The Walrus Blog

Que Pasa, Cancún?

Hope and tension as the UN convention on climate change sputters to a close in Mexico

Hope and tension as the 2010 UN convention on climate change sputters to a close

Ice Figures© Rosa Merk / WWF (via Treehugger)

What on EarthAmong the slew of American diplomatic cables recently released by Wikileaks is a report on a senior US diplomat’s meeting with Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Union, last December. In it, Van Rompuy departed drastically from the EU’s official stance of cautious optimism: he referred to the 2009 UN climate change conference in Copenhagen as “an incredible disaster” which “excluded” and “mistreated” Europe; he expected nothing to be resolved at the 2010 conference in Cancún, or through the multilateral process at all, and instead hoped to make progress at an EU-US meeting in Madrid, which never took place.

With the Cancún conference (November 29–December 10) now drawing to a close, the question still seems to be an active one: will such pessimism be borne out?

In Mexico, the already-embattled Kyoto Protocol — currently the only binding international greenhouse gas-reduction agreement — has gotten into greater trouble. Japan created a stir at the conference by announcing it would not renew its Kyoto pledges once they expire in 2012. But there may be good reason behind Japanese lack of faith in the agreement:

“Unfortunately, the fact that the world’s second largest emitter and largest per-capita emitter, the United States, famously never ratified the Kyoto Protocol — the very idea of the protocol was rejected by the US Senate in 1997 by a vote of 95-0 — and that it does not require emission reductions from developing countries including the biggest emitters like China and India, calls into question whether the protocol by itself could ever assure climate safety.” (Andrew Light, “Has Japan Killed the Kyoto Protocol? Does it really matter?”

The Canadian government has long since abandoned any pretence of meeting its own Kyoto pledges, and has joined Japan and Russia in opposing the continuation of the protocol. Clare Demerse of the Pembina Institute asserts that Kyoto, imperfect though it may be, is still crucial to Cancún; she echoes developing countries’ desire to take a two-stream approach, with developed nations (minus, apparently, the US) continuing under Kyoto, and a less restrictive agreement governing the developing world.

China, the most prominent of the developing countries and now the world’s greatest emitter of carbon, was seen as a major source of the disruption in Copenhagen last year. So its more conciliatory tone this time around has inspired optimism. Earlier this week Chinese representatives at Cancún set off a blast of enthusiasm by apparently hinting that they might be willing to submit to binding agreements, generating headlines as triumphal as the Guardian’s “China on path to redemption in Cancún.” It came out the following day, however, that the representatives were only talking about submitting to their own, domestic resolutions.

“It is ‘premature’ to demand the country make internationally binding commitments, a top Chinese negotiator said…. With only three negotiating days left, the kerfuffle leaves China and the United States roughly where they began when the 16th conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change opened last week: close to a deal, but it appears not close enough.

If there is an agreement to be unlocked in Cancun — and dozens of ministers insisted yesterday that there is — China and America hold the keys. (Lisa Friedman, “US and China Maintain Polite Disagreement as Climate Talks Reach Final Days,” New York Times)

Good’s Ben Jervey is skeptical of this being a mere misunderstanding: “I can’t help but have a cynical take that Chinese officials knew exactly how this news would be received, and didn’t want to be seen as the roadblock to progress two years in a row.” But regardless of the motives behind that move, China has been instating an impressive set of environmental measures, involving everything from investment in mass transit and renewable power to improved energy efficiency standards, and is planning to increase its proportion of renewable power dramatically.

US representatives have stated firmly that they will only sign onto an agreement that includes a system for transparent accounting of emissions reductions, a sensitive issue for the developing countries it would impact on. This “all or nothing” stance would sound a bit better but for the likelihood of the outcome turning out to be “nothing”:

“The hard line — which some in Washington have seen as ritual diplomatic posturing — has fuelled speculation that the Obama administration could be prepared to walk out of the Cancún talks…. There is next to no chance [the newly Republican-dominated] Congress would take up cap-and-trade legislation or ratify any UN treaty.” (Suzanne Goldenberg, “Cancún climate change summit: America plays tough,Guardian)

Disagreement over this same issue was a major sticking point in Copenhagen. But there’s some hope for compromise now, in part thanks to a compromise put forward by India’s environment minister:

“Mr. [Jairam] Ramesh proposed a plan for bridging the gap between the United States and China on verification, by establishing a voluntary program known as international consultation and analysis. Under the plan, also known as ICA, countries would declare their emissions reduction targets and provide regular reports on how they were meeting them and gauging their own progress.” (John M. Broder, “U.S. and China Narrow Differences at Climate Talks in Cancún,” New York Times)

A large part of this plan’s attraction is that it requires transparency — yet it includes no punishments for nations failing to meet their voluntary goals. Which is still better, at least, than scuttling the talks and having no verification system at all.

The bigger picture remains troubling, thanks in part to the lowered expectations brought to Cancún in the first place:

“All the talk is of relatively ‘safe’ technical issues, like fast-start financing or monitoring and reporting, while the big questions are swept under the carpet. A tacit low-ambition consensus between the United States and the BASIC countries — Brazil, South Africa, India, and China — has become the central political reference point.

It’s a depressing picture, and many commentators are drawing the conclusion that, with binding targets and timetables so firmly off the table, it’s time to take a new look at voluntary, bottom-up, technology-led approaches.” (Alex Evans, “The multilateral zombie,”

The Cancún conference ends today, and an announcement has come out that a new text is being drawn up to be presented to all of the participants. This alternative “deal” is, the Guardian reports, intended “to commit developing and developed countries to reducing their climate emissions.” That could mean many different things and provoke many different responses. As Alex Evans points out in the article quoted above, voluntary targets may be the only politically plausible move right now, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be enough: “The atmosphere doesn’t award marks for effort.” The fate of the talks, and of the environment, still seems very much up in the air.

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  • Keith

    Green Economy:

    1 – Treat your friends like your family.

    2 – Make more friends.

    3 – Shop local whenever possible. Puchasing goods and services that are available nearby will keep your family, friends and neighbours employed. It’s better if they’re taxpayers as opposed to tax burdens. And it reduces fossil consumption.

    4 – Stop buying crap. Does the world need another air-freshener? People stink. Get over it.

    5 – Plant a Victory Garden. Whether it’s a herb on the windowsill, a tomato on the balcony or the whole nine-yards out back, grow something. There’s no sense in going hungry while the world tries to sort itself out.

    6 – Feed each other. See step 1.

    Wind Plants are Gas Plants – Robert F Kennedy Jr

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