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World still faces climate catastrophe after Lima Conference

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Delegation at Peoples’ Summit of the UN Climate Conference COP20 Delegate. At sm

Monitoring the UN climate conference in Lima from home, I was struck with a profound sense of déjà vu. Despite impassioned speeches from Southern delegates demanding action, nothing significant was achieved. Their pleas were punctuated by yet another typhoon striking the Philippines just a year after Typhoon Haiyan cost more than 7,000 lives during the previous conference of the parties (COP 19) in Warsaw. Mercifully, Typhoon Hagupit was less damaging but still took more than 20 lives, a stark reminder that storms are becoming more violent as climate change takes hold.

Watching a plenary session after the COP had gone into overtime, I heard righteous indignation over the failure of the draft text to include any meaningful commitment to compensation for the poorest populations for “loss and damage” suffered due to more violent storms and rising seas. Moreover, there was backtracking from the principle that the industrial countries - the largest historical greenhouse gas emitters and most able to afford to pay - must assume most of the responsibility for mitigation and adaptation measures. While language about compensating low-income countries for losses and damages and a reference to differentiated responsibilities were reinserted into the text, no real progress was made on meeting Southern countries’ needs.

Mariana Parvin, an Indigenous woman from the Mundas community in Bangladesh told the final plenary “It pains me that when I go back, I will tell my people that wealthy governments just talked about which lands will be lost, communities displaced, cultures destroyed and which lives are less important."

Yet the voices of 15,000 people who marched through the streets of Lima demanding climate justice were heard by at least one government. At the end of the COP, Bolivia announced that it will convene another summit in 2015 similar to the Peoples Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth it hosted in 2010 after the failed Copenhagen conference. Bolivia’s environment minister said this conference will involve Indigenous peoples as well as foreign and environment ministers, since “It is important to listen to Indigenous peoples and to understand their wisdom” that can teach us how to deal with climate change.

What might have made COP 20 in Lima different? For one thing there was some momentum going into the conference with announcements from the European Union, the United States and China. The EU announced a new target of keeping emissions to 40 percent below their 1990 levels by 2030. In a deal with China, the Obama administration set a goal of reducing emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China in turn said its CO2 emissions would peak no later than 2030 and promised to produce 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by the same date.

Since these three entities are responsible for more than half of global emissions, these announcements are welcome but they are not enough to keep global temperature increases from exceeding the official target of no more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Climate Action Tracker concludes that even if the EU, the U.S., China and other governments keep their promises, global temperatures would still rise by between 2.9 and 3.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century instead of 3.9 degrees.

Rather than encourage other large emitters to build on the E.U., U.S. and Chinese initiatives, every nation is invited to submit whatever voluntary pledge it wishes by March 31, 2015. While these “nationally determined contributions” are supposed to be more ambitious than current plans, there is no expectation that taken together they will be sufficient for keeping temperature increases below two degrees.

Proposals for keeping temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius are only mentioned as one option among others in a long annex to the text adopted in Lima. The annex mentions an option for “full decarbonization by 2050” in order to meet the two degree target. This would involve phasing out the combustion of fossil fuels over the next 35 years. The Financial Times warned that under this scenario major petroleum companies “would cease to exist in their current forms” while there would be turmoil on financial markets.

But predictions of economic calamity from decarbonization are based on the false premise that nothing would be put in the place of oil, gas and coal production. In fact, redirecting investments from fossil fuels into conservation and renewable energy would result in a different kind of decentralized economy. Moreover, investing in renewable energy technologies provides three to six times more jobs than equivalent investments in fossil fuels when manufacturing, installation and maintenance jobs are taken into account.

Canada’s participation in the Lima COP was called “a joke” by Canadian observers. By highlighting efforts to reduce emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a minor, although potent greenhouse gas used in refrigerators and air conditioners, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq avoided the larger issue of growing emissions from fossil fuels. In 2012 GHG emissions from oil and gas accounted for 25 percent of Canada’s total emissions, while HFCs were responsible for just one percent of emissions.

When asked in the House of Commons about the government’s failure to meet earlier pledges to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, Prime Minister Harper said "Under the current circumstances of the oil and gas sector, it would be ... crazy economic policy to do unilateral penalties on that sector; we're clearly not going to do that. … In fact, nobody in the world is regulating their oil and gas sector. I would be delighted if they did. Canada would be there with them.”

The claim that no one else regulates their oil and gas sector is disingenuous. In fact, 14 countries have some form of national carbon tax while several sub-national jurisdictions, including Quebec and British Columbia, also have fees on carbon emissions. Under current policies Canada cannot possibly meet its official target of reducing emissions to 17 percent below their 2005 levels by 2020. In fact, unless new measures are adopted Canada will emit 20 percent more GHG’s in 2020 than the goal established after the Copenhagen conference.

In order to keep temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called for industrial countries to lower their emissions by 25 to 40 percent below what they were in 1990. On current trends Canada is headed for emissions in 2020 that would be almost one and a half to one and two-thirds higher than what would be consistent with a 2 degree Celsius increase.

Counterbalancing the federal government’s refusal to take meaningful actions, the environment ministers from Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia in Lima pledged to take ambitious measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While hopeful, their commitments, like those of the Obama administration, are still inadequate.

A basic problem with the whole UN process is that decisions will only be made a year from now at the 21st COP in Paris for policies to take effect in 2020. The world cannot wait that long.

In the meantime what can we do?

Civil society observers in Lima welcomed an unprecedented statement from nine Catholic Bishops from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe who, called for “new models of development and lifestyles that are both climate compatible and bring people out of poverty. Central to this is to put an end to the fossil fuel era, phasing out fossil fuel emissions and phasing in 100 percent renewable with sustainable energy for all.”

Similarly an ecumenical statement co-ordinated by the Latin American Council of Churches called for changes to patterns of consumption and wealth accumulation and new strategies based on the “decarbonisation and complete elimination of fossil fuels by the middle of the 21st century.”

How are we to achieve this vision given the intransigence of nation governments that refuse to consider the phasing out of fossil fuels? My hopes are buoyed once again by a message from Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop emeritus from Cape Town, South Africa. In a prophetic video message released to coincide with the Lima COP, Archbishop Tutu reiterated the four-part agenda for freeing humanity from dependence on fossil fuels first released at the time of the Peoples Climate March in September.

In KAIROS' Briefing Paper on how the People’s Climate March Outshines UN Summit I have elaborated on each of his four points:

1) Freeze further exploration for new fossil sources and use exploration budgets to develop renewable energy solutions.

2) Hold accountable those responsible for climate damage by making them pay for the damage they cause.

3) Curb political lobbying by the fossil fuel industry.

4) Divest from fossil fuel companies, and invest in a clean energy future that benefits the world’s majority.

To view Archbishop Tutu’s new video on "things no one should profit from" visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlh_ptOljkg

John Dillon is Ecological Economy Program Coordinator at KAIROS Canada.

Photo: KAIROS Canada. Delegation at Peoples’ Summit of the UN Climate Conference COP20 Delegate. At a smelter in Oroyo.

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