Climatically, Lima is to some extent the southern hemisphere counterpart of San Francisco, though considerably nearer the Equator. Like the Californian Current, the cold Peruvian Current ensures overcast and humid conditions generally prevail and Lima is well noted for its lack of sunshine. When the summer sun is warm enough, however, to burn off the low clouds in the marine layer, quite hot conditions can develop during the middle of the day. Week 2 at COP20 is experiencing just such a spell with temperatures a few kilometres inland rising into the high 20s in this city of 10M people. In an effort to reduce the carbon footprint of the climate conference, and perhaps focus the minds of delegates on what global warming actually entails, the organisers have sought to minimise air conditioning throughout the venues, many of them prefabs and tented structures. There was thus a certain poignancy to the session on climate change and health where delegates were given advice by the World Health Organisation chairperson as to how to cope with the furnace-like conditions of the room.

The conference itself is being held in the Peruvian Army’s HQ on the eastern fringes of the city. As with all COPs where a high attendance by senior government ministers from 195 countries is the norm, security is tight. Soldiers patrol the nearby rooftops discreetly and the odd MIG-29 makes a flyover, somewhat less discreetly. The organisational logistics and helpfulness of the many volunteers is, however, first class and the enormous tented village is easy to navigate and has all the requirements of the thousands of delegates well supplied.

The conference itself went smoothly enough for the first week. This is quite normal. The real action starts the second week when hard decisions have to be made. The public servants who toil in week 1 do not want to second guess the priorities of their political masters and so drafts are prepared but seldom finalised. Sometimes some backtracking is evident later in the week when positions harden and delegations do not want to be seen as the wimps in their particular negotiating bloc. The issues for this COP remain the same as ever: how to bridge the mistrust between developed and developing countries. The ‘car crash’ of the Copenhagen COP15 in 2009 was really caused by a lack of mutual trust between these two groups and only careful action since then has brought the world to a point where a global agreement next year is possible. But the mistrust remains and the Plenary I attended this morning showed that an agreement this week is not a foregone conclusion. Bolivia was one of the most vociferous countries in recent years and spoke today on behalf of the Group of 77 developing countries and China against a pre-circulated draft, implicitly complaining that an attempt to steamroller through a text that had not incorporated its objections was occurring. Not unexpectedly, countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran weighed in also, while some developed countries took the contrary view. These are the kind of things which characterise sometimes tortuous sessions in negotiations where unanimity is ultimately required. China has been remarkably silent in the negotiations this far, having reached an agreement with the US a few weeks ago to peak its emissions before 2030. China also finds itself, as the world’s leading emitter, in ambiguous territory as a member of the G77 bloc of developing countries, given that its per capita emissions now exceed that of many EU countries (though not Ireland).

The Irish delegation is spread thinly across several areas. Most of the ‘heavy lifting’ is however done by the EU as a bloc and breakfast meetings each day set the agenda and negotiating positions for the member states. However the increased ambition sought by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is not really evident at EU level. Despite having essentially achieved the required 20% reduction in emissions for 2020 (though not with much assistance from Ireland), a reluctance to go further seems evident. Internal divisions which were evident in the recent 2030 negotiations in Brussels may well underlie this. It will be interesting to see what position Minister White adopts on his arrival later this week. For the first time in the history of the COP, Ireland was awarded the ‘Fossil of the Day’ label by the Climate Action Network group of NGOs for its lack of commitment to the Green Climate Fund designed to assist adaptation in developing countries. Similarly, the US, despite its deal with China actually is offering a very limited reduction in emissions in the run up to 2020, claimed by some to be less than was on the table in Copenhagen.

As with all COPs, a feature of the event is the vibrancy and idealism of young people. For many of these, negotiations for a global climate agreement have extended throughout their entire life. It is dispiriting that so little has been achieved since COP1. The stark reality of the dwindling remaining carbon budget has also been quantified by the recent IPCC Fifth Assessment Report meaning that another 20 years of talking is not an option. Vulnerability is increasing with time. This year, colourful and noisy demonstrations have emphasised the plight of the indigenous peoples of South America who are the victims of a problem not of their making. The contrast between the young idealists and the ‘hard bitten’ negotiators acting out their script inside the tents is striking. It reminds us that climate justice issues of intergenerational equity arise which should be incorporated into any compromise finally agreed. But this is difficult to reconcile with our current economics paradigm. As Sir Nicholas Stern commented at one of the sessions I attended today, how do we place a value on the lives of the people of future generations as we seek to put a cost estimate together for tackling the problem of climate change today?

Prof. John Sweeney, Lima, 9th December 2014