NOTE: This guest post was written by Angelo Piro. Angelo is a student majoring in Diplomacy and International Relations and Economics at Seton Hall University. Angelo’s focus has been on the role of international organizations in development and good governance, recently studying the prevention of electoral violence from an international perspective. He is fluent in English and Spanish, and has a working knowledge of Russian. Angelo has interned with the office of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and will be studying at Dubrovnik International University this coming semester. He is the current president of Seton Hall United Nations Association and writes for the Diplomatic Envoy.
The closing months of 2014 also saw the end of the 20th U.N. Climate Change Conference, hosted in Lima, Peru. This meeting of negotiators, meant to be a lead up to the climate conference to take place in Paris this year, was attended by nearly 200 nations and struck an oddly optimistic tone at the outset of the proceedings, considering the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Conference. The final agreement, announced in the early hours of December 14, after an extension to the original deadline, was hailed by the assembled diplomats as a great step forward. The four page agreement was agreed to by all parties present and, historically, included requirements for both developed and developing nations. The agreement requires all signatories to submit a detailed action plan for reducing greenhouse gases in the coming months.
However, while the agreement was hailed by a victory by many of those assembled, many outside observers noted that the final agreement lacked many things that would make it effective. Noted missing aspects include requirements for cutting pollution, which were scrapped in the final days, measures for verification of commitments, and, most importantly, a number of key technical questions that were meant to be answered in the final draft. The final agreement, while progress in and of itself, shows very little hope for climate governance going forward.
One thing that is clear from the proceedings of the Lima conference is that hopes for sweeping changes to come in Paris this year will most likely stay that. The Lima conference was meant to accomplish much of the ground work for the Paris conference, building the structure of an agreement to be finalized with specific details in Paris. However, diplomats could not even agree upon specific targets for signatories, leaving states to decide on their own emissions goals, so long as they are above current goals. Without much of the progress promised from Lima, negotiators in Paris will find it even more difficult to come to a final agreement.
Additionally, Lima shows that nations, especially leading nations like the US, are looking for a more big tent approach, as opposed to a more stringent, hard law approach. Going into Lima, many nations, including the lead EU negotiator, made it clear that the only way to ensure real progress toward ameliorating climate change is with a binding agreement. However, the watering down of the agreement, a description used by leading environmentalists, in removing certain key provisions shows that politics played a heavy role, with many nations hesitant to commit to specific goals. This inability to reach a consensus around even a simple nonbinding framework that includes some measure of clear obligations reflects poorly on future attempts in Paris to finalize specific requirements for nations.
Beyond the upcoming Paris Conference in 2015, this agreement and the confluence of events surrounding it, signals one thing for the future of climate governance: that progress will not come from organized international agreements, but rather through bilateral and state based agreements. Evidence of this can be seen in comparing the relatively weak agreement that has come out of Lima and the historic agreement between the US and China announced during last year’s APEC summit. Each of these nations, who have been the most hesitant in making specific commitments in previous agreements, showed a willingness to do so in this agreement not seen in Lima. If this is any indication of what is to come in the future, climate agreements to come will be made outside of the realm of formalized conferences and bodies and will be made bilaterally, with many developing nations seeing this as a better route for assistance in achieving their goals, a key sticking point in the Lima negotiations.
Lima also signals to the world that future agreements will, in the future, rely more on the domestic processes to ensure compliance. The agreement’s call for action plans has no means for surveillance and confirmation of commitments. While this provides flexibility, this also gives little in terms of accountability. That may be of little concern in nations with a strong independent and willing system of courts and legislatures, as well as strong civil commitment to ensure pressure on governments, many signatories, both developed and developing, lack these factors, putting the strength of this already weak agreement at risk. Without some sort of compliance measures, any future agreements might fall prey to often tumultuous domestic politics.
In all, the Lima conference can be counted as one step forward, but two steps back. While the progress made is preferable to nothing, the agreement itself and the process around it portends a very shaky future for climate agreements, especially in Paris this year. If there is not significant progress made in coming negotiations, climate governance and overall actions towards stopping the rising threat of climate change will be on shaky ground in the future.