Goals in Lima, Actions in Paris

Where's the part with the numbers?

Photographer: Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images

For a long time now, multilateral negotiations about climate change have been no match for climate change. The United Nations conference in Lima followed that tradition, though it did signal the promise of progress in several notable directions.

Under the Lima agreement, countries get an "invitation" to submit targets of their own choosing, by a date that suits them. (Next spring would be nice, for "those Parties ready to do so.") And if any countries are feeling especially cooperative, they "may include" quantifiable information -- for example, a base year of comparison, "time frames and/or periods for implementation," and maybe even some details about how they'll achieve those reductions.

Climate Change

To paraphrase: If any nation would like to set a target for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, it has the world's permission to do so.

It doesn't make one leap for joy. On the other hand, Lima was never meant to yield huge results; the goal was to lay the groundwork for next year's Paris climate conference, where each country's pledge would be enshrined in a meaningful agreement. That goal can still be met.

Achieving it will depend on the same force that drives any international agreement: real and sustained public pressure, combined with a handful of major countries working in concert. Those nations that want to salvage this process, and ensure that Paris is more than a collection of hopes and dreams, can do so by taking a few steps.

The first is to set ambitious emissions targets quickly, then cajole their neighbors and trading partners to do the same. Just because the Lima talks didn't produce a binding deadline for pledges doesn't mean countries should take their time.

The second step is for major developed countries to agree on measurement benchmarks, including a baseline emissions year and a time frame. That puts the onus on China and other holdouts to match those benchmarks. The third step is for countries that want this process to succeed to commit resources to monitoring and reporting on emissions in other countries, reducing the temptation to make pledges that won't be kept.

Finally, more countries should follow the example of the deal the U.S. and China struck in November by seeking their own bilateral agreements. It's not enough for developed countries to set ambitious targets, then trumpet those targets to the world. They should also look for negotiating leverage with other countries and ways to use it.

That's surely the lesson of the Lima talks: No country can afford to leave this process to the UN and hope for the best. Climate change may be global, but the response to it can be regional, national and even local

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.