Photograph by Ben Horton, National Geographic

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Negotiators at the United Nations climate conference reached a deal Sunday that sets the stage for the next treaty on global warming.

Photograph by Ben Horton, National Geographic

World Moves One Step Closer to Climate Treaty

Compromise reached in Lima among UN negotiators, with much work remaining.

It could have been a scene in a political thriller, the negotiators meeting into the early hours Sunday morning, going 48 hours without a break. Finally, they concluded the UN's 20th climate conference with a draft agreement that sets the stage for the next treaty on global warming.

The draft—a general framework that lacks specifics—is a compromise that leaves no one overjoyed but most happy that at least something was accomplished, after the whole process threatened to unravel just days earlier in Lima, Peru, during a two-week assembly. (Learn about the five takeaways from the negotiations.)

For their part, environmentalists have had a mixed response to the latest draft agreement, which was heavily edited over the past few days as negotiations progressed.

Sam Smith, chief of climate policy for the World Wildlife Fund, told reporters, "The text went from weak to weaker to weakest, and it's very weak indeed."

But Jennifer Morgan, director of the climate program at World Resources Institute, said, "A global climate agreement is now within reach."

She added that more work needs to be done but said, "This emerging agreement represents a new form of international cooperation."

Next Steps

The most important thing now is to focus on the next steps, said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. And chief among those steps is for countries to put forth specific action plans to be included in the final agreement.

"As long as others follow the lead of the U.S., China and the European Union, we should have a decent shot at a meaningful global deal," Diringer said in a statement, referring to recent announcements by those countries to slash their emissions. (Read: "Report Offers Clearest Picture Yet of Rising Greenhouse Gas Emissions.")

Negotiators have not yet settled the big question of whether the ultimate treaty will be legally binding or allow a more voluntary approach, but the latest draft seems to lean toward the latter, by asking countries to propose their own cuts in emissions.

Although a more voluntary approach is not favored by many environmentalists and developing nations, the U.S., China, and other developed countries have been saying it may be the only workable plan.

Heading further in the voluntary direction, this draft also says countries "may" instead of "shall" include quantifiable information showing how they intend to meet their emissions targets.

The draft retains the general notion that the richest countries should shoulder the highest burden in paying for emissions reductions, an issue that has long been contentious and which threatened to derail the whole process.

The document also preserves general language about how developed countries should come up with a system to compensate developing countries for damages caused by global warming, such as rising sea level.

By March 2015, countries are challenged to present emissions reduction targets that "go beyond their current undertakings." The UN will provide feedback on those commitments by November.

Morgan added, "The most inspiring development in Lima was an outpouring of support for a long-term effort to reduce emissions." Although a specific road map has yet to be hammered out, the general goal is "a strong signal that the low-carbon economy is inevitable," she said.

"Not Perfect"

Perhaps voicing the sentiment of most delegates to the conference, the event's chair told reporters that the new draft "is not perfect." Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, Peru's environment minister, added, "but it includes the positions of the parties."

This draft will continue to evolve over the course of 2015 until December, when world leaders will meet in Paris, with the goal of finalizing a new treaty to address global warming.

In Lima, Todd Stern, the U.S. climate envoy, had called for leaders to work through their differences and avoid "a major breakdown."

The coming months will determine if recent optimism holds and what the future will actually look like.

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