Climate: Science and Politics Diverge in the End Stages of Cancún

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In a briefing for reporters before the Cancún climate summit began, World Resources Institute president Jonathan Lash summed up is expectations for the meeting in a made-up work: “CopenCun.” He meant that much of the work of the Cancún summit would involve tying up the many loose ends of last year’s meeting in Copenhagen, with ended with the fractured Copenhagen Accord. A good outcome at Cancún would be one that took the political and somewhat hypothetical pledges of the Copenhagen Accord—which at the very least began to push the world beyond the developed/developing schism of earlier climate negotiations—and began to construct a climate agreement with meat on its bones. (Or “meat on the chicken,” which I learned in Sacramento last month is apparently Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s preferred line.)

It hasn’t quite worked out that way because much of the negotiations have been taken up with arguments over not Copenhagen, but a much older pact—Kyoto. Instead of CopenCun, we have, um, KyoCun. The ghost of the Kyoto Protocol is still hanging over the negotiations here in Cancún, with Japan at the start of the negotiations and Russia late last night declaring that they would not accept second commitment periods under Kyoto unless other countries (like the U.S. and major developing nations like China) assumed similar carbon cutting commitments. The question of the future of Kyoto (the first commitment period ends after 2012) has hung over the negotiations, with most of the developing nations insisting at least publicly that Kyoto continue in some format. The U.S., which never ratified Kyoto, wants to focus on a newer agreement that will include complementary climate actions by all nations—in fact, that was largely the point of the Copenhagen Accord, at least from Washington’s perspective.

Kyoto isn’t the only issue complicating the talks, which are entering their last official day—but which could easily go into hours and hours of overtime. (I brought a toothbrush to Cancún’s sprawling Moon Palace, where the talks are taking place.) The other main conflict is between China and the U.S. over the issue of transparency on national climate actions, which I wrote about last night. U.S. negotiators have signalled that they could very well be willing to walk away from a deal that doesn’t meet their needs, and no one who has seen Beijing’s harsh reaction to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony today should doubt that the Chinese can play hardball when they feel the need to. It’s difficult to imagine everything falling apart today—especially with real progress ready to be made on side issue like deforestation. But next to nothing? That could happen.

Not depressed yet? This might do the trick. Even if a deal is somehow struck that formalizes the climate pledges made by countries around the world at Copenhagen—and even if all of those countries actually succeed in meeting their goals, which hasn’t always been the case under Kyoto, the world will likely fall far short of the emissions reductions it needs to keep warming below 2 C above pre-industrial levels. (The Copenhagen Accord called for the world to keep warming to 2 C.) That’s the finding of a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) that was released earlier during the Cancún summit. UNEP crunched the numbers and reported that—depending on rates of economic growth and energy efficiency—the world could face a gap by 2020 of between 5 and 9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent between actual emissions and the emissions level needed to hold warming to 2 C. (To put that in perspective, in the best-case scenario under the Copenhagen Accord emissions would be 49 billion metric tons a year.) “This is the yardstick to judge whether the world is seriously about climate progress, or whether it has its head in the sand,” says Keith Allott, head of climate change for the World Wildlife Fund-U.K.

Judged on the sheer, unrelenting carbon math, it’s hard to argue that the world really is taking climate change seriously. (The paltry global budgets for energy research and the lack of money dedicated so far to adaptation—not to mention the rise of conservative climate skeptics in the U.S.—rather reinforces that conclusion.) But wait—it gets worse. According to an analysis by Climate Analytics and Ecofys, there are accounting problems and “hot air” within the existing national climate pledges that, if uncorrected, could mean there are barely any real carbon cuts at all. (Download the report.) “There is the potential here that you could lock in some bad carbon accounting,” says Lou Leonard, managing director of climate change at WWF.

How bad? The report suggests that if the loosest accounting rules are allowed for carbon offsets—and if countries in the former Soviet Union were allowed to take advantage of “hot air” under the Kyoto Protocol—you’d have a situation that would little better than business as usual. “We need a clear recognition that this is a problem,” says Allott, who wants negotiators to begin the process of fixing the biased accounting.

Of course, given the process of the negotiations in Cancún as they are—which have been “difficult difficult lemon difficult” as the phrase goes—the idea of trying to fix the many carbon accounting problems in the system gives me a headache. (As it stands now, the final plenary session for the summit may not begin until midnight, if then.) But it’s just another reminder of the unreality of the talks as they unfold here in this resort bubble, even as the world continues to warm, with NASA reporting today that 2010 will likely be the hottest year on record.

More to come—or not—as the summit continues…