Why we should still be constructive about Cancun

December 1, 2010

Lord Professor Julian Hunt is Vice President of GLOBE (Global Legislators for a Balanced Environment), Visiting Professor at Delft University, and former Director-General of the UK Met Office. The opinions expressed are his own.

Ahead of the UN Summit in Cancun, legislators from across the world, ranging from United States Congressman Bart Gordon to Chinese Congressman Wang Guangtao, met in China earlier this month at the GLOBE Climate Change Symposium.  While the prospects for a comprehensive deal being reached in Mexico have been widely talked down, much progress can still be made and there remains substantial room for optimism.

Last year’s disastrous Copenhagen conference showed the lack of willingness of major countries to establish any meaningful international agreement to deal with the causes and impacts of man made climate change.  This might involve only the developed countries reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG), as in the Kyoto Protocol, or could also involve other countries with major emissions.

Neither of these scenarios seems likely to be achieved at Cancun.  Currently, it seems that the meeting might just result in a set of statements by countries about what they are doing individually and in various multilateral arrangements — a disappointing, lower key re-run of Copenhagen.

However, it needs to be remembered that text in a communique does not reduce emissions in itself — it is action on the ground.  In this context, there are reasons to be optimistic about recent legislative activity in developing countries.  For instance, the Chinese announced at the GLOBE symposium that they are beginning a feasibility study into a new comprehensive climate change law.

Moreover, if a comprehensive deal isn’t reached, the summit still represents a remarkable opportunity for countries to assess the future more realistically and then explain and collaborate on the practical policies that need to be introduced in coming years.  Seen from this prism, Cancun offers a stepping stone to secure a truly sustainable global deal in 2011 or beyond.

Under current plans, many industrialising countries will continue to increase their emissions.  This is despite the fact that in most of the major emitting countries, administrative and innovative market mechanisms are incentivising industry to use energy more efficiently:

In China, financial rewards for reducing energy use provided by regional government are making substantial improvements in efficiency.  These arrangements are evolving into local carbon markets, albeit small-scale and voluntary at this stage.  Although the Kyoto Protocol does not apply to the emissions in China and other developing countries, where millions still live in extreme poverty, politicians in these countries nonetheless say that the Protocol does provide a policy framework for controlling emissions.

In the U.S., the Obama administration is relying on national regulations operated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to monitor and limit further emissions from major power plants.  As green stimulus measures, such as the investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency, wind down, this work becomes more important.

The United States, China and the EU are planning to introduce new systems of monitoring GHG emissions, using remote sensing and ground based instrumentation, in order to have a reliable regulatory/incentivisation scheme.

EU countries have been emphasising different kinds of low carbon energy, such as wind, carbon sequestration and nuclear power, but have not been able to agree on priorities; indeed some countries have actually prevented international bodies, such as the World Bank and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change from promoting nuclear power (which was deliberately excluded from the conclusions of Copenhagen).  There is more unanimity in the EU about promoting its policy of carbon trading to motivate industrial efficiency.  Developing countries are also benefiting from carbon markets, for example in receiving funding in low carbon energy systems from the village level to clean power plants.

Other countries are focussing on preventing the rise of atmospheric GHG by expanding forestry.  This is why some Latin American and EU legislators are considering how policies for natural conservation and preserving biodiversity should be an integral part of climate change policies.

Given this wide range of political, economic and technical approaches to climate change policy, it may be impossible to frame an international agreement that would satisfy all governments, businesses and also civil society groups.  However, it should be possible to agree on a range of practical actions to mitigate climate change and deal with its effects on health, business, agriculture and natural disasters.

The rising costs of dealing with these effects, such as coastal defences, reducing desertification and urban overheating, mean that preventative actions have to begin now.  They must not be delayed until economies grow further, as some influential economists keep arguing.

The legislators at the GLOBE symposium generally agreed that there are three areas where urgent collaborative action is now most urgently needed:

•    Firstly, more information is needed about future levels of GHG, global climate change risks, especially on a regional basis, and the future impact on countries.  Decision makers need to know more clearly what are the most likely scenarios as well as what targets are reasonable.  Communities need also to be informed so they can  contribute, as for example farmers do in Mali, by measuring and communicating the local climate and ecology as it changes.  The best way for improving information exchange is the international framework of international collaboration through UN agencies.

•    Secondly, information about practical actions by countries and regions for mitigation and adaptation also needs to be exchanged, as was agreed in principle at Copenhagen.  Members of GLOBE are already exchanging experiences about legislation and its effectiveness in countries with very different experiences about climate change and views about possible solutions.  However, more work is needed to make this a reality, with transfer of know-how to developing countries.

•    Thirdly, more collaboration is needed in implementing policies.  This should build on national, regional or sectoral initiatives, for example in carbon trading, funding adaptation in developing countries, and developing new technologies for global application, such as desalination, plant breeding and genetic engineering of the new crops for a changing climate.  Also key are social programmes for the millions of people who are likely to be displaced by the effects of desertification and rising sea levels, and probably melting of mountain snows.

For those, such as myself, who believe that global warming is the greatest danger to humanity in the twenty first-century, it is to be hoped that agreement can be reached in these areas so that we can move nearer towards a comprehensive and effective deal.  We simply cannot afford to see the shambles of Copenhagen repeated in Cancun.

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Alas, one of the many wild cards in the deck (but also one of the more likely ones to turn up, based on what we now know) is runaway global warming due to release of the methane in the arctic permafrost of undersea clathrates. In which case all those pretty climate models will be off, indeed drastically off, but in the wrong direction …

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