Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cancún, a deal or just hot air?

Cop16 came to an end last weekend after near two weeks of talks aimed at reaching a deal concerning global emissions. Media coverage has been scant with only a few broadcasters dipping into events on the ground. There were also far fewer delegates present in Cancún, Mexico than had been seen the the Cop15 in Copenhagen. So what, if anything, did the climate change talks achieve?

As the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference wrapped up, many reports talked about a deal having been reached. Politicians were upbeat and there were cheers as the conference came to an end. But the outcome of the summit was an agreement, rather than a binding treaty. The agreement calls on rich countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions as pledged in the Copenhagen Accord, and for developing countries to plan to reduce their emissions, to limit global warming to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. It includes a proposed $100 billion a year fund to assist poorer countries finance emission reductions and adaptation.

But there is little in the deal that could be considered legally binding. The New York Times described the agreement as being both a "major step forward" given that international negotiations had stumbled in recent years, and as being "fairly modest" as it did not require the changes that scientists say are needed to avoid dangerous climate change.

Delegates representing the major emitters have been particularly boastful of an achievement. However the deal falls far below the comprehensive agreement that many countries wanted at last year's Copenhagen summit. And it calls into question whether any of the measures laid out, including emission cuts, will be legally binding.

"What we have now is a text that, while not perfect, is certainly a good basis for moving forward," chief US negotiator Todd Stern, said at the end of the conference. China, who have been resilient to accepting proposals made in the past, this year brought some compromise to the table.

"This is the first time we've seen the US together with China and all other major emitters anchoring their national pollution targets in a formal UN agreement – the significance of this should not be underestimated," said Erwin Jackson, Climate Institute Deputy CEO. "While some aspects are disappointing … the Cancún talks produced a formal UN decision anchoring pollution limitation and reduction targets covering over 80 percent of global emissions." But even China's negotiator foresaw further difficulties. "The negotiations in the future will continue to be difficult," Xie Zhenhua said.

But there have bee some outspoken critics. Bolivia found faults both with elements of the deal and with the way the texts were constructed through private conversations between small groups of countries. Delegation chief Pablo Solon said that what concerned him most was that commitments would not be made under the Kyoto Protocol. "We're talking about a [combined] reduction in emissions of 13-16%, and what this means is an increase of more than 4°C," he said. "Responsibly, we cannot go along with this - this would mean we went along with a situation that my president has termed 'ecocide and genocide'," Solon said.

Some environmental groups were encouraged by the agreements made. Claire Parker, senior climate policy adviser for the global conservation group IUCN, said. "We have moved away from the post-Copenhagen paralysis. Developing countries can now see new money on the table which they can draw on to adapt to the impacts they're already facing and reduce emissions." And Tara Rao, senior policy adviser with environmental group WWF commented, "There's enough in it that we can work towards next year's meeting in South Africa to get a legally binding agreement there."

The signing of the agreement was cheered by representatives of the 194 countries gathered in the luxury Mexican resort. One success, in part, was that all the participants agreed the size of cuts were not enough. But there was no agreement as to how this might be achieved, nor a total commitment by any country to reduce emissions to a specific level.

There were proposals of of a 25% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. But there was no legally binding document. There was an agreement and a pledge to fund poorer nations help cut their emissions and to encourage nations to slow deforestation through financial incentives. But it is unclear how this might be funded. And so after days of talks, a massive carbon footprint and a large bill there is only the vain hope that the vague promises agreed this year might be built upon in 2011 when the party will start all over again. The location for that soirée is Durban, South Africa.

The nature of the talks has come under particular criticism from some environmentalists, especially in an age of high technology where such negotiations could be conducted through video conferencing and electronic communication. The fact that two countries, Qatar and South Korea, are currently bidding to host the 2012 Cop18, does appear to make a mockery of the serious issues at stake.

To date the United Nations Climate Change Conference has been held in Berlin [Germany], Geneva [Switzerland], Buenos Aires [Argentina], Bonn [Germany], Hague [Netherlands], Marrakech [Morocco], New Delhi [India], Milan [Italy], Montreal [Canada], Nairobi [Kenya], Bali [Indonesia], Poznań [Poland], Copenhagen [Denmark] and Cancún [Mexico]. In addition there have been many smaller conferences in other locations such as the recent talks in Tianjin, China and in Incheon in South Korea. While the carboon footprint may be relatively samll when compared to industry, tourism and business, the apparent hypocrisy has not escaped some critics. 

In a cartoon published in the French newspaper Le Post there was more than a little cynicism. "Tous les gens arrivent à Cancún et tout le monde est très content car il fait beau et on va revoir ses copains...Là, les gens se réunissent par petits groups de travail et brassent beaucoup d'air, energie renouvelable s'il en est...Puis tout le monde repart de Cancún tout content, c'était vraiment chouette cette année!!!" [All the people arrive in Cancún, and everyone is very happy because it is nice and we will see their friends again...There, people gather in small groups to work and talk a lot of hot air, renewable energy if any...Then everyone departs from Cancún happily, it was really nice this year !!!] [BBC / BBC / CNN / FT / GuardianEnvironmental Leader / Wikipedia - UNFCCC / UNFCCC / Cop16].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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