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As the Dust Settles Over Cancun

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14 Dec 2010
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 '…the least cost trajectory for stringent mitigation assessed in the [IPCC Fourth Assessment Report] clearly estimated that global emissions should peak no later than 2015 and decline thereafter".

Dr Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
Opening Statement, UNFCCC COP 16, Cancun, Mexico, 29 November 2010

This statement underlies everything Cancun was about.

It was about the efforts of a majority of countries to agree to a second commitment period to extend the Kyoto Protocol passed its expiration date of 31 December 2012 and to begin dealing seriously with the need for deep emissions cuts.

It was about the resistance of a few countries, big greenhouse gas emitters all, to recognize reality and begin serious efforts at curbing their emissions.

And it was about the almost Herculean efforts by the Mexican COP President, Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, to make sure that the conference didn’t go completely off the rails.

In the end results of Cancun depended on your perspective. One view is that the UN-sponsored negotiating process continues with renewed confidence after the failure to reach agreement in Copenhagen on anything but a non-binding agreement. As Ms Espinosa said at the end of the gruelling all night session that closed the negotiations, hope has been “rekindled”.

"’The last 24 hours, what we have seen is no less than a miracle,’" said Maldivian Minister of Environment Mohamed Aslam, whose country of low-lying atolls in the Indian Ocean has led the moral charge for climate action.” Quoted in the New York Times, Alsam said the agreement is “’a good one. It has all of the elements we have been wanting. Not in as strong language as we would have liked, but it leaves room for strengthening things next year.’"

Others aren’t so sure much progress was made. John Drexhage is with the International Institute for Sustainable Development and a former Canadian climate change negotiator. He was quoted in the Globe and Mail newspaper saying that this agreement actually reinforces the divisions between countries over emissions reductions and how to achieve them. Countries like Canada, Japan and Australia, among others, want to see countries with rapidly developing economies – China, India and Brazil – bound by the same rules that will apply to them. Drexhage says that’s not going to happen for a while.

“’I just don’t see how we can expect any kind of comprehensive, binding treaty resulting from this,’ he said. ‘We just have extremely different expectations’ among countries.”

Missing from the equation is the United States, which hasn’t agreed to Kyoto. Drexhage said that country will be “hard-pressed” to meet the reductions to which President Barack Obama committed it in last year’s Copenhagen Accord (a 17% cut by 2020). 

This effort by developed countries – the ones that have created the climate change crisis through decades of increasing levels of greenhouse gas emissions – all but guarantees that the world is heading away from the “least cost trajectory” Dr. Pachauri referred to in his opening statement to the COP. And it ignores the economic analysis of short- and long-term costs in Sir Nicholas Stern’s analysis of 2007.

Much of the real struggle has been deferred to Durban next year, and to the negotiating sessions that will lead up to it. However, there were a couple of surprises. One was the agreement to set up a new fund – with a goal of $100 Billion a year from 2020 – to protect forests, share clean technologies and help vulnerable nations and people to adapt.

This fund doesn’t include the Arctic, which is once again not mentioned in the final texts or singled out as a vulnerable region in need of special assistance. There are a number of reasons for this, but most nations feel the Arctic is the responsibility of the wealthy industrialized nations in which it is located. Adaptation assistance needs to come from those governments, it is argued, especially since most of them are responsible for the high greenhouse gas emissions that have caused the problem in the first place.

The following highlights of the Cancun agreement are taken from the UNEP website:

  • Industrialised country targets are officially recognised under the multilateral process and these countries are to develop low-carbon development plans and strategies and assess how best to meet them, including through market mechanisms, and to report their inventories annually.
  • Developing country actions to reduce emissions are officially recognised under the multilateral process. A registry is to be set up to record and match developing country mitigation actions to finance and technology support from by industrialised countries. Developing countries are to publish progress reports every two years.
  • Parties meeting under the Kyoto Protocol agree to continue negotiations with the aim of completing their work and ensuring there is no gap between the first and second commitment periods of the treaty.
  • The Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanisms has been strengthened to drive more major investments and technology into environmentally sound and sustainable emission reduction projects in the developing world.
  • Parties launched a set of initiatives and institutions to protect the vulnerable from climate change and to deploy the money and technology that developing countries need to plan and build their own sustainable futures.
  • A total of US$30 billion in fast start finance from industrialised countries to support climate action in the developing world up to 2012 and the intention to raise US$100 billion in long-term funds by 2020 is included in the decisions.
  • In the field of climate finance, a process to design a Green Climate Fund under the Conference of the Parties, with a board with equal representation from developed and developing countries, is established.
  • A new "Cancun Adaptation Framework" is established to allow better planning and implementation of adaptation projects in developing countries through increased financial and technical support, including a clear process for continuing work on loss and damage.
  • Governments agree to boost action to curb emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries with technological and financial support.
  • Parties have established a technology mechanism with a Technology Executive Committee and Climate Technology Centre and Network to increase technology cooperation to support action on adaptation and mitigation.

Full copies of all the decision texts are on the UNFCCC website.

New funding for climate change adaptation agreed at COP 16 does not include the Arctic. Pictured here, an abandoned home near the coast in Shishmaref, Alaska (credit: Lawrence Hislop). 

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