Cancun Climate Change: One Small Step

19 December 2010 (Last Updated December 19th, 2010 18:30)

Last year's UN climate change summit in Copenhagen was scuttled by conflicting interests. Chris Lo finds about the progress and possibilities of this year's summit in Cancun.

Cancun Climate Change: One Small Step

"The spirit of co-operation". It's a phrase that has often been used when judging the success or failures of international talks. It's also a spirit that is essential if the world is to adopt a unified approach to tackling rising temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions.

This spirit was notably absent from last year's 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, Denmark. Despite high hopes and attendance from many major world leaders, the Copenhagen summit was beset by diplomatic back-biting and confusion.

Although the Copenhagen Accord laid out a framework for global emissions reduction, many countries were displeased with both the details of the agreement and the manner in which it was reached. The Accord was also not legally binding, with countries agreeing only to "take note" of it. For both the developed and the developing world, Copenhagen served only to create a weak agreement and put off all the tough decisions until next year.

Because of this, expectations leading into COP16 in 2010, which took place in Cancun and concluded on 10 December, were relatively modest. Few countries sent their premiers and concerns were beginning to be raised as to whether the UN was still the best place to tackle global issues.

"After a busy two weeks scepticism has given way to cautious optimism."

The negotiations crisis was acknowledged by UNFCCC executive secretary Cristiana Figueres in her address to delegates at the summit's opening ceremony. "The stakes at this particular conference are very high," she said.

"The political stakes are high because the effectiveness and credibility of your multilateral intergovernmental process are in danger. And the environmental stakes are high because we are quickly running out of time to safeguard our future."

After a busy two weeks and numerous nerve-racking setbacks, however, this scepticism has given way to cautious optimism. But what did the summit accomplish, and what challenges remain in the fight to save the world's climate in the lead-up to COP17 in Durban, South Africa?

Moving on from Copenhagen

The solid commitments achieved at the Cancun summit were fairly modest. There was a general agreement announced that echoed the Copenhagen Accord, urging developed countries to cut emissions and asking developing countries to start limiting their emissions growth and planning to reduce it in the future.

A consensus was reached on limiting global climate change to 1.5°C if at all possible, rather than the 2°C stated at Copenhagen. The green climate fund, which aims to mitigate climate change by providing $100bn a year to the developing world by 2020, was also re-emphasised as a major priority.

But a legally-binding emissions reduction plan remains elusive for now. David Symons, a director at energy consultants WSP Environment & Energy, says that while the summit was low on solid commitments, it remains promising because of the resurgence of that spirit of co-operation that was so lacking from Copenhagen. "We don't have new specific targets for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, so in some respects, you could say it's still relatively business as usual," he says. "But we've made a lot of progress, and I believe there is a lot more spirit of co-operation. It seems that there's more goodwill in the tank now."

Symons' optimistic sentiments are echoed by Will Tucker, Oxfam UK's climate change campaign leader. "The talks and negotiations have come off the life support machine, and there is the opportunity for world leaders now to get them back on track and for negotiations to progress towards the FAB [fair, adequate and binding] deal for which we've been campaigning for a few years now."

Partly as a result of the collaborative spirit coming out of the Cancun summit, both Tucker and Symons believe that the EU is now more likely to take the bold move of upping its carbon reduction commitment to 30% from 1990 levels, in the hopes that other countries will follow suit. "I believe it's now considered much more likely that Europe will move to that 30%," says Symons. "If they move, hopefully that will also encourage others and so we're then on a collaborative journey."

The Kyoto predicament

One of the major sticking points in the ongoing climate change negotiations is the potential extension of the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 environmental treaty committing developed nations to cutting emissions. The commitment period of the treaty ends on 31 December 2012, and there is currently no successor.

At the Cancun conference several developed countries, most notably Japan, took a hard-line stance against extending the treaty. In an open session of the summit, Jun Arima, an official of the Japanese Government's economics trade and industry department, made an unequivocal statement on the matter: "Japan will not inscribe its target under the Kyoto Protocol on any conditions or under any circumstances."

An unnamed British delegate told the Guardian newspaper at the time: "For Japan to come out with a statement like that at the beginning of the talks is significant. The forthrightness of the statement took people by surprise."

For Symons, Japan's position is a negotiating stance indicating its push for a more comprehensive agreement. "Remember that under Kyoto," he says, "the only onus is on those Annex I countries to do anything about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That doesn't include the US, so if you stick with Kyoto, you end up with an agreement that is only committing the developed countries, which is less than a third of carbon emissions in the world, to do anything about emissions.

"If you get Japan saying they're not going to sign up to another round of Kyoto, that's them being honest and it's them encouraging developing countries to say, 'Look, we've got the Copenhagen Accord that we agreed last year, let's build on that rather than falling back to Kyoto which allows the majority of carbon emissions to be just left as they are.'"

Green funding

A green climate fund, originally put forward at the Copenhagen summit, was confirmed for administration by the UN during the Cancun conference to help the developing world both cut down their emissions and adapt to the environmental damage that climate change is already wreaking on eco-systems, especially in tropical regions.

In the short-term, $30bn is being raised to provide immediate support to struggling countries, but UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon stated at the conference that the speed of delivery of these funds should also be coupled with impeccable accountability. "We need to make progress on the actual delivery of funds, along with a transparent and robust accountability system," he told reporters in Cancun.

"One of the sticking points in the climate change negotiations is the extension of Kyoto."

Tucker notes that the real details of the fund are to be decided upon throughout 2011 before receiving final agreement at the next UN climate change conference in South Africa, and the committee responsible for this planning will play a vital role. "I think it's really important that we don't see South Africa as the moment where everything will be decided. One of the things that we're pleased with is the fact that there are now many processes; whether it's the fund or on innovative finances or on upping emissions reduction targets, there's a process through the year building momentum towards Durban."

Among the decisions for the fund to be hammered out over the next 12 months is where the funds will come from. Oxfam favours instituting a Robin Hood-style bank tax, as well as emissions levies on the aviation and international shipping industries. Tucker is also wary of too much of the funding coming from private investment rather than the public sector.

"Greg Barker, the Conservative climate change minister [in the UK] has been saying quite openly that he favours private finance," he says. "We recognise that there is a role for private investment, particularly on the mitigation side of tackling climate change. But it's really important, particularly with the adaptation side of climate finance, that the money is publicly sourced, because we know that private financing just doesn't get to poor people in the same way that public funds do. This is a justice issue for us. People have a right to sustainable livelihoods, and the way that private finance works won't provide them with that right."

Making green technology global

Coupled with providing funds for the developing world, the Cancun participants also set out plans for a "Technology Mechanism" that will facilitate the transfer of green technology to developing countries. This massive incentivisation for green technology transfer includes the establishment of a new technology committee, a climate technology centre, as well as a network to bring green power technology companies together with developing markets.

Symons believes that this development represents a significant opportunity for innovative companies to bring their products to new markets, as well as further their foothold on mature markets looking to switch to renewable technologies. "If you've got the likes of Europe saying it's more likely to move to a 30% target for carbon reduction from 1990 levels, then that represents a substantial opportunity for power tech, just given the contribution that fossil fuel combustion makes to greenhouse gas emissions."

As well as technologies for emissions reduction, Symons highlights the importance of climate change adaptation. "Companies have assets; understanding how climate change is going to impact on those assets will also be important," he says. "That's not just around flooding, that's also around water availability. As a business, we're working quite a lot with power companies on how water availability will change in the future, and how that will impact on their business continuity, on their ability to run their power stations or plants in the future."

"Even with the dust of the Cancun summit only beginning to settle, observers are already casting their eyes to COP17 in Durban."

Durban on the horizon

Even with the dust of the Cancun summit only beginning to settle, observers are already casting their eyes to COP17 in Durban. Cancun set out a raft of climate change plans, the details of which must be mulled over through 2011, leading up to South Africa in December. This will put significant pressure on talks throughout the year, as they will be essential to setting the groundwork for making final, hopefully binding, agreements on global co-operation against climate change.

One thing that the Cancun summit has achieved is the validation of the UN as the premier platform for approaching global problems with a global effort.

"These problems don't separate themselves out across the boundaries of Europe or American or East Asia," says Tucker. "They are global in scale and the UN is the forum for sorting out these issues. That doesn't mean, though, that different blocs of countries can't progress their positions in their own situations. It would be really positive for Europe to make that bold step and up its emissions reduction target in the first quarter or half of next year. That's quite a legitimate thing to happen outside of the UN process, and it has a nice feedback loop into the UN process as well."

With luck, the hesitant but positive steps taken at Cancun will herald a new period of international optimism and partnership on the issue of climate change. As Symons says, combating climate change does not have to be seen as a yoke around the neck of international growth. "For me, that's the wrong way of looking at it," he says. "If you look at it not as a business challenge to overcome, but as a leadership and innovation race, and to see the opportunities from developing low-carbon or climate-adapted technologies, you start doing things, you start investing in things. And that's a terrific opportunity for countries and a terrific opportunity for business. It's not a barrier to growth."