Balancing climate change adaptation and mitigation

Government representatives from 196 countries attended the 20th “Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change” held in the Peruvian capital of Lima last week, where the most controversial issue was over who would meet the costs of mitigating and adapting to a warming Earth.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the conference that tackling the impacts of human-induced climate change required a transformation – “not mere tinkering with past agreements and pledges”.

Calling for increased momentum in global efforts, Ban warned that collective action did not match common responsibilities. He said he had requests of all parties: “First, we must deliver here in Lima a balanced, well-structured and coherent draft text for the 2015 agreement that provides a clear and solid foundation for negotiations next year in Paris.”

He stressed the importance of a common understanding on the scope and status of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs, and urged major economies and developed countries to submit their INDCs by the first quarter of 2015.

What was also needed was tangible progress in determining the climate finance regime, including capitalisation of the Green Climate Fund, and leveraging of private finance.

“The Green Climate Fund must deliver on its promise to balance support for adaptation and mitigation. Work on loss and damage must be accelerated and we must bring the National Adaptation Plans of developing countries to life by agreeing how they should be funded and implemented,” Ban said.

High costs, country contributions

Developing countries want the contributions from European and other Western countries to go beyond helping cut emissions to include aid to help them adapt to the impacts of climate change.

The urgency of this was highlighted by a UN Environment Programme report that said the costs for adapting to climate change could climb “as high as US$150 billion by 2025-2030 and US$250 to US$500 billion a year by 2050” – double or treble previous estimates.

But developed countries insist that the INDCs were always meant to focus on mitigation by cutting emissions – and that other issues such as adaptation, finance and technology transfer should be covered separately in any agreement.

Conference chair, Peruvian Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, said there needed to be “political parity” between mitigation and adaptation in the negotiations. Pulgar-Vidal expected the conference would produce a draft text for governments to work on over the next year as well as details on what INDCs should contain.

Countries that announced their contributions to the UN’s Green Climate Fund, set up to assist poorer countries cope with climate change, included US$250 million from Norway and US$170 million from Australia – both over the next four years.

This brought the value of pledges made so far to nearly US$12.5 billion although United States President Barack Obama has called for donations to create a fund worth US$100 billion.

Three countries had the dubious distinction of sharing a Climate Action Network “Fossil of the Day” award for those yet to pledge money to the climate fund. They were Austria, Belgium and Ireland.

Lord Nicholas Stern

Professor Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the groundbreaking 2006 Stern Review Report into the economics of global warming, said governments should focus on other issues rather than the legal form.

Stern backed a push by the United States to ensure a new global climate agreement was not legally binding.

Launching a new report by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment – of which he is chair – Stern said it would be a serious mistake to believe that commitments that were not legally binding could lack credibility.

“The sanctions available under the Kyoto Protocol, for example, were notionally legally binding but were simply not credible and failed to guarantee domestic implementation of commitments.”

Instead, he said four key elements should be built into next year’s Paris agreement, including explicitly acknowledging that the risks from unmanaged climate change were potentially immense and delay was dangerous.

“It should also recognise that the path to a low-carbon economy can be highly attractive, embodying strong and high-quality growth, investment and innovation, in the context of rapid global structural transformation.

“The agreement should be based on a shared commitment to creating equitable access to sustainable development. And it should be structured to facilitate dynamic and collaborative interactions between countries."

Call to Catholics

Meantime, Roman Catholic bishops from around the world called for an end to fossil fuel use, as well as increased efforts to secure a global climate treaty.

The bishops declared that Catholics should “engage with the process leading to a proposed new deal” to be signed in Paris next year.

The bishops’ statement was the first by senior church figures from every continent. With 1.2 billion people calling themselves Catholic, commentators said the attitude expressed by the church leaders had considerable potential to influence public debate.