Environment

The Skinny on Cancun: What's Happening at the International Climate Meeting and What's at Stake?

Why the media's refrain of "low expectations" may be just a ploy by a small group of industrialized countries (including the U.S.) to obscure their obligations to act.

Cancún, Mexico -- Last week, the COP 16 got under way with a welcoming ceremony hosted by Mexican President Felipe Calderón.

This year' s climate summit -- the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change or UNFCCC -- could not be more different from last year' s negotiations in Copenhagen. Unlike Copenhagen, with artic sub-zero temperatures suffered in few hours of scant of daylight, Cancún welcomed attendees to the summit with plentiful sunshine, clear blues skies and balmy temperatures in the 70s. Yet it's not only the weather that contrasts.

While last year attendees -- heads of state, negotiators, journalists, non-governmental organizations and activists -- arrived in droves previously never witnessed for a climate summit, with 35,000 negotiators, journalists and observers attending the conference, and up to 100,000 attending the walk or demonstration, this year, far fewer are attending the conference this year with Mexican authorities estimating up to 22,000 people.

Although that might bode well for the collective carbon footprint, it does not bode well for securing an international legally binding treaty.

Countries have gathered together to achieve agreement on three goals: 1. Establish greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions reductions for developed countries; 2. Secure funding and technology transfers from developed countries to developing countries, to help them address and adapt to climate change; and 3. Decide on a method to monitor, report and verify (MRV) the agreed upon targets of an international climate treaty.

As reported broadly, expectations for an international legally binding climate treaty coming out of Cancún this year are low. Everyone from UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon; to the UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres, to the EU commissioner for climate action Connie Hedegaard have gone on record saying that they do not expect a binding treaty to come out of the negotiations.

Yet Bolivian ambassador to the UN, Pablo Solon, said " The reality is that the talk of 'low expectations' is a ploy by a small group of industrialized countries to obscure their obligations to act."

U.S.-China Standoff

While often framed as a U.S.-China standoff, at war are two main factions: those in favor of the Kyoto Protocol and those in favor of the Copenhagen Accord. These two documents could not differ more.

The UNFCCC' s two main principles are transparency and inclusiveness. The Kyoto Protocol, drawn up in 1997, entered into force into 2005. In form, it is an international legally binding agreement, negotiated and ratified by all countries, thereby reflecting the UNFCCC's guiding principles of transparency and inclusiveness.

The Copenhagen Accord, by contrast, is a backroom deal brokered between the BASIC countries -- Brazil, South Africa, India and China -- and the U.S. Thus, it flaunts the UNFCCC' s principles. And for this reason, it is not an international legally binding agreement or protocol but just an "accord" that nations merely “took note of" but did not ratify or pass.

Just last week, in an interview with the BBC, the UN Secretariat Christiana Figueres, who took over the helm from Yvo de Boer in May, reiterated the importance of adhering to the key UN principles of transparency and inclusiveness, in order to produce results at Cancún.

In content, the Kyoto Protocol put forward commitments for reducing greenhouse gas (or ghg) emissions, which is necessary to prevent temperature increases that will have irreparable consequences. It demanded that developed countries, such as the U.S. and the EU, which have historically been the biggest producers of emissions, as a result of more than 150 years of industrial activity, lead the way in reductions.

The Copenhagen Accord, however, puts the onus on developing countries, such as China and India, to establish emissions reductions.

The majority of the UNFCCC' s 194 members support the Kyoto Protocol and their work revolves around two items: getting the U.S., which is the only country not to have signed on, to ratify the treaty; and securing an extension of it beyond 2012. This work is carried out by one of the UNFCCC' s two working groups, the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol.

Red Alert!

While the U.S. is dragging its heels on making a commitment to Kyoto, the very consequences of climate change are already being suffered by nations around the world. This past year has witnessed some of the worst natural disasters, including the floods in Pakistan and the heat waves in Russia.

At the opening ceremony, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCCC), warned of the penalties if the world dragged its feet.

The IPCC estimates that yields from rain-fed agriculture could be cut by up to half between 2000 and 2020, while arid and semi-arid areas could grow by 60 million to 90 million hectares.

Over the past week, numerous scientific reports have been released by various organizations corroborating Pachauri's statements and the IPCC's estimates.

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), an intergovernmental organization, 2010 has emerged as the warmest year on record. Increased temperatures have direct consequences and set into motion feedback loops,

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released a statement that current pledges offered are not enough to keep prevent temperatures below 4 degrees by the end of the century.

Relatedly, the Royal Society's journal Philosophical Transactions published papers warning of the dangers of a world warmed by 4 degree Celsius temperature increase.

One of the papers predicts a rise in sea levels between .5 and 2 meters (1.64 and 6.56 feet) by 2100 if temperatures rose 4 degrees Celsius. (Rising temperatures lead to rising sea levels.) The rising sea levels affect people living on low lying islands in Asia, Africa and river deltas the most.

At a press conference, Dessima Williams, representative of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), underscored that rising sea levels are already impacting many AOSIS countries. The difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees Celsius temperature increase would determine whether or not at least five islands would survive.

"They are," AOSIS diplomats said, "facing the end of history. And if that happens, we are all accomplices."

Other consequences of temperature are increased desertification, widespread crop failures, flooding and mass migration of climate refugees.

Oxfam released a report, stating that at least 21,000 people died due to weather-related disasters in the first nine months of this year -- more than twice the number for the whole of 2009.

Tim Gore, Oxfam's EU climate change policy adviser and the report's author, stated "This year has seen massive suffering and loss due to extreme weather disasters. This is likely to get worse as climate change tightens its grip. The human impacts of climate change in 2010 send a powerful reminder why progress in Cancún is more urgent than ever."

Throughout the week, news of the effects of climate change continued to rack up, and not only through scientific reports. The government of Colombia has declared a state of national emergency this week due to torrential rains that have led to more than 160 deaths and 1.4 million people affected.

The 2010 hurricane season is blamed for the worst rainy season in Central America in the last 50 years, with flooding and mudslides leading to 300 deaths, mainly in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Hurricanes also left thousands of people homeless and caused $ 1 billion in damages.

Venezuela is currently suffering from floods, which have left 34 dead and 70,000 displaced. The Philippines, in a plenary this weekend, expressed its solidarity with all peoples around the world already suffering from climate change. This month alone, the Philippines has experienced 10 tropical storms.

Wiki Leaks' Revelations about the Copenhagen Accord

As the COP 16 commenced, news of the Wiki Leaks dominated the media. Lisa Friedman in an article up at Climate Wire and reprinted at the New York Times, argues that the Wiki Leaks reveals that climate change "appears as a front-burner Obama administration issue."

In particular, the United States was concerned about climate change going into and coming out of Copenhagen. Friedman's research delineates how the United States sought to pressure Saudi Arabia to sign on to the Copenhagen Accord by January 31, the deadline for countries to state their emissions reductions pledges voluntarily.

As Friedman lays out, "the United States put climate change at the center of its foreign policy the relationship with the oil-producing in the months after last year's blowout UN climate summit in Denmark." The leaks document that Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman "noted that the United States is counting on Saudi Arabia to associate itself with the accord by January 31."

This revelation brings to mind how the United States suspended funding from Ecuador and Bolivia earlier this year to punish them for the opposition to the Copenhagen Accord as reported by the Washington Post by Juliet Eilperin on April 9, 2010. Boliiva and Ecuador did not only not sign on to the Copenhagen Accord, they stated explicitly their opposition to it. The price tag for their opposition was steep. According to Eilperin, "Both nations were in line for funding under the Obama administration's Global Climate Change initiative. The State Department's congressional budget justification for fiscal year 2010 included a request for $3 million for Bolivia and $2.5 million."

Blocks and Blocs

As the negotiations close at the end of the week, fissures are emerging along various lines.

Japan made waves this week by reiterating its position that it was opposed to the Kyoto Protocol. When asked about the announcement, Christiana Figueres, however, argued that Japan' s position "has long been known. This is not new news."

In addition to Japan, Canada and Russia, too, have stated that the will not renew Kyoto.

Brazil's top climate negotiator, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, said that the future of the Kyoto Protocol had turned into the "key issue" at the two-week meeting.

China initially took a position supportive of Kyoto as lead negotiator Su Wei said, "If any balanced outcome can be produced in international climate change, there must be a continuation of KP," in reference to the Kyoto Protocol. “There must be a second period. Without this element there will be no balance."

Compromise

India, meanwhile, seeks to bridge the divide between developed and developing nations. "India is positioning itself as a bridge player" between rich and poor nations, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said.

China' s lead climate negotiator revised its position on Saturday, stating that China is prepared to drop a demand that developed countries commit to specific levels of greenhouse gases as mandated by the Kyoto Protocol.

It remains to be seen whether the United States, the sole nation not to have signed on to Kyoto, will sign on or at least make stronger commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A simple gesture of good faith on its part would go a long way to dispel the fears of the G77, LDCs and AOSIS, which are already suffering the dire consequences of climate change.

If the U.S. does so, and if China, India and other developing nations agree to sign on with emissions reductions, negotiations in Cancún could move forward.

It remains to be seen whether or not such headway will be made in the days to come. Negotiations resume on Tuesday.

Tina Gerhardt is a freelance journalist and academic who has contributed to In These Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, TheNation.com and Salon.