Dispatch from Lima: Seven Trends We Spotted at UN Climate Talks

By Lauren Gifford and Jonas Bruun

Two veterans of UN climate talks cut through the jargon and tell us what’s new and trending at this year’s summit in Lima, Peru.

UN Climate Change Conference COP20 Inauguration

(Photo: cancilleriadeperu / Flickr)

The 20th annual UN Climate Change Conference (Conference of the Parties, or COP) took place in Lima, Peru in December 2014. It’s a dress rehearsal for talks that should conclude a new international climate agreement in 2015. But with several strands of negotiations between governments, as well as hundreds of events being held in parallel, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. So we’ve compiled a quick guide to some of the key trends shaping this year’s talks.

1. Zero emissions (but beware the small print)

Addressing climate change means rapidly weaning ourselves off the greenhouse gases that cause it. So what could be more welcome than a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050?

A “net zero” movement is now pushing for carbon neutrality within one generation. But there’s a catch: “net zero” means you can still emit a lot, as long as emissions are somehow sucked out of the atmosphere elsewhere. That provision is already being used to support expensive and unproven measures to capture and store carbon from fossil fuel power plants and industry, as well as controversial, climate-manipulating geo-engineering.

Striving for zero emissions is a step in the right direction, but we’ll need more than a catch phrase to motivate investments in renewables, grassroots empowerment, and straight-up significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Setting your own target

“Intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) is the latest acronym in the alphabet soup of jargon that is routinely generated by UN climate talks.

INDCs are a way for countries to declare what concrete actions they’ll be taking to address climate change, in the hope that these ingredients can be baked into a new international climate agreement. The guidelines on what INDCs can be are intentionally flexible and ambiguous, allowing states to declare anything from economy-wide emissions targets to long-term national climate action plans.

Predictably, negotiators are now struggling to articulate INDCs in a way that is fair, equitable, and transparent. A number of developing countries are concerned that INDCs are becoming a ruse for developed countries to ignore tricky questions about their fair share of climate action, based on their current and historic responsibility for causing the problem in the first place.

There’s also a concern that INDCs will just focus on “mitigation” (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) even though, for many countries, adaptation (coping with the climate change that’s already locked in), finance and technology transfers are vital to any new international climate deal.

3. Everyone’s talking about justice

Until recently, if someone said “climate justice” they’d more likely than not be referring to the fact that climate change was mostly caused by a handful of industrialized countries and big corporations, who should pollute less rather than pushing “solutions” with negative impacts on Indigenous Peoples, people of color and the world’s poor. But this year we’re seeing “justice-washing” throughout the COP.

Even Lord Nicholas Stern, a leading capitalist climate economist, has been speaking the language of climate justice. While we are happy to hear that fat cats now have to open their eyes and ears to “local ownership” and “gender sensitivity,” these words shouldn’t be tossed around the point of meaninglessness.

4. Time to clean up climate finance

“Climate finance” is money from developed countries that is meant to help developing countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions (via mitigation) and deal with climate impacts that are already happening or unavoidable (adaptation). To this end, developed countries have promised to mobilize $100 billion dollars a year by 2020.

The reality of the climate finance delivered to date is not all rosy. For example, Japan provided $1 billion in loans to build coal-fired power plants in Indonesia, then counted it as their contribution to a “fast start” climate finance package that ran from 2012-2012. There are plenty more examples of dirty deals masquerading as climate finance, but we can’t afford sparse climate finance wasted on polluting projects.

It’s time for the COP to clearly define what can count as climate finance, including following the demand of civil society groups to adopt an exclusion listthat prevents a new, $10 billion Green Climate Fund from funding fossil fuel projects.

5. Big oil everywhere

Last year’s UN climate change conference was awash with corporate sponsorship, which we warned could become “the new normal.” Twelve months on, big oil firms are everywhere. Shell and Chevron even co-hosted an event where the aforementioned Lord Stern spoke against divesting from fossil fuels (particularly oil and gas). Meanwhile, these same companies are lobbying hard to water down any potential climate deal.

What happened to climate change being “the biggest market failure the world has ever seen?” as Stern once wrote? We guess the oil companies never got the memo.

6. Forest conservation gets a makeover

The initiative to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) has been a hot topic at the climate talks for several years, but the means of financing forest protection remain unclear.

The initial REDD+ idea, pedaled by the World Bank, was to build a market for forest carbon offsets: big corporations could compensate for their own pollution by paying to preserve tropical forests. But REDD+ has increasingly negative connotations, as many of the initial schemes have been associated with displacing and disempowering indigenous and peasant communities and undermining their land rights.

In light of all the bad press, many forest projects are dropping the REDD+ branding and are simply being labeled “conservation projects” or “administrative agreements.” It remains to be seen whether or not these are any better at helping local people to preserve forests without compromising their livelihoods.

7. Gender, and arguing about its relevance

Developing “gender sensitive” policy is an increasingly important part of emerging climate finance schemes. But some governments object, including those of Sudan and Algeria. They want references to gender removed from the policies being negotiated in Lima. The European Union and Mexico, amongst others, insist that gender is a priority. The impasse continues.

Jonas Bruun and Lauren Gifford were part of the Institute for Policy Studies’ delegation at the UN climate talks in Lima, Peru.  Bruun is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Manchester’s Institute for Development Policy and Management, and Gifford is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder. This blog was originally published by the Institute for Policy Studies

What is the future of the green economy?

By Carl Death

As the 2015 Millennium Development Goals target date looms near and the successor to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change is due to be negotiated, Dr Carl Death, senior lecturer in International Political Economy, considers the increasing focus on the green economy and breaks the concept down into four key discourses that are competing to define its meaning. He argues that it is a big idea for dramatic change but it could also reinforce rather than challenge prevailing forms of inequality and injustice.

The politics of environment and development will be a recurring topic of international negotiations in 2014-2015. The target for the Millennium Development Goals will be reached in 2015 and they are likely to be replaced with a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The successor to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change is also due to be negotiated by 2015, although it won’t enter into force until 2020. For these reasons many are searching for guiding concepts and frameworks for the defining challenges of the coming century: how to achieve development in ways that is environmentally safe and sustainable and socially just. Sustainable development was the ‘big idea’ of the 1990s; the 2000s was the decade of climate change and the low carbon economy; and some have suggested that the ‘green economy’ will provide a structuring paradigm for the 2010s. At the ‘Rio+20’ Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012 the international community under the auspices of the United Nations promoted the green economy as one of its two main themes, and it was agreed that it was ‘one of the important tools available for achieving sustainable development’.

Much like sustainable development, the concept of the green economy is usefully vague, and is invoked by different people with different agendas and worldviews. For example, some see a ‘Global Green New Deal’ as the next stage of human progress, akin to the industrial revolution, in which societies will become ‘low carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive’. Others promote environmental markets and services as a new route to economic growth and higher consumption levels. Different countries have implemented green economy strategies in different ways. South Korea invested in a massive programme of ‘green’ jobs and hi-tech industries to ward off the financial crisis in 2009, comprising around 3% of GDP or $36.3 billion. South Africa has signalled an intention to cut greenhouse gas emissions, introduce a carbon tax, create ‘green jobs’ and stimulate local renewable energy industries. Yet contradictions abound in these declarations. South Africa, for example, emitted 9.2 tons of C02 emissions per capita in 2010, compared to 7.9 in the UK, and has some of the highest levels of resource consumption and social and economic inequality in the world.

In order to make sense of these diverse manifestations of the green economy, it is useful to break the concept down into four competing discourses: ‘green revolution’, ‘green transformation’, ‘green growth’, and ‘green resilience’. It is the competition between these discourses that will shape the future of the green economy over the next decade.

The oldest discourse of the ‘green economy’ is the sense in which many environmentalists in the 1960s and 1970s used it – a revolutionary transformation of economic (and hence social and political) relationships to bring them in line with natural limits to growth. This discourse has inspired a range of alternatives such as de-growth, steady-state economics, buen vivir, or prosperity without growth. These are not simply seen as necessary shifts, but rather as progressive opportunities for a better society. A ‘green economy’ is therefore something very different from our current economy, in terms of what we eat and how it is produced, the energy we use, our transport systems, and so on, and such a transition would revolutionise many aspects of contemporary society, including patriarchy, race-relations, the state and the state system, capitalism, and aspects of the Enlightenment philosophical tradition.

Green transformation, in contrast, envisages a shift in socio-economic and political systems towards social justice, equity and redistribution, but the basic elements and assumptions of modernity are to remain the same. Thus economic growth remains the driver of progress, the environment is a resource for human development, and states and the state-system are the regulators and guarantors of development. Typical policies include Keynesian strategies of public investments and fiscal stimulus, mobilised for ‘green’ ends: clean air and water and food, safe and efficient public transport, tree-planting campaigns, and so on. This is the basic idea of the ‘Green New Deal’ endorsed by the UN Environmental Programme.

The third discourse is that of green growth, where green markets are an economic opportunity. Given increasing prices of raw materials and natural resources – oil, gas, food stuffs, and land – as well as widely predicted shortages in resources like freshwater, there is money to be made in ‘going green’. Rising world populations and rapidly growing economies in Asia, Latin America and Africa also seem to present new markets, and even in older markets the niches for organic and green products are becoming increasingly commercially attractive. Carbon markets and pricing for ecosystem services create new opportunities for financial speculation, and ‘climate capitalism’ is presented as the next stage of human development. The metaphor of ‘rising tides lifting all boats’ seems profoundly apt here, but might prompt doubts about the ability of capitalist economies to weather coming climate storms in even the most sanguine free-market economists.

Finally, the fourth element of the discourse is essentially cautious. Warnings of environmental scarcity and peak oil have convinced many that alternatives need to be found in order simply to maintain the status quo. ‘Climate smart’ agriculture will be needed, and new forms of urban settlements. ‘Green resilience’ includes climate adaptation schemes, flood defences, insurance and risk indexing, disaster relief plans, and attempts to build self-sufficient local economies.

Widespread agreement on the importance of transitions to ‘a green economy’ therefore masks substantial political and economic differences. Various international negotiations – such as over the SDGs or the post-2015 climate treaty – as well as different countries and international organisations, are the sites of competing discourses. It is certainly possible that the latest ‘big idea’ of the green economy could transform our world in a manner akin to the European industrial revolution, but it could equally take forms which reinforce rather than challenge prevailing forms of inequality and injustice.

For more on ‘The Green Economy in South Africa: Global Discourses and Local Politics’ see http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02589346.2014.885668#.U4Gr7b5wZjo