World Climate Talks In Lima Aim To Move Beyond Kyoto Treaty

Dec 4, 2014
Originally published on December 4, 2014 10:47 am

Every year the United Nations invites environmental experts and diplomats from around the world to negotiate ways to slow global warming. This year's meeting runs this week and next in Lima, Peru.

Some say these conferences are a warming planet's best hope. Some say they're a United Nations jamboree. Most agree that recent sessions have seen mixed success at best. This year, however, negotiators think they have some fresh ideas to entice developed countries and developing ones to work together.

In 1997, the conference in Kyoto, Japan, was widely considered a breakthrough, producing an international treaty to limit emissions of greenhouse gases.

But that treaty has failed to slow worldwide emissions. It will expire in 2020, and already some countries have either failed to meet their commitments or just dropped out. In the meantime, no one has been able to agree on a new treaty to replace it.

One problem is that the Kyoto limits on emissions only apply to developed countries. But now China, India, Brazil and Indonesia are among the biggest polluters. So the new plan on the table in Lima requires every country to do something to slow warming.

Todd Stern, the U.S. government's chief climate negotiator, says the new plan is "supposed to be applicable to all."

"And to us — and, I think, to a great many countries, that was an absolutely critical few words," Stern says. It signified to all concerned a new type of agreement — that they weren't just falling back on the language of Kyoto.

In addition to leaving out developing countries, the Kyoto treaty set mandatory reductions in emissions for all developed countries. But even some rich countries failed to meet them.

So the plan in Lima would be to have each government offer up its own voluntary target. And, says Stern, "to subject what they are proposing to do to full sunlight, so ... other countries and civil society and the press and everybody else can look to see what China, the U.S., Europe or Japan or anybody else is proposing to do. And you take whatever criticism you get."

President Obama and China's President Xi Jinping each made that sort of voluntary promise two months ago. They set targets for lowering emissions in the U.S. and China over the next 10 to 15 years.

But what happens if, when you add up everyone's promises, it isn't enough to keep a lid on warming? Alden Meyer, a climate expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, is in Peru this week. He wonders: "Will there be a moment where all those contributions are added up and the world has to confront the reality of what it has put on the table if it's not ambitious enough?"

In fact, pledges so far from the U.S., China and Europe are not nearly enough to keep the planet from warming to what scientists say will be a dangerous level. Yet many developing countries say they can't do more because their priority is getting their people out of poverty — not limiting greenhouse gases.

This is the deep difference that negotiators in Lima hope to resolve in time for the next conference of the parties, to be held in Paris next year.

And they do have a carrot to offer. Wealthy countries have promised $100 billion a year to help poorer countries buy the technology they need to lower emissions.

There are plenty of businesses making solar panels, wind turbines and energy-saving devices for rich countries, and they're eager to sell to the developing world as well. Many are part of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, led by Lisa Jacobson.

"Once people start making these investments," Jacobson predicts, "they are going to find they are easier to do than expected, they are less expensive than they thought, and that new jobs and new economic opportunity exists. And they're going to want to do more."

It's worth noting that at the very first climate conferences, many business leaders came to oppose a treaty. Now they're lining up to profit from one.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Every year, the United Nations invites environmental experts and diplomats from around the world to negotiate ways to slow global warming. This year's meeting runs this weekend and next in Lima, Peru. Recent conferences have produced mixed results at best. But this year, as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, negotiators say they have some fresh ideas.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Some say these conferences of the parties are a warming planet's best hope. Some say they're a United Nations jamboree. The conference in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 was a breakthrough. It produced an international treaty to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. But that treaty failed to slow worldwide emissions. And no one can agree on a new treaty to replace Kyoto. One problem is that the Kyoto limits on emissions only apply to developed countries. But now China, India, Brazil and Indonesia are among the biggest polluters. So in Lima, the new plan on the table requires every country to do something to slow warming. Todd Stern is the U.S. government's climate negotiator.

TODD STERN: It's supposed to be applicable to all. And to us - I think to a great many countries - that was an absolutely critical few words because that said to us that we weren't doing Kyoto.

JOYCE: In addition to leaving out developing countries, the Kyoto treaty set mandatory emissions reductions that applied for all developed countries. But even some rich countries failed to meet them. So the plan in Lima would have each government offer up its own voluntary target.

STERN: And to subject what they're proposing to do to full sunlight, right? So the views of other countries and the press and everybody else can look to see what China, the U.S. or India or Europe or Japan or anybody else is proposing to do. And you take whatever criticism you get.

JOYCE: President Obama and President Xi Jinping did the voluntary promise thing two months ago. They set targets for lowering emissions in the U.S. and China over the next 10 to 15 years. But what happens if, when you add up everyone's promises, it isn't enough to keep a lid on warming? Alden Meyer, a climate expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, is in Peru this week.

ALDEN MEYER: Will there be a moment where all those contributions are added up and the world has to confront the reality of what it has put a table if it's not ambitious enough?

JOYCE: In fact, pledges so far from the U.S., China and Europe are not nearly enough to keep the planet from warming to what scientists say will be a dangerous level. Yet many developing countries say they can't do much because their priority is getting their people out of poverty - not limiting greenhouse gases. This is the deep difference that negotiators in Lima hope to resolve in time for the next conference of the parties in Paris next year. And they do have a carrot to offer. Wealthy countries have promised a $100 billion a year to help poorer countries buy the technology they need to lower emissions. There are plenty of businesses making solar panels and wind turbines and energy saving devices for rich countries, and they're eager to sell to the developing world as well. Many are part of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy led by Lisa Jacobson.

LISA JACOBSON: Once people start making these investments, they're going to find that they're easier to do than they expected. They're less expensive than they thought - that new jobs and new economic development opportunities exist. And they're going to want to do more.

JOYCE: And it's worth noting that at the very first climate conferences, many business leaders came to oppose a treaty. Now they're lining up to profit from one. Christopher Joyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.