Gearing Up for Cancún

Gearing Up for Cancún

Expectations are low that the United Nations’s upcoming two-week climate conference will produce the international agreement needed to avert global warming.


Expectations are low that the United Nations’s upcoming two-week climate conference, which kicks off in Cancún, Mexico, this Monday, will produce a legally binding international agreement among the 194 nations in attendance. Nonetheless, negotiators, nonprofit organizations and activists are flocking to the luxury resort in droves.


The climate negotiations in Cancún will seek to achieve four goals: 1. Establish levels of greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions reductions of developed countries, such as the United States; 2. Set ghg reductions for developing countries, such as China and India; 3. Secure funding and technology transfers from developed countries to developing countries, to help them address and adapt to climate change; and 4. Decide on a method to monitor, report and verify (MRV) the agreed upon targets of an international climate treaty.

Nations gathering at the summit have made some progress on these topics leading up to the COP 16. All of the world’s leading emitters have agreed to cut their emissions. Historically, the EU and the US are the biggest emitters. This week, the EU reiterated its commitment to 20 percent ghg emissions reductions by 2020 based on 1990 levels, offering a 30 percent reduction if other nations make matching offers.

Its offer is in line with the reduction targets recommended by most scientific bodies. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, argues that ghgs need to be reduced 20 to 40 percent by 2020 based on 1990 levels, in order to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) over 1990 levels and avert irreversible climate change.

The US’s offer falls far below what’s needed: it’s offering a 17 percent reduction by 2020 levels but based on 2005 levels, which amounts to a measly 3 to 4 percent reduction based on 1990 levels.

Developing nations, such as China and India, have proposed cuts based on their economic growth with China offering a 40 to 45 percent reduction and India pledging a 20 to 25 percent reduction both by 2020 and based on 2005 levels.

This week, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) stated that current pledges are not enough to keep temperatures below 4 degrees by the end of the century. 

Developed countries have agreed to provide funding and clean energy technology to developing nations to help them adapt to climate change, such as rising sea levels and increasing desertification, through fast-track and long-term funding. Through last year’s Copenhagen Accord, developed nations agreed to $30 billion in fast track funding for three years between 2010 and 2012, and to $100 billion per year in long-term funding by 2020. These amounts are far less, however, than amounts called for by negotiators from various nation groups, such as the Africa Group, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and LDCs, which are already experiencing the worst impacts of global warming. And to date only 26 percent of the pledged amount has been committed; and only 13 percent has been received.

Yet a bigger cloud looms over the COP 16 that threatens to put a damper on any agreement over ghg reductions, funding pledges and monitoring and reporting of commitments.

In fact, serious tensions threaten to derail the UNFCCC process entirely. At the heart of these skirmishes are two camps: those nations who want to extend the Kyoto Protocol and those nations, including the United States, who want to ram through the Copenhagen Accord.

What are their differences between the two? Drawn up in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol is an international legally binding agreement that is set to expire in 2012. It put forward obligations for ghg emissions, demanding that developed countries, such as the United States and those in the European Union, which have historically been the biggest producers of emissions, lead the way in reductions.

The Copenhagen Accord, by contrast, is a backroom deal brokered between Brazil, China, India, South Africa and the United States that flouts the UNFCCC’s two main principles: transparency and inclusiveness. And the Copenhagen Accord puts the onus on developing countries, such as China and India, to establish emissions reductions. Furthermore, unlike the Kyoto Protocol, it is not a ratified legally binding international agreement.

The majority of the UNFCCC’s 194 member nations support the Kyoto Protocol and their work revolves around two items: getting the United States, which is the only country not to have signed on, to ratify the treaty; and securing an extension of it beyond 2012.

The nations opposed to Kyoto and supportive of the Copenhagen Accord are typically putting the entire UNFCCC negotiating process into question, arguing that it is too unwieldy.

The UN Secretariat Christiana Figueres, who took over the helm from Yvo de Boer in May, recently reiterated the importance of adhering to the key UN principles of transparency and inclusiveness, in order to produce results at Cancún.

Mitigation of climate change also requires an agreement on deforestation, which accounts for 15-25 percent of ghgs. And while the UN put forward a mechanism aimed at Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, it is not welcome by all indigenous populations or forest-dependent communities and their involvement is key to addressing deforestation. The mechanisms through which the funding is provided, which range from public funding to private speculation, will also be hotly contested.

While lead climate negotiators and NGOs discuss these issues inside the Moon Palace Hotel, people will take to the streets to agitate for climate justice. Organizations such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Focus on the Global South, Rising Tide and Via Campesina will be coordinating actions throughout the week. There will be a Klimaforum, an initiative kicked off in Copenhagen, to provide a convergence space in Cancún.

The positions of climate justice activists vis-à-vis the outcome of the climate negotiations vary widely. Some hope an international climate agreement will emerge this year or next. Others hold out no such hope and argue that the COP 16 provides an opportunity not only for activists to gather and make their voices heard but also to build alliances that transcend national boundaries, while working to address climate change locally and regionally. The last large-scale summit that took place in Cancún in 2003, the WTO negotiations, broke down due to dissent expressed by southern nations. The collapse of these talks, the second after Seattle in 1999, was largely read as a game changer for the global financial system and for free trade agreements. We’ll see if such a radical change emerges from this year’s COP 16.

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