A 12-day conference on climate change begins today in Cancun, Mexico. It's the 16th such conference since 1995. The consensus view? Don't expect any big breakthroughs in curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps this is some kind of magical thinking. You know, if we don't raise our public expectations too high, maybe something remarkable will emerge by the time the delegates head for home.
After the rotten outcome at the Copenhagen conference a year ago in which an anticipated comprehensive agreement on curbing greenhouse gas emissions was not reached, caution is certainly called for. Even if something major were to be achieved, whatever the Obama administration signs off on in Cancun is almost certain to be shot down in Washington given that Republican ranks in Congress are now overflowing with climate-change deniers. Sen. Jim Inhofe, who has called climate change a hoax, was once viewed even by most of his own party as pretty much of a kook in this matter. A fair chunk of the elected GOP now apparently see him as a prophet.
So, 15 years after the process began, with predictions of dire consequences from climate change more dire than ever, small steps – so-called "building blocks" - are the best that can be hoped for. This myopia is so despite the prediction of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research that there will be a billion people who lose their homes because of climate change and 3 billion who lose access to clean drinking water supplies. It's so despite continued warming in the Arctic, including Greenland, and in part of the Antarctic. And it's so even though analyses of short- and long-term climate trends by the Met Office in the U.K. (the country's national weather service) reveal "that the evidence for man-made warming has grown even stronger in the last year."
Among the goals of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – Conference of the Parties (COP16):
• Solidifying support for the Green Fund, $100 billion a year in aid by 2020 to poorer countries affected by climate change. So far, only $3 billion has been formally pledged. The goal for this year is $10 billion.
• Reducing deforestation in tropical countries. Denuding the land where these forests now thrive generates as much as 25 percent of all greenhouse gases. The U.N. plan pays pay countries to replant trees and restore land.
• Putting together an arrangement to monitor every country that makes a pledge of emissions reduction to verify that they are actually keeping it.
The deforestation effort, which has some considerable prospect of success, has nonetheless encountered strong criticism. Friends of the Earth International basically called the U.N.'s carbon-trading scheme (REDD - Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) a snare and a delusion. Bolivian President Evo Morales wrote a letter in September to the "indigenous peoples of the world" seeking protection for the forest and opposition to REDD.
During the climate change negotiations, everyone recognises that it is essential to avoid the deforestation and degradation of the forest.
However, to achieve this, some propose to commodify forests on the false argument that only what has a price and an owner is worth taking care of.
Their proposal is to consider only one of the functions of forests, which is its ability to absorb carbon dioxide, and issue “certificates”, “credits” or “carbon rights” for a carbon market.
This way, companies of the North have the choice of either reducing their emissions or buying “REDD certificates” in the South according to what is cheapest for them.
Through this mechanism, developed countries hand their obligation to reduce their emissions to underdeveloped countries, and the South will once again fund the North.
As for the fast-start financing Green Fund agreed to in Copenhagen thanks in great part to prodding from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the would-be recipients are none-too-pleased. They complain that the pledges have been made but the money has not been forthcoming. With Europe and the United States still showing considerable economic weakness, it is altogether impossible to discern whether the rich nations will come up with the $30 billion that is supposed to be in the Green Fund pipeline annually by 2012. No problem coming up with that $1.5 trillion in military expenditures each year though.
Monitoring and verification is one place the United States has been on the right side, seeking to ensure that emissions-cutting pledges aren't just hot air. China wants nothing binding in this regard, or at least it hasn't so far.
The conference also includes the sixth meeting of the parties to the 1997 Kyoto Accord, which came into force five years ago. The developed countries pledged in Kyoto to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent from 1990 levels. But the accord has failed, as emissions have risen instead of fallen, with some countries who are party to the treaty, like Canada, seemingly having given up trying to cut back. The approach in the accord is one the developing nations want to continue because it puts the major burden on the rich, developed countries. But most of those rich nations want all major emitters – read India and China – to commit to reduced emissions. The accord expires in 2012. And the U.S., which never ratified it in the first place, wants it dead.
One big difference at Cancun is that youth activists, according to SolveClimate.org, are exchanging the confrontation-oriented approach deployed in Copenhagen for cooperation:
"There are certain times when it's useful to take a more critical tone and times when it's useful to take a more collaborative tone," said Michael Davidson of SustainUS, an all-volunteer climate action group. …
In lower-key Cancun, one of the main goals of young people will be to set an example of progress for quarreling climate negotiators, Davidson said.
"Youth have cooperated within negotiations in an extremely intricate way — in some ways much more than other civil society participants," he said. "We're trying to present a model for what delegates should be doing in order to push forward solutions."
One hopeful sign: The U.S.-China Youth Climate Exchange. Young Chinese and Americans from the exchange will run joint workshops and other shared actions in Cancun. Going around governments may ultimately be the only way major action is ever achieved on the climate front.
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Kossack boatsie will be posting diaries from Cancun at the activist site tcktcktck.
Here is the schedule of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (9-page pdf).