UN climate conference goes down to the wire

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Buenos Aires Herald, Lima, Peru

The United Nations climate summit is going down to the wire.

After two weeks of talks, officials were not able to reach their deadline yesterday as of press time. Delegates are likely to continue talks until late today as steep disagreements continue over which countries should bear the burden of cutting emissions and over the pledges countries will have to make to tackle climate change.

The Conference of Parties (COP), which lasted two weeks in Peru’s capital, was the first to neutralize all the greenhouse gas pollution it generated as it vowed to protect the equivalent amount in forests. But at the same time, the summit is expected to have the biggest carbon footprint of any COP to date due to the characteristics of the event.

“We still need more time. We don’t want to create a process that won’t allow all the parties to express their position on the document,” an exhausted-looking COP President and Peruvian Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar Vidal, told negotiators at the plenary. “We are almost there, we just need a final push.”

Pulgar Vidal said last night there were about 20 parties still trying to raise concerns but assured all of them would get time to speak.

“What do we expect? We want to have a very clear decision, here in Lima as part of the strong outcome of the COP20 text. We want to have the Lima draft text with the elements of the negotiating text as a way to give input to this process, but also as a way to show to the world that we are building this process step by step,” Pulgar Vidal said.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the body that runs the talks with the Peruvian hosts, published a seven-page draft decision text on Thursday night and a quick look shows large sections remain up in the air. The draft comes after a deadlock through most of the second week of the talks when countries stuck to their long-held positions.

The draft was highly questioned by NGOs that said it was weaker than previous versions. Plans to cut pollution before 2020, for example, have been weakened by the removal of references to the long-term temperature goal. At the same, it wasn’t clear how countries will reach their pledge of mobilizing US$100 billion annually by 2020 to support action on adapting and mitigating the effects of climate change.

“Negotiators are out of time here in Lima and everything is still up in the air. The current draft text contains a mixed bag of options — the good, the bad, and the ‘good enough.’ So we can’t call the outcome quite yet,” head of the World Wildlife Fund delegation Tanseem Essop, said. “It seems that governments in Lima are happy to leave hard decisions on climate change to the governments of tomorrow. This is a recipe for a climate nightmare.”

Negotiators have been asked to choose between three options on almost all of the draft’s major issues, most of which are divided by one question: how will developing and wealthy nations split the bill?

Countries also can’t seem to agree on the basic issue of what the draft will determine. The US and other industrialized nations want all countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions. That would be a departure from the original UN classification of the 1990s which exempted China, India and other developing countries that are now major carbon emitters.

Developing countries are suspicious that the text being developed in Lima is an attempt to rewrite those old guidelines. The richer countries, including the US, only want to commit to carbon cuts. Developing countries want them to also commit to financing to help adapt to climate change.

A not-so-green summit

An empty field behind Peru’s army’s headquarters was the site chosen to host delegates from around the world. The equivalent of eleven soccer fields of temporary structures were built for the 13-day negotiations, which required importing parts from France and Brazil.

More than 50,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide are estimated to have been emitted by the summit, one and a half times above the norm. To neutralize the pollution, Peru pledged to protect a 1,500-kilometre area of forest for half a century.

The army headquarters, also known as “El Pentagonito,” a former clandestine detention centre in the Fujimori era, is located 10 kilometres from Miraflores, the neighbourhood where most of the hotels are located. The UN offered shuttles, run on fuel, to get there but the chaotic traffic meant delegates, journalists and NGO members had to spend one hour and a half seated on a bus to talk about climate change.

There was a parking lot for bicycles, but it sat largely empty for most of the conference.

The summit also relied on diesel generators for electricity as solar panels couldn’t be used because the Lima sun isn’t reliable. Air conditioning was virtually non-existent — one of the few real green characteristics of the conference that led to multiple complaints from delegates.