Photograph by Robb Kendrick, National Geographic Creative

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Amid soot-covered stalks of last year's corn, a farmer prepares for spring near a power plant in China's Shanxi Province.

Photograph by Robb Kendrick, National Geographic Creative

Optimism Greets New Round of UN Climate Talks

Latest climate summit to begin in Lima, Peru, with big goals.

Buoyed by new climate pledges from the United States, China, and Europe, diplomats from 195 countries will begin meeting in Lima, Peru, on Monday to draft a new accord to curb global warming.

Organized by the United Nations, the conference aims to lay the groundwork for an agreement to be finalized by December 2015, when world leaders will meet in Paris. Called COP 20, the 12-day gathering marks the 20th time countries will have met to discuss climate change since 1992. The agreement is hoped to be a successor to 1997's Kyoto Protocol, which expired in 2012 but was never adopted by the U.S. or China, and so had limited impact.

President Barack Obama and other top leaders are not expected to attend the Lima talks but are sending environment officials and climate negotiators.

David Waskow of the World Resources Institute says he hopes the delegates will be able to "build on the good momentum we've seen over the past few weeks." Waskow, who directs the think tank's climate initiative, adds that he is optimistic that "an effective agreement" will be reached by the end of 2015.

What's driving that momentum? On November 12, the U.S. and China, the world's top emitters of greenhouse gases, announced an agreement to slash their emissions. In October the European Union pledged to reduce its emissions 40 percent by 2030, compared with 1990 levels. And the UN's Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries address climate change, is on track to meet its ten-billion-dollar initial target.

"We're in far better shape a year ahead of Paris than at any stage leading up to Copenhagen," where world leaders tried but failed to reach a climate deal in 2009, says Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a nonprofit Virginia-based group formerly known as the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Now, he says, he sees greater "confidence and realism" about what can be accomplished through the UN and "less drama and vitriol than in previous rounds."

Refinement of Climate Policy

Pete Ogden of the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the Obama Administration, agrees. He says he doesn't expect any "fundamental breakthroughs" in Lima, but rather important refinement of ongoing international talks.

Ogden says those discussions have shifted since 2009. Instead of a top-down treaty that mandates the amount of greenhouse gases each country can emit—which has proved unpopular—negotiators are now developing a framework in which each country makes voluntary commitments.

The Peru summit will help countries hammer out those commitments, which are slated to be finalized in Paris next December. Ogden says the recent announcements by the U.S., China, and Europe signal some of what people can expect.

The sum total of the commitments, Ogden says, won't necessarily put the world on an easy path to limit global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) above preindustrial levels—a goal leaders previously agreed would help avoid the most dangerous consequences of climate change, such as melting ice sheets. In April the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that limiting a rise in global temperatures to 2°C would require cutting greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent to 70 percent by 2050.

Still, Ogden says, the types of cuts likely to be proposed will be significant and will go a long way toward reducing the greatest risk. And perhaps most important, he says, because the climate system is a moving target, the new agreement will probably have "built-in periods of review and revisiting."

Future of Cooperation

Another issue likely to be covered in Lima is how long the new agreement should extend. In Copenhagen, Denmark, leaders had discussed a treaty that would remain in effect until 2020. But Ogden would like to see something that lasts longer and has more flexibility to respond to change.

Waskow adds that he hopes to see some consideration of the larger question of eventually transitioning away from fossil fuels entirely, perhaps by the end of the century. He says concrete commitments to renewable energy are needed.

A major topic will also be how countries track and report their actions. Transparency and accountability will be key to trust and success, says Ogden.

Developing countries are also likely to push for more discussion of how the world is going to adapt to the already evident impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels, along with more intense droughts, floods, and heat waves.

Also under discussion will be how to coordinate the work of non-national actors such as cities, states, and corporations, many of which have been at the forefront of reducing emissions—from New York to California to Walmart.

"It's not clear if negotiators will be able to connect all these efforts up directly, but they are clearly related," says Waskow. "So it's a matter of making sure you have all your horses pointed in the same direction."

Waskow likens such international meetings to a five-ring circus. "There is the ring in the center, which is the main negotiation between states," he says. "Then there are side rings for various nonstate actors, which give them a chance to profile their work and galvanize energy."

Expect new announcements from cities, companies, and nonprofits, he says, adding: "The Lima meeting is very much a stepping-stone on the way to an outcome in December 2015."

Robert Kunzig contributed reporting to this story.

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