Cancun: Can We Avert Climate Chaos?

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Institute for Policy Studies

Cancun: Can We Avert Climate Chaos?

Arm twisting and back-room pressure tactics will backfire.

by
Janet Redman

Rumors running through the halls of the Moon Palace, the Cancun resort where delegates from the 192 countries that belong to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are meeting, paint a bleak picture of the possibility of moving toward a fair and effective climate deal in the near future.

Civil society groups expressed caution in Cancun that Mexico, thiis climate convention's host, must avoid invite-only conversations with a small group of countries aimed at agreeing on the most sensitive topic on the table: the question of who will be responsible for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and by how much.

Many developing countries worry that a small group could be pressured by powerful players to accept a deal that undercuts ecological stability, human security, and equity. They’re concerned that if a bad deal is put on the table in the final week of negotiations, governments that voice dissent will be portrayed as villains.

They have good reason to be apprehensive.

Last year Ecuador and Bolivia were blamed for the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks when they blocked the Copenhagen Accord, noting that its adoption would lead to a rise in global temperatures that scientists warn would push the planet past a perilous point of runaway climate change.

Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the Copenhagen Accord would have introduced a “pledge and review” process that lets developed countries volunteer their emissions targets and leaves the rest of the world to hope that pledges add up to what the science requires.

Bad Process, Bad Outcome

At stake in Cancun is the fate of the world’s only multilateral process to combat climate change. The Kyoto Protocol, which every major emitting wealthy country except the United States ratified, put in place a cap on global warming gases and created a system for ratcheting down emissions every year.

But in 2012, the first tranche of commitments to cut emissions under Kyoto comes to a close. Countries must agree to a second commitment period — or the Kyoto Protocol becomes irrelevant

The treaty faces serious threats. In the first week of negotiations, Japan announced it wouldn't sign up to renew commitments under the pact. Canada said it wouldn’t block a new commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, as long as it didn’t have to put any emissions targets on the table. And the United States is again pushing the pledging process and eschewing an aggregate global goal.

Unfortunately, a new report from the UN Environment Program reveals a sobering gap between Copenhagen Accord pledges and the cuts needed to avoid climate chaos. UNEP researchers found that developed countries will only cut their emissions by 16 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, in the best-case scenario, and, in the worst case scenario, emissions will actually increase by 6 percent from 1990 levels. The result, according to the study, would be a world as much as 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than today before the end of this century, with catastrophic consequences.

If the Kyoto Protocol is gutted, and developed countries succeed in establishing a pledging system in Mexico modeled after the Copenhagen Accord, impoverished nations will, ironically, have more stringent reporting requirements on their emissions cuts than nations in the industrialized world as a precondition for receiving climate finance.

It’s difficult to imagine how it would be in the interest of developing countries to agree to such a scenario.

Forward Motion

Despite the signs of another anti-democratic process unfolding in Cancun, there is still time to rescue the climate talks.

First and foremost, the climate talks must remain open. When the time comes for small group negotiations to hammer out the difficult compromises, those negotiations must be democratic, transparent, and inclusive, and should follow established UN procedures. The UN, where every country has an equal voice, is still the best place to address the climate crisis.

Second, wealthy nations must commit to deep domestic emissions reductions now in a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol.

Finally, climate finance must start flowing to communities in developing countries now so they can get started on building climate resiliency and lowering their emissions even as rich countries continue to stall.

The only way for the world to agree on an equitable climate deal is for every party to give a little and take a little. Arm twisting and back-room pressure tactics will backfire. If we can't do it right now in Cancun, then we'll end up doing it years from now,  when the climate may have changed so much that it may be too late.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Janet Redman is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies, where she provides analysis of the international financial institutions' energy investment and carbon finance activities.

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