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Tough Paris climate change agreement still possible after Lima talks

Negotiations are on track after the climate change summit in Peru

December's United Nations-backed climate change summit in Lima, Peru, teetered on the edge of collapse towards the end and produced final communiques couched in vaguer language than many environmental groups and some western countries would have liked. But the outcome has kept talks on track ahead of next December's crucial meeting in Paris, where a major new global agreement is due to be signed, which could result in much tougher action to curb carbon and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

The Paris agreement is intended to provide a new paradigm to replace that established under the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, which effectively put the onus on a few developed countries with a long history of industrialisation to make the largest contribution to making and financing carbon emissions cuts. Thus far, that approach has done little to stem global warming to the extent necessary to meet a target of restricting the rise in global temperatures by 2 degrees C compared to pre-industrial levels - a goal set because a greater rise was deemed dangerous for the welfare of the planet. The International Energy Agency forecasts that the world is currently on track for a temperature rise of 3.6 degrees by 2100.

So the new deal, covering the 195 countries involved in the UN process, is intended to give momentum to the process, partly by ensuring that developing countries - some of which have become some of the world's largest carbon emitters since the 1990s - play a greater role in fighting global warming. 

Negotiators in Lima produced several communiques and documents, including a 40-page text that provides the key elements for an agreement and outlines various options that could be included in it. Which of these options gets included in the final document is still to be decided, so it is hard to predict at this stage just how demanding the Paris agreement will be.  

Much of the content for the agreement will be hammered out in a series of small-scale meetings between country representatives and the UN panel in coming months, with an official document intended to provide the basis for the agreement to be drawn up by mid-2015. It has yet to be decided whether the Paris agreement will be a legally binding document - an accord signed after the 2009 Copenhagen climate change summit was not - but failure to make it so would be a major setback for the process. 

While progress has been made to engage more countries in the UN process, the final Lima communiques still reflect a long-held developing world view that industrialised countries should be required to make the lion's share of sacrifices in tackling global warming. The Lima text includes a reference, added at a late stage in talks, to "common, but differentiated responsibilities, and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances". Such nebulous language has long been used in climate change documents to signify that developing world economies, such as China and India - the world's largest and third largest overall carbon emitters - should still be cut more slack in the implementation of climate change measures than their western counterparts.

All countries have been asked to provide plans to the UN by June 2015 at the latest, outlining how they intend to curb greenhouse gas emissions. These are known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). A report showing the likely effect of all these INDCs on slowing global warming is scheduled to be published in November 2015.

The idea that all countries should participate in such a database is a step forward for global collaboration, but the requirements for the INDC submissions are weaker than in early drafts of the Lima text and than the EU and the US had been pushing for. While countries are encouraged to provide details of their plans - such as base years to measure cuts against and annual targets - there is no requirement for them to do so. That follows opposition from China and other developing states, which, analysts say, are reluctant to be subject their plans to too much international scrutiny. This will make direct comparison between countries' commitments very difficult. 

Delegates in Lima also agreed to seek more narrowly defined, higher-impact, long-term objectives to include in the Paris agreement. 

One possible new goal included in the Lima text is to target zero net carbon emissions by 2100. Another is to reach that level by 2050 - net zero emissions could be achieved not just by reducing hydrocarbons use, but also by employing carbon capture and storage to bury carbon dioxide produced from fossil fuels, for example. 

Either goal would have ramifications for the fossil fuel industry. However, given that the text offers a starting point for negotiations and includes a welter of options covering all aspects of the climate change agenda, it remains to be seen what will end up in the final text at Paris.  

A reference to a "loss and damage mechanism" to help countries most at risk from global warming to combat the effects of climate change is also included in the Lima text. However, wealthy countries want to ensure that the mechanism would not result in an open ended commitment to pay for damage from natural disasters. 

Industrialised nations reiterated a commitment to a previously agreed target of providing $100bn of public and private funding to developing countries by 2020 to help finance climate change measures. However, no timetable for rolling out this support was agreed. Meanwhile a Green Climate Fund, intended to support developing countries' efforts to cut their GHGs and adapt to climate change, surpassed its UN-set target of $10bn following donations from Australia and Belgium.

Lima: key outcomes

Talks remain on track to produce an agreement in Paris next December, which could commit 195 countries, from both developed and developing worlds, to make large cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

The text could include commitments to drastically reduce global carbon emissions by 2050, throwing the scale of future fossil fuel demand into doubt. 

Countries are to report back to the UN outlining their global warming mitigation plans by mid-2015. The UN's climate change organisation will report back on these national pledges in November 2015

Developing countries insist the Paris agreement should reflect 'differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities' of countries -effectively a call for industrialised countries to take most action and shoulder most of the cost.

Industrialised nations re-affirm commitment to provide $100bn of public and private funding to developing countries by 2020 to support climate change measures, but fail to agree a timetable. 

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