Challenges faced at COP 20

At 10 o’clock on 1 December 2014, Manuel Plugar-Vidal, the Peruvian Minister of State for the Environment and President of COP 20 - the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) opened COP 20. The Minister is a lawyer with 27 years experience working in the field of environmental law and policy and understands the reality of climate change and the consequences of not taking it seriously.

In his opening speech, he challenged the participants to make ambitious pledges to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He also challenged rich countries to make more money available to assist poor nations which will be adversely affected by the consequence of climate change. New non-fossil fuel technologies were highlighted as essential so that the poor can improve their standard of living without opting for a fossil fuel avenue in their quest for development. The Minister expressed that he would do everything in his power as the President of COP 20 to facilitate agreement among the parties. He continued to highlight how climate change affects young people, women and indigenous people and hopes that the dialogue and compromises which will be thrashed around in Lima will lead to concrete action, to address climate change.

On Tuesday 2 December people from Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist traditions came together in Sydney’s Botanical Garden to pray for planet Earth and its people as part of the Light for Lima campaign.
Manuel Pulgar-Vidal spoke well about the need for human beings to change their "business-as-usual" approach to the way we use fossil fuel and the imperative need to use clean energy. Unfortunately, my Columban colleagues here in Peru point out that his fine words on the environment are not always reflected in environmental policy in Peru. This perception is shared by others. In a second editorial in the International New York Times, (29-30 November, 2014, page 10) the author points out that "in September (2014) four indigenous activists who stood up to unscrupulous loggers in a remote region of Peru’s rainforest were slain." The editorial went on to state that while Peru has “made commendable pledges to reduce must do more to protect some of its most vulnerable citizens by helping them to acquire land titles and regulating the logging industry more tightly.”

The Minister was followed by Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. She addressed climate change in an effective way, that the international community would need to demonstrate the insights and tenacity of the people who drew the Nazca lines in the Nazca Desert in southern Peru. She reminded us that 2014 is on track to be the hottest year in recent history. This fact alone calls for faster-urgent action and more ambitious goals. She urged those present to make history in Lima by seeking to build bridges among the participating countries which will lead to concrete commitments and

The final speaker was Rajendra K. Pachauri who has served as the Chairperson of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since 2002. He referred to the findings of the Synthesis Report of the Three Working Groups on the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC, published in September 2014.

This report is the work of 803 scientists. Their findings are very challenging. The document confirms that human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems. The warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen. Rajendra Pachauri stressed that remaining below the 2 degree Celsius target will require that greenhouse gas emissions decline by 40 to 70% by 2050, relative to 2010 levels, and drop to zero or negative by the end of the century.

Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. The period from 1983 to 2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years in the northern hemisphere where such assessment is possible. The Synthesis Report document calls for massive concerted global action if we are to avoid the worst excesses of climate change.

Columban Fr Sean McDonagh is a researcher on justice and peace issues and the ecological challenge. Fr Sean is based in Ireland.

Read more about the UN Conference of Parties (COP 20) meeting in Lima, Peru: Light and Prayers for Lima