No legally-binding agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions will be made at this year’s big United Nations climate conference in Cancun, Mexico from November 29 to December 10. And that’s just the way the rich nations want it.
Few world leaders are even expected to turn up to the Cancun talks. For months, key players have tried to dampen down public hopes that the summit will mark a shift away from business as usual.
The British Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote on September 20 that it was time for climate action campaigners to accept the UN process was dead.
The huge threat posed by dangerous climate change, and the need for an urgent response, may make this painful to admit for some. But the facts speak for themselves.
A September 21 AFP article reported that top US climate negotiator Todd Stern said bluntly: “No one is anticipating or expecting in any way a legal treaty to be done in Cancun this year.”
For two decades, successive US governments have fought against any legally-binding climate treaty. The US is the only nation in the world to not sign on to the existing Kyoto protocol treaty.
But this year, UN officials have also downplayed hopes for much progress at Cancun — or beyond.
On June 9, Associated Press reported that UN climate chief Christiana Figueres said: “I don't believe that we will ever have a final agreement on climate, certainly not in my lifetime.”
Figueres’s statement marked a shift in the UN’s rhetoric — and a win for the big polluting nations bent on sabotaging strong climate action.
Before the December 2009 UN climate talks in Copenhagen, UN officials urged member nations to agree to a new, binding treaty to replace the existing Kyoto protocol, which expires in 2012.
A strong agreement at Copenhagen was scuttled by the rich nations’ refusal to commit to the deep emissions cuts demanded by the world’s least developed nations.
Developed nations also led a charge to kill off the Kyoto protocol, which requires rich countries to make bigger emissions cuts than poor countries.
Copenhagen ended in a stalemate. Many poor countries refused to endorse the so-called Copenhagen Accord that was proposed by the US, China, India and South Africa. Most rich nations, including Australia, supported the accord.
Unlike Kyoto, the Copenhagen Accord allows only for “voluntary pledges” and says rich countries have no obligation to cut emissions faster. The pledges made so far would lead to emissions cuts of just 12% to 18% by 2020 (on 1990 levels).
By contrast, developing countries have insisted that cuts of 40%-50% by 2020 are needed.
The Guardian reported on August 4 that the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Third World Network had released a study that found various loopholes in the accord would actually allow emissions to rise by as much as 9% by 2020 (on 1990 levels).
The accord also proposed a global warming target of a 2°C temperature rise above pre-industrial levels, despite the call from the Association of Small Island States to limit warming to a safe level of less than 1.5°C.
350.org founder Bill McKibben said in a December 19 statement that the Copenhagen Accord was “a declaration that small and poor countries don't matter, that international civil society doesn't matter, and that serious limits on carbon don't matter”.
Yet this year, the rich countries have pushed to make the Copenhagen Accord the basis of Cancun negotiations.
The April 11 London Observer revealed that European Union (EU) and US diplomats had threatened African countries with cuts in humanitarian aid unless they dropped their opposition to the accord.
The same month, the US suspended its climate aid programs to Bolivia and Ecuador because the two countries had refused to back the accord.
Preliminary UN climate talks held in August in Bonn, Germany, ended without any positive news. After Bonn, the EU’s climate action commissioner Connie Hedegaard said: “These negotiations have, if anything, gone backwards”, BBC.co.uk reported on August 9.
Another round of talks in the Chinese city of Taijing, the last before Cancun, ended on October 9.
Ironically, Taijing was not the first-choice venue. The conference was supposed to take place on the Chinese island of Hainan.
But in the days before the talks opened, the island was hit by a freak, nine-day rainstorm, which caused the worst flooding in 50 years.
The October 11 China Daily said the rains affected 2.5 million people and forced the evacuation of 336,000 residents. Local crops were wiped out, vegetable prices rose by 30% and medicine supplies ran low.
Yet the rich nations were unmoved. The head of Bolivia’s delegation, Pablo Solon, told Businessweek.com on October 6: “We don’t see any kind of movement [at Taijing] from developed countries to increase the level of emissions reduction.”
Instead, several developed nations, including Australia, Japan, Russia, New Zealand and Canada, used the meeting to announce “they want to do away with the Kyoto Protocol”, said the October 11 Malaysian Star.
It is clear the existing framework will not allow for the urgent action required. Much greater struggle is required against the powerful forces that rich nations’ governments are in bed with.