Climate talks: still far to go

Countries make some progress at the climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico Copyright: Flickr/UN Climate Talks

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The modest achievements of last week's climate talks in Mexico must not create a false sense of complacency.

Ever since the high-profile collapse of last year's climate talks in Copenhagen, expectations for this year's meeting in Cancun, Mexico, had been low.

In Copenhagen, failure was triggered partly by an inability to bridge the gap between the demands of the developing world and the concessions offered by the developed world. The negotiating process itself suffered the biggest damage. Political differences and the resulting acrimonious fallout led some to conclude that climate change is an issue too complex for a multilateral body such as the UN, and to argue that more focussed, even bilateral, negotiations are needed.

At the Cancun meeting, which ended last weekend, the sceptics were proved wrong. By adopting more modest goals than those discussed in Copenhagen, the international community has come up with a set of agreements that, at the very least, have restored faith in the negotiating process.

But even the meeting's UN organisers agreed that this package falls far short of what is needed to forestall the catastrophic consequences predicted to follow an average global temperature rise of more than two degrees Centigrade. That task remains as daunting as ever, and has now been passed to the shoulders of next year's meeting, due to take place in Durban, South Africa.

Small gains

Cancun has made some progress, however modest. Central to this was an agreement on how a Green Fund, already accepted in principle in Copenhagen, might distribute US$100 billion to help developing countries prepare for the impact of global warming — a move particularly welcomed by delegates from island states and least developed countries.

There was agreement on a process intended to prevent further deforestation and tap the value of forests as carbon sinks. Known by the acronym REDD (standing for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), the scheme should entitle developing countries to compensation for preserving existing forests and restoring areas already degraded.

The meeting also made substantial progress on monitoring carbon emissions. Countries endorsed international standards and measuring techniques that will make it much harder for any country that gets support from rich nations to 'fudge' emission statistics. The agreement satisfied both China and the United States.

And the meeting reached a consensus on how to stimulate international co-operation on developing and disseminating low-carbon technologies. This will allow technology transfer to begin, although developing countries failed to secure free access to all low-carbon technologies — one of the concessions some had hoped to achieve.

A mountain still to climb

But much still remains to be done. For example, there was no agreement on how to raise the US$100 billion needed for the Green Fund by the target date of 2020, leaving many highly sceptical that the goal can be achieved. Much of the money is expected to come from the private sector.

Just as much uncertainty hangs over the legal status of the Cancun commitments, which are voluntary — a price paid for reaching consensus. Unless agreements can be turned into legally-binding requirements, there is genuine concern that many countries will only pay them lip-service.

Hanging over all of this is uncertainty about the future of the Kyoto Protocol itself. In this framework agreement, reached in 1997, 37 countries pledged to cut emissions of greenhouse and other related gases by five per cent between 1990 and next year, when the protocol expires.

While much of the developing world wants the protocol to be extended, many developed countries are instead demanding a new agreement in which the developing world itself takes on a comparable commitment.

Framework — but not fruition

In view of these limitations, it would be wrong to call the Mexico meeting a success. The 'Cancun Agreements' provide a substantial framework for future progress, but remain a wish-list of commitments — and inadequate commitments at that.

No-one was more critical than Bolivia, which earlier this year hosted its own 'social summit' on climate change. The Bolivian delegation reminded participants that the agreements were insufficient to avoid threats to the poor in the developing world that could be "disastrous for humanity".

In the end, Bolivia's views were marginalised in the rush to achieve consensus. But that does not invalidate them. Unless the rich nations — and the United States in particular — are prepared to make substantial concessions in Durban next year, the prospects for the developing world are unlikely to improve.

Had the Cancun meeting been allowed to collapse, as some had feared it would, the prospects for reaching consensus on how to move forward would be poorer still. At the end of the day, that prospect was sufficient to keep the negotiating process intact. But the fruits of those negotiations remain as distant as ever.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net