Cancun or can-can for climate change?

Cancun or can-can for climate change?

After week one of the Cancun global climate change talks in Mexico, four of the so-called six-pack of agreements appear within reach – financing, adaptation, forests, and technology – although there are still hurdles to overcome, such as whether a green fund should be managed by the UN or an outside body, reports Giles Parkinson in Climate Spectator. Meanwhile, there’s a strong chance hundreds of carbon inspectors will be appointed to check countries’ claims about their greenhouse gas emissions.

Giles Parkinson for Climate Spectator (3 December 2010):

No matter where you go, you just can’t get away from the j-curve. Seasoned veterans of UN climate change talks say the first week of negotiations always represents the down curve, the challenge is to get it moving back up and beyond in the second week.

Having looked at the progress of climate change negotiations since the Kyoto Protocol was first struck in 1995, it’s hard to see many Js. More like a series of Ws. In Copenhagen they achieved a Y. Or was it a Z?

If they finish with another Z in Cancun, then the indiscreet comments uttered by an advisor to the Environment Minister of South Africa, the hosts of the next COP in Durban, might just be on the button: “The COP is considered to be as much about tourism as anything else,” he told a parliamentary committee last month.

Mexico and the UN have sought to manage expectations by not having many. Officially, and we hear this everywhere, Cancun is about creating a “balanced package” – agreement on as many of the six key issues of these talks as they can possibly muster.

Basically it’s about keeping the process alive enough to retain hope that an outcome might one day be concluded. An EU official put it more prosaically today: “It is about making a decision to start a process.” And this is as far as we have got in 15 years.

The optimistic view is that after the frustration of Copenhagen, Cancun represents a unique opportunity to push the process forward. But it is the realisation that it may be the last opportunity – a prospect rammed home by an indelicate Japan earlier this week – that is providing impetus to these talks.

Still, after a relatively uneventful first week – Mexico has been careful to avoid the we-know-best negotiating style of the Danes – it is unclear what sort of agreement will emerge. The environmental NGOs, who watch these negotiations like hawks, as do the various business lobby groups, are optimistic.

“Most Government’s have come to Cancun with a spirit of cooperation and have largely avoided fog horn diplomacy,” says Erwin Jackson, the deputy CEO of The Climate Institute.

“Solid progress has been made on issues that lack political sting. As we move into the weekend it will be up to Minister Combet and other political leaders to build on the progress made and deliver a solid package of decisions that build further momentum to limit pollution and accelerating climate change.”

Four of the so-called six-pack of agreements appear within reach – financing, adaptation, forests, and technology – although there are still hurdles to overcome, such as whether a green fund should be managed by the UN or an outside body. The two most difficult – mitigation (effectively locking in the pledges made since Copenhagen) and transparency – remain a challenge. The head of one of the key working groups told NGOs today that there remained “a big gap” on mitigation.

And therein lies the problem; the developed economies won’t agree to adaptation, forests and technology, unless one or both of the latter two are agreed to by developing economies. China won’t agree to anything unless it gets technology. The US appears to believe that it is all or nothing.

Did somebody say warming?

These talks are, it should be remembered, supposed to be responding to the science, which says that the best chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change is to limit average temperature rises to 2°C. Island states and other vulnerable nations want it capped at 1.5°C.

The World Meteorological Organisation today said 2010 is, so far, the hottest year on record, and may remain so by year end – despite the arrival of a strong La Nina (cooling) effect in mid-November.

WMO secretary general Michele Jarraud said it was certain that 2010 would be among the three hottest since instrumental climate records began in 1850, along with 1998 and 2005, although he said the differences between these three were negligible – a variation of plus 0.55°C for 2010 to date, plus 0.53°C for 1998 and plus 0.52°C for 2005.

Jarraud said the only sub region which is recording a negative anomaly this year is northern Australia, and he said Europe is still warmer than the long-term average despite the cold weather of the past two winters. Indeed, while the there had been significant warming over the Arctic (it experienced its third lowest sea ice levels), Greenland and Canada, as well as the northern part of Europe.

He noted the number of extreme weather events across the globe, such as the heat in Moscow (the mean temperature in July was 7.6°C above normal), flooding in Pakistan (caused by the same weather system), record rains in parts of Australia, flooding in African countries such as Benin and Niger (“where you would not expect flooding”), and droughts in parts of the Amazon.

“The long-term trend is of very significant warming. I guess that’s why we are in Cancun to address that.”

Acid test

The UN Environment Program meanwhile said the future impact of rising emissions on the health of seas and oceans may be far more wide-ranging and complex than was previously supposed. UNEP said ocean acidification, the process triggered by increasing concentrations of dissolved C02 which is changing the sea’s chemistry by lowering the pH of the marine environment, may make it increasingly difficult for corals and shellfish to survive, let lone thrive, and reduce the habitats for other animals such as crabs.

This would have a knock-on effect on commercial catches of crabs, mussels and other shellfish; species dependent on coral reefs and those such as salmon that feed on smaller, shell-building organisms lower down the food chain, and then have an impact on the food chain upon which billions of people depend directly or indirectly.

“Ocean acidification is yet another red flag being raised, carrying planetary health warnings about the uncontrolled growth in greenhouse gas emissions,” said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General.  “It is a new and emerging piece in the scientific jigsaw puzzle, but one that is triggering rising concern”.

Cutting to the chase

Which brings us back to the difference between what’s on the table in Cancun, and what’s required to address the science. The UN today reinforced the findings of its study which showed the world needed to cut around 12 gigatonnes of emissions from the business as usual scenario.

About 3 gigatonnes are accounted for under the Copenhagen Accord, but another 4 gigatonnes could be cut if countries presented more ambitious targets, and adopted rules the avoided a net increase in emissions from either lenient accounting of land use, land use change and forestry activities (where Australia is in the firing line), and surplus emission units. Even this would leave the gap short by 5 gigatonnes.

This was the focus of the press conference today from the EU, which says it is on target to exceed its Kyoto commitments, but was concerned about who would take the lead to drive more ambitious targets.

“It is the responsibility of developed countries to take the lead,” EU negotiator Peter Whittoeck said.  “A bigger effort is lying ahead of us. They can only be met by completing a transition to a low carbon economy. At Cancun we need to provide a formal basis for the accord … so that we can ratchet them up to bring 2°C within reach.”

Fossil of the Day

The Fossil of the Day awards have been a fun part of UN climate talks over the past few years, and a neat way for the environmental watchdog groups to call out some less than green behaviour from the 194 participating countries.

Australia’s flag was pinned to the award on Wednesday, sharing second place with 12 other countries, including Norway and New Zealand, for trying to preserve the mass of “hot air” generated by surplus credits that were created by a huge mistake in the estimate of business-as-usual scenarios for emissions in Ukraine and Russia.

The group of 13 want these credits to be carried over the second commitment period of the Kyoto protocol. The EU says such actions will pretty much undermine most of the 20 per cent emission reductions it says it is one track to achieve by 2012.

The Climate Action Network, which hosts the awards, said this issue had been addressed in Australia’s own draft emissions trading scheme, ”so it is surprising that they are not working constructively to find a way to ensure that those who have deepened their emissions reductions can be rewarded for doing so in a way that does not compromise the environmental integrity of future commitments.”

First prize went to Saudi Arabia, Norway, Kuwait, Algeria, UAE, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and the newly appointed COP18 and World Cup 2022 host Qatar, for continuing to block progress in negotiations by insisting on the “inappropriate” inclusion of carbon capture and storage in the Clean Development Mechanism, which is designed to foster emissions reduction projects in developing countries. The environmental NGO would much rather these investments go towards renewables, energy efficiency and the like.

Japan was the only winner from Day 2, for it’s threat to kill the Kyoto Protocol, which has alarmed many developing countries, even if most people think it is just bluster, and old bluster at that. Canada won 1st, 2nd, and 3rd places on the first day just for being Canada; and for recently killing a progressive climate change bill, cancelling support for clean energy and failing to have any plan to meet its emissions target.

Tips for weary conference-goers

The hosts have been charming, but the logistical challenges of Cancun – mostly transport and communication – are expected to be tested further in coming days with a new influx of people, ranging from ministers and about 30 heads of state and their entourages, media, late-running NGOs and a lobby of business types, descending for a series of business conferences.

Mobile phone coverage is patchy at best, and smart phones worse than useless. The local mobile network, TelCel, owned by the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim Helu, is doing brisk trade in cheap local phones. Wireless coverage is as highly valued as truffles, and the band-width is struggling to cope, with several blackouts over the last few days, some lasting a few hours. A tip for late arrivals: Bring a folding chair and a satellite phone, and one of each for me too, if you don’t mind.

Giles Parkinson is filing daily from COP16 in Cancun for the duration of the conference. To read the previous or next dispatch, go to the website.


From & The Australian (3 December 2010):

Hundreds of carbon inspectors would be appointed to check countries’ claims about their greenhouse gas emissions.

This would be under a plan to prevent cheating and build confidence in national reduction targets.

The proposal is to be debated at the UN climate change conference at Cancun, Mexico, where suspicions about false claims on emissions and different reporting standards are undermining efforts to reach a global deal.

The inspectors would visit each country and hold hearings at which they would question officials about claims made in national reports on emissions.

But they are unlikely to have powers to carry out inspections of power stations and other large sources of emissions to verify claims about the type and quantity of fuel used.

The inspectors, including scientists and accountants, would be nominated by the countries involved in the negotiations and seconded to work for a subsidiary body of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Jonathan Pershing, the US deputy special envoy for climate change, said a robust monitoring system was essential to build trust in any international agreement on cutting emissions.

It was important to understand what countries were doing, he said. “How can you create confidence in the process? The best way to do that is to have procedures in which that becomes transparent.”

The slow-moving negotiations in Cancun suffered a setback when Japan said it wanted to abandon the Kyoto Protocol after 2012. The protocol commits leading developed countries, with the exception of the US, to emission reduction targets. Kyoto is due to be reviewed in 2012, when countries are supposed to adopt more ambitious targets.

Friends of the Earth said Japan had thrown down an obstacle at Cancun, where the future of the protocol was part of a complex, interlinked haggle.

In an argument it has repeated for nearly a year, Japan said Kyoto’s targeted carbon constraints were unfair and ineffective in present arrangements for tackling global warming.

They applied only to rich countries, but not the US, which abandoned the treaty in 2001, nor to China, the world’s No 1 polluter, a developing country. As a result, only 30 per cent of planet-wide emissions of greenhouse gases were covered.

“With this position, Japan isolates itself from the rest of the world,” said Yuri Onodera of Friends of the Earth Japan.


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