droughts, food and water shortages, and more extreme storms.

Experts estimate that the aggregate impact of the commitments would reduce emissions at about half the level necessary to prevent that 3.6-degree increase. To prevent the temperature increase, emissions would have to be reduced by double the amount called for in the accord.

The freshly struck agreement, the Lima Accord, sends the obligation of devising a plan to cut carbon emissions back to the nations’ capitals — and its success or failure rests on how seriously and ambitiously the parliaments, congresses and energy, environment and economic ministries of the world take the mandate to create a new policy.

American negotiators, led by the State Department’s climate change special envoy, Todd D. Stern, have pushed hard for provisions that required all countries to make their proposals public, transparent and presented with comparable metrics as a way to create outside pressure on countries to produce more ambitious plans.
“The Lima Accord delivers what we need to go forward,” Mr. Stern said.

Some environmental groups criticized the compromise deal for watering down language that would have bound countries to more rigorous transparency requirements — such as using similar timetables and baseline years from which emissions would be cut. The accord recommends that governments use those metrics, but does not require it.

“It’s the bare minimum of what we need, but we can work with it to get the pressure on,” said Alden Meyer, president of the group Union of Concerned Scientists. Mr. Meyer and other experts said they expected outside nongovernmental groups, research organizations and universities to perform independent analyses of countries’ carbon-cutting plans in order to assess how all the plans stack up in comparison.

Delegates here widely acknowledged that the catalyst for the deal was a joint announcement last month in Beijing by President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China that the world’s two largest greenhouse gas polluters would limit their emissions. That move appeared to break the 20-year impasse in climate talks — particularly a longstanding insistence by developing nations that they not be required to make emissions cuts while they still had populations in poverty.

“The success of this has laid a good foundation for success of Paris,” said Xie Zhenhua, China’s vice minister of National Development and Reform Commission. “Next year all of us, all countries, will continue to demonstrate our ambition, flexibility and confidence,” he said.

The environment minister of India, the world’s third largest carbon polluter, praised the deal. “We have a true consensus,” said the minister, Prakash Javadekar. India has resisted calls to commit to net reductions of its soaring carbon pollution, insisting that it should not be required to cut its use of cheap coal-fired power while millions of impoverished Indians live without electricity.

But India has signaled that it does intend to submit a plan to at least slow its rate of emissions. And Mr. Javadekar appeared to signal his support of the process of working toward a deal in Paris, saying he hopes to continue to engage with other countries throughout the year.

“Let us not leave all our differences for the next venue,” he said.

While all countries will be required under the Lima Accord to submit plans to reduce emissions, the nature of the plans can be different according to the size of their economies. Rich countries, like the United States, are expected to put forward plans detailing how they would put their emissions on a downward trajectory after 2020. Large but developing economies, like China, are more likely to put forward plans that name a future year in which their emissions peak. Poorer economies are expected to put forward plans indicating that their pollution will continue to increase — but at a lower rate.

While the Lima Accord lays the groundwork for a possible Paris deal, unresolved questions and huge divisions among countries lie ahead. The biggest one is money. Countries vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as low-lying island states and African nations, are already demanding that the Paris deal include not just details on mitigating emissions, but also commitments that rich countries will spend billions of dollars to help them adapt to and recover from the ravages of climate change.

Developing nations are also demanding help for the transition from using cheap, heavily polluting coal and oil to low-carbon sources of energy, such as wind and solar power. Over the next year, as world capitals prepare their carbon emissions reduction plans, they will also be gearing up for a clash between rich and poor nations, in which the poor may demand money from the rich in Paris.

Also ahead is the question of how governments can continue to further ratchet down carbon pollution without severely curbing economic growth. Under the accord’s terms, by November 2015, once all countries have put forward their plans for limiting emissions, scientists and statisticians will add up the numbers to determine exactly how far they are from preventing the 3.6-degree temperature increase. That figure will form the start of another round of negotiations. The Paris deal is expected to include language requiring that countries reconvene regularly throughout the coming decades to raise the ambition of their carbon-cutting plans.