10 January 2011

What did Cancun achieve?

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Cancun was how little was expected to come out of it. The bar for success was low and the outcome barely achieved the little that was hoped for. Friends of the Earth called it: “a weak and ineffective agreement but at least a small and fragile lifeline for continued negotiations.” In short it revived faith in the UN process – just about.

But there was no agreement on legally binding cuts to keep global warming to under 2°C. The voluntary cuts on the table amount to playing Russian roulette with the planet’s climate.

There’s to be a Global Climate Fund to provide developing countries with money to tackle climate change, but the pledges of finance are a long way from what's needed. It also feels like madness that the World Bank, one of the largest lenders for fossil fuel projects in the world, should have been given a role as trustee of the Fund. That’s a bit like giving your grandmother to the wolf!

There was an agreement on protecting forests and indigenous peoples but it was so vague as to be almost meaningless. And there’s also likely to be more carbon trading and offsetting which allows rich countries to skirt their responsibilities over climate change and go on polluting.

There was plenty of drama. Japan threatened to drop out of the Kyoto Protocol. President "yes we can-no we can't" Obama, fresh from his failure to introduce clean energy legislation in Congress, instructed his negotiators to block almost everything. Lobbyists for Big Carbon – the fossil fuel companies – appear to have been the unsurprising reasons for both the Japanese and the US positions.

Meanwhile China and India emerged as the champions of Low Carbon offering solutions to Japanese intransigence over Kyoto and US concerns about emissions monitoring. China and India also said they were willing to consider legally binding targets in a move that took everyone by surprise. What a turnaround from Copenhagen. Both China and India appear to have decided that they can become the key suppliers of low carbon technology to the world and that they therefore have everything to gain from supporting a tough deal.

Meanwhile the EU sat on the sidelines – stuck at the 20% emissions cut agreed back in 2008. This makes them irrelevant and they know it. In the words of Joss Garman of Greenpeace: “A raised carbon target is a pre-requisite for EU negotiators to play a powerful role in what might just be the new UN climate talks – where the winners get to write the rules for the new global energy economy – rather than those who come away with the smallest cuts.”

So Cancun was a sticking plaster for the planet’s woes. Not an outright disaster like Copenhagen. There the only achievement was that no country actually denied the existence of climate change. This time round just about enough was done to keep the UN negotiations on the road. But nothing like enough was done to stave off runaway climate change. The next staging point is in South Africa at the end of 2011. Are we hopeful? Not really.

In the mean time it looks like globally 2010 was the hottest year on record (equal with 1998) even as the UK, Europe and New York were experiencing freak snowfalls in December. How much more of this will it take before the world's politicians take climate change seriously?