Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 29 November 2010

Expect little from the Cancun climate talks

A year after the chaotic Copenhagen summit, another climate conference begins in Cancun today.  But expectations are low on what it can achieve.


One year after the Copenhagen conference that ended in chaos, it's Mexico's turn to host this year's big international climate gathering.

Expectations are low this time around.  That's probably both good and bad.  The conference last year had been so hyped up before hand, with so much hopes linked to it, that the lack of a binding agreement at the end of it became a near-disaster.

Few expect this year's meeting in the seaside resort of Cancun to produce anything significant in commitments either to cut Greenhouse Gas emissions or to provide funds to developing countries.  Thus if Cancun ends as a non-event, it won't be taken as a catastrophe. 

On the other hand, this lowering of expectations indicates how low climate change has sunk in just a year in the world's political agenda.  

And that is bad indeed, because the climate problem has got even worse.  This year is already rivalling 1998 as the hottest year since records were kept.  And there have been so many natural disasters in 2010; some of them like the catastrophic flooding in Pakistan are linked to climate change.

Other events, especially the spread of the financial crisis to Western Europe, and the persistent high unemployment in the United States despite economic growth, have taken over the attention of the politicians and public in the developed countries.

Also, the chances of getting a global climate change agreement appear much more dim. And when a problem seems intractable, political leaders tend to lose interest because like other people they don't like to be associated with failure.

And the problems facing the Cancun conference of the UN Climate Change Convention are many and they seem intractable.

The main problem is the inability of the United States administration to make any meaningful commitment to cut its country's emissions to an adequate extent, because Congress is likely to reject a comprehensive climate bill.

This makes the other developed countries reluctant to firm up their own commitments.  Many of them are still dragging their feet in saying how much they should cut their emissions, individually and as a group, in the Kyoto Protocol's second period that is to start in 2013.

Worse, Russia and Japan have stated they do not want to continue with the Kyoto Protocol, because the US is not a member.  Australia, New Zealand and Canada have also been reluctant to commit to Kyoto's second period.

That leaves the European Union, which prefers to shift to a new system too but is open to remaining in Kyoto if others do.  Only Norway has said firmly it wants a second Kyoto period.

The death of the Kyoto Protocol, under which the developed countries except the US have legally-binding targets to cut their emissions, is something the developing countries cannot accept. 

They want the developed countries to cut their emissions as a group by more than 40% by 2020 (compared to 1990), and for each country to do an adequate cut, under the Kyoto Protocol.

They are in despair because most of the developed countries want to join the US in a voluntary pledging system to replace the legally-binding Kyoto Protocol.

Each country would not have to do what the science says is needed, it would just pledge what it feels it can or should.  Top climate scientists in a new UN Environment Programme report shows how disastrously off-mark such a voluntary system can be.

Instead of cutting their emissions by at least 25-40% below 1990 levels in 2020 as required, the developed countries will actually increase their emission by 6% in a bad scenario and will only cut by 16% in the good scenario.  This is based on the pledges that they have made.

The major turn-around in the attitude of most developed counties towards their own emission reduction will be the hardest problem to resolve in Cancun

The other contentious issue will be the proposed new obligations to be placed on developing countries on the insistence of the developed countries.  These are obligations to cut the growth of their emissions from “business as usual”, and to produce reports once in two years on their emissions and on their emission-reduction plans and actions.  The reports will be subjected to international verification or analysis and consultation.

Developing countries are saying they are willing to do more and to give more reports, but they need funds and new technology to do this.  Moreover, why should they take on more stringent obligations when the developed countries are wanting to downgrade their own commitments?

The possible bright spot in Cancun could be a decision to create a new climate fund under the Climate Convention.   This would be a very limited gain, as the details of the fund (including its governance and the amounts it will have) are to be worked out later.  

After all, it would be easy to set up a fund if there is no clear commitment to put substantial money in it.

But Cancun may even be deprived of such a small result.  The US has made clear, most recently by its special climate envoy Todd Stern, that there cannot be an “early harvest” in Cancun such as setting up a fund.

For the US to agree to that, there must be a Cancun agreement on mitigation, in which developing countries agree to the stringent obligations on reporting and international analysis, and in which developed countries only undertake a system of voluntary pledges.

At Cancun, there will be an appeal to the US to allow the fund to be set up, and not to tie this to conditions that its demands in mitigation will be met.

Don't take the funds that can get actions going in the developing world as “hostage” or conditional on your getting your way in other areas of the negotiations.  This call will most likely be made many times in the next two weeks in Cancun.