1 january 2011

UN process saved, but climate conference fails to save the planet

by Vanya Walker-Leigh in Cancun, Mexico, Malta Business Weekly, January 1, 2011

“They may have saved the UN process, but they have not saved the
planet” was the assessment here of the Cancun Agreements by Alden
Meyer, director of Strategy and Policy of the US-based Union of
Concerned Scientists.

“World leaders must significantly raise their game if we are to meet
the challenge of climate change. Time is running out, and the
atmosphere doesn’t negotiate with politicians.”

UN secretary-general, Ban Ki Moon, warned the conference in his keynote
speech, “I am deeply concerned that our efforts so far have been
insufficient, despite the evidence and many years of negotiations we
are still not rising to the challenge. We are here to protect people
and the planet from uncontrolled climate change. The longer we delay,
the more we will have to pay, economically, environmentally and in
human lives.”

Negotiations are trailing badly behind the schedule adopted by the 13th
UN Climate Change Conference in Bali in December 2007 which called for
an agreement by the end of 2009 but last year’s acrimonious Copenhagen
conference attended by 120 heads of state failed to deliver.

The Bali Road Map provided for a two track outcome. First, a second
commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol with binding emission cuts as
from 2012 pledged by 38 industrialised nations which had already
committed to an overall cut of 5.2 per cent for the period 2008 to
2012. Second, a broad range of agreements (legal nature left open) to
fully implement the Convention covering a shared vision for long-term
goals, Greenhouse Gas emission reductions by nations not covered by the
Kyoto Protocol’s provisions for industrial countries, adaptation,
technology and finance.

The United States, now the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases
after China never ratified Kyoto, so is being asked to make commitments
under the Convention track. President Obama has confirmed his
Copenhagen promise to cut US emissions by three per cent below 1990
levels by 2020, although the House of Representatives energy and
climate change bill was not endorsed by the Senate. Recent
Congressional elections mean new text must be tabled, considered
unlikely because of significant Republican party gains.

The US administration asserts however that it can effect emission cuts
under the existing anti-pollution regulations, while the majority of US
States have adopted some kind of climate change actions. Other nations,
the UN, environmentalists and scientist view the US offer as far too
low and blocking a higher overall level of effort from major emitters.

Russia and Japan both announced here their refusal to put their offers
under Kyoto; Canada and Australia may follow suit. The EU sticks to its
20 per cent reduction commitment under the 2008 Energy and Climate
change package, although UK, Spain and Germany, as well as Climate
Action Commissioner, Connie Hedeergard, and the European parliament are
urging a move to 30 per cent.

Major industrialising developing countries have offered to reduce
emission rates below business as usual trends, contingent on financial
and technological help from developed nations, but so far reject US
insistence that their actions must have legally binding force. In turn,
the US top negotiator Todd Stern emphasised in a 14 December State
Department briefing that “‘some kind of legal treaty (is) not happening
anytime soon for the reason that we’re not prepared to enter into
legally binding commitments to reduce our emissions unless China,
India, and so forth, are also prepared to do that. And at the moment,
they’re not”.

Overall, offers listed in the related Cancun decision mean a 11 to 16
per cent cut below 1990 levels by 2020, scientists urging a minimum of
25 to 40 per cent to have a 50/50 chance of attaining the + two degrees
Celsius goal. While the Cancun wording recognises more has to be done
to close the emissions reductions gap, there are neither dates nor

However, the + two degrees Celsius temperature goal is now seen by
scientists as too high to avoid catastrophic climate change, a view
supported by environmental NGOs, farmers and 112 developing countries ­
including dozens of small island developing States fearing their
territories will disappear under the related sea level rise. These
nations have struggled desperately for a new target of 1.5 degrees
Celsius, not accepted in Cancun, although there is a commitment to
review the goal starting in 2013.

The 130 developing nations have made clear that unless there is a
second Kyoto commitment period, they will not agree to anything under
the Convention track.

The hard fought agreement to set up the Green Climate Fund leaves open
the much harder process of agreeing on how much money to put in and by
when. The $30bn committed by developed nations for fast-start finance
is criticised by developing nations and NGOs as being largely recycled
development aid, rather than new money.

Transfer of technology to developing nations, essential to enabling
them cut emissions and adapt to unavoidable climate change impacts
hangs on resolution of very difficult issues of intellectual property
rights, put off to next year.

With the private sector seen as providing much or most of the funds,
let alone the technology needed for mitigation and adaptation, how to
involve business and financial institutions in negotiations remains
unresolved. A proposal tabled here for a formal dialogue platform with
business failed to achieve consensus support from governments.

Speakers at the high-level Global Business Day and the World Climate
Summit here implied that business was losing patience at the lack of
political decisions under which to act and was discussing how to work
out its own solutions.

A Global Investor Statement on Climate Change issued here, supported by
259 financial institutions managing $15 trillion, urged that funds for
the low-carbon revolution and adaption (seen as needing $500bn a year
from 2020 rather than the $100bn agreed by governments) would not
emerge without a strong enabling framework.

Finally, presentations at a Communications Summit warned that the
battle for public opinion was being lost, and without public support
adequate government action could not happen.

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