Lima’s Tragedy of the Climate Change Commons

The UN Climate Summit in Lima has been reluctantly considered a success in preparing the world for a global climate action plan to be signed next year in Paris. Despite the recent symbolic accord between the US and China to cut future emissions, developing nations such as China, Saudi Arabia, India, and Brazil took a hard-line stance on the issue of financial climate assistance. A unified front of developing nations successfully maintained language differentiating their role in causing climate change and limiting the burden they will bear in the final agreement.

Secretary-General ban Ki-moon addresses the UN Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru. UN Photo/Mark Garten
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon applaudes “…important advances” achieved at the Lima COP. UN Photo/Mark Garten

Although this language helped get everyone on board and paves the way for countries to begin making concrete pledges on emissions cuts to be submitted in May of 2015, this stipulation could excuses less ambitious pledges. Another ambiguous success is the removal of the vital review process providing transparency and allowing for direct comparisons between national plans after pressure from China. The talks also punted on whether or not an agreement would be legally binding, a question that will have to be answered in Paris. Nations have six months to submit their national emission reduction targets, to be signed next year at COP 2015.

Discussions at the UN climate talks in Lima, Peru hit familiar hurdles as developing nations demanded increased funding to combat climate change. Developing countries adhere to the argument that the developed world needs to pay more as it is most responsible for historic CO2 emissions that cause climate change. In contrast, the developed world says it is time for up-and-coming economies to begin doing their part in cutting emissions. The developing world was exempt from making emissions cuts in the Kyoto Protocol, but will be asked to share the burden in its successor agreement.

In addition to being less responsible for causing climate change, poorer nations are also generally at greater risk from the impacts of climate change due to their location and lack of resources and resilient infrastructure. Exemplifying this disparity in risk, Typhoon Hagupit barreled through the Philippines last week only one year after the devastation from Supertyphoon Haiyan. This rapid succession of debilitating onslaughts has given the developing nation little time to recover between storms. Due to the lack of resources and a slow bureaucracy, only 6 ports and 3 bridges have been repaired out of the 43 and 34 damaged by the storm, respectively. Although the storm caused less devastation than Haiyan, over half a million people were evacuated and business ground to a halt throughout the archipelago. Climate change is expected to increase the frequency of extreme storms.

Soldiers carry in emergency supplies as normal trade routes shut down from Typhoon Hagupit. Erik De Castro / ReutersEven though Typhoon Hagupit weakened before reaching the Philippines’ coastline, it still had significant and far-reaching effects in the modern global economy. The Philippines is a manufacturing-based economy, exporting semiconductors and electronics, transport equipment, and textiles across the globe. Although tentative estimates of local damage exceed $71 million, real losses are even more significant from flights, cargo shipping, and trucking still affected even a week out from the storm. These disruptions cause a chain reaction impacting supply routes in the US, Japan, China, and Singapore among many others. This example of shared risk and interconnectedness shows the commonality climate change impacts. Reaching a global accord between all nations to limit the effects of climate change and mitigate drags on the global economy needs to be approached with that same commonality in consideration. A problem for one is a problem for all.

The high risk to developing nations contrasts heavily with their limited role in contributing to climate change. The basis for developing nations’ demands for financial assistance in reducing emissions and preparing for and recovering from impacts stems from the premise that developed nations are responsible for up to 80% of total historical greenhouse gas emissions.

The developed world is responsible for as much as 80% of historic GHG emissions, creating a conflict over who should pay for cuts now. Source: Petrolog.
The developed world is responsible for as much as 80% of historic GHG emissions, creating a conflict over who should pay for cuts now. Source: Petrolog.

One counter argument takes the stance that developing nations’ emissions are reduced through the use of modern technology during their current industrialization, which would not have been possible without technological advances resulting from the West’s industrial revolution. However, there is a general understanding that it is time for developing nations to participate in making cuts, the remaining question is simply “How much?”.

In a step towards compromise, wealthy countries have already contributed $10 billion to the Green Climate Fund, which is scheduled to reach $100 billion annually by 2020 to be distributed among developing nations to support concrete climate change mitigation initiatives. Developing nations question the likelihood of reaching this goal and whether it constitutes sufficient financial support to offset the contribution of historical western emissions to climate change.

While the outcome from the Lima negotiations is not ideal, the agreement sets the stage for countries to submit emissions reductions targets ahead of the final negotiations in Paris. The remaining tough questions will ultimately need to be answered, and will ultimately decide the success or failure of a global climate change accord.