Understanding COP20 in Lima

Reading time: 6 minutes
14 November 2014

Ahead of the UN's global climate talks (COP20) which take place in Lima, Peru next month, we take a look at the history of these negotiations, and what is expected from the next two rounds of talks. Over the next few weeks we will also be producing pre and post COP20 briefings for our website, as well as regular blogs and social media posts about progress at Lima. Follow us on @ClimateGroup for the latest news.

In just a few weeks the eyes of the international climate community will be on Lima. The capital of Peru will host the UN’s annual Climate Change Conference, otherwise known as the 20th session of the Conference of the Parties (or simply COP20), from December 1-12, 2014.

This will be the final COP before the crucial COP21 in Paris next year, where political leaders are expected to agree a new binding global agreement on climate change.

Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, Environmental Minister of Peru, said he is “optimistic” about the Lima negotiations in a recent interview: “I think that the world knows that we can't fail like we failed in Copenhagen. I'm completely sure that we are going to have an agreement in Paris by the next year.”

But why do we have COPs and what exactly do they set out to do?


In 1992, concern about changes to the earth’s climate due to greenhouse gas emissions had risen to the top of the global political agenda.

Warnings from scientists about the dangers of future climate change had led to an acknowledgement among governments that something had to be done to avoid this risk. So world leaders gathered in Rio, Brazil, for the first Earth Summit, formally known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, to develop a global response for a global danger.

After intense negotiations, 165 states signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.

The treaty defined a framework for action from all countries to tackle climate change, as well as the principles to govern this action. For example, developed countries committed to take the lead, while developing countries agreed to take action with financial and technological support as they developed.

This dual approach was encapsulated in the UNFCCC principle of ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibility’ (CBDR). In layman’s terms CBDR recognizes that all countries contribute to polluting the earth, but historically some countries have put far more gases into the atmosphere than others. These high-income, developed countries (like the US and the European Union) therefore have a responsibility to act first.

Under the UNFCCC, a defined list of developed countries are explicitly recognized in the first annex of the treaty, and so are known as the ‘Annex I countries’. Controversially, this list is based on 1992-levels of development and has not been updated in over two decades. This has led to the current situation where some developing countries that are not in the Annex are significantly richer today than a number of Annex 1 parties.

The UNFCCC fully came into force in 1994. As mandated in the treaty, Parties have met annually ever since the first COP in Berlin in 1995. The aim of these ministerial-level conferences is to take decisions to ensure the effective implementation of the treaty, taking into account the latest scientific and technical information on climate change.  


One of the key decisions taken at the first COP in Berlin was to begin a new round of talks in recognition that the voluntary commitments made under the UNFCCC were not adequate for dealing with climate change.

The outcome of this process was the Kyoto Protocol, agreed at COP3 in 1997. This new treaty required Annex 1 parties to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 5% on average compared to 1990 levels over the five years from 2008 to 2012.   

While an important first step, the Kyoto Protocol suffered from a number of weaknesses. While rightly leaving out developing countries that hadn’t the capacity to tackle climate change at the time, it had no clear mechanism for bringing in newly developed economies into the commitment regime.

China’s emergence as the world’s largest GHG emitter and second largest economy in the last 10 years despite its continued treatment under the UNFCCC as a developing country, is the most obvious - but by no means only - illustration of this flaw.  

The more egregious failing of the Protocol, however, has been the absence of the US as party to the treaty since its refusal to ratify in 2001. The decision by Canada, Japan and several other developed countries not to enter a second commitment period for the Protocol (after 2012) has further eroded the Protocol’s strength.  


In recognition that international climate efforts must be reinvigorated, governments began parallel processes in 2006-07 to agree a second Kyoto commitment period and generally strengthen collective efforts.

These talks were meant to conclude with a new global deal at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. Instead, a combination of internal and external factors, lead to an 11th hour high-level political accord.

While falling far short of the high expectations many had for COP15, the accord saw countries pledge - for the first time - to take actions that would prevent a global temperature increase of 2 degree Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Thankfully, following the low point of Copenhagen, subsequent COPs have rebuilt the negotiating process. The 2011 COP in Durban, South Africa, for example, launched the current phase of negotiations which is meant to culminate in Paris next year with the agreement of a new global climate treaty.

This is why COP20 in Lima, Peru, next month is so important. In one year, political leaders will meet in Paris to sign a deal they should have inked six years previously. This year's COP20 milestone in Lima will provide a final opportunity to focus on negotiating the many issues that remain unresolved.

While the stakes are high, many leaders expect Lima to be a successful process. “The world will not accept another failure. Fortunately, we're not at a moment similar to that prior to Copenhagen,” says Manuel Pulgar-Vidal. “The expectations set out for Lima are precisely those we should move toward to mobilize success in Paris with the signing of an accord.”

And with the US-China agreement announced in the past few days, we can clearly see the pathway toward a prosperous, low carbon economy is possible if we all work together.

We will be producing pre and post COP20 briefings for our website, as well as regular blogs and social media posts about progress at Lima. Follow us on @ClimateGroup for the latest news.

Check also our infographic on understanding COP negotiations in Lima and Paris.

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