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Report from the Cancún Climate Conference

Modest success, but not enough to save the planet

UCS Director of Strategy and Policy Alden Meyer was a featured panelist at two Climate Action Network press conferences at the U.N. climate negotiations in Cancún.

In the wake of last year’s disappointing U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen, some began to question the process and whether the 193-nation talks were the proper forum to produce a viable international climate agreement.

Last year’s failed summit—as well as the Senate’s inability to pass a climate bill and the results of the November U.S. election—lowered the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) expectations going into this year’s meeting in Cancún, Mexico. That said, we were looking for a “balanced package” of decisions that would reduce heat-trapping emissions from tropical forest loss, provide funding to vulnerable countries to adapt to climate change, promote green technologies, and enhance actions to limit emissions by both developed and developing countries.


So what happened? On a macro level, the conference—which ended in the wee hours of the morning on Saturday, December 11—fell short of what is needed: The collective actions pledged by countries remain insufficient to meet the challenge of climate change. The declarations by both Japan and Russia that they have no intention of taking on emissions-reduction targets when the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol starts in 2013 almost derailed the talks—and point to the challenges ahead.

Some Modest Success, But Challenges Remain

But there were some identifiable successes, most notably on preserving tropical forests and agreeing to create a Green Climate Fund to encourage support for developing country actions to constrain emissions and cope with the mounting impacts of climate change. Equally important, the skillful and transparent management of the negotiations by Mexico’s foreign minister, Patricia Espinosa Cantellano, and other senior Mexican government officials went a long way to exorcising the “ghost of Copenhagen” that had been hanging over the U.N. negotiating process.

“The outcome in Cancún wasn’t enough to save the climate,” said UCS Director of Strategy and Policy Alden Meyer, “but it did restore the credibility of the United Nations as a forum where progress can be made.”

Conference delegates received some good news on the deforestation front early in the first week of the conference, which started November 29. Brazil announced that its deforestation rate had fallen to another record low level and that it was on track to meet its goal of curbing deforestation ahead of schedule.

But on the conference’s first day, Japan stated that “under no conditions” would it agree to a binding emissions reduction target under the Kyoto Protocol after its first commitment period expires at the end of 2012. For developing countries—as well as environmental organizations—agreement on deeper reductions in a second commitment period of Kyoto is a top priority.

Then there were the occasional unofficial announcements that triggered a flurry of excitement and sowed confusion. Early in the second week of the conference, for example, a wire service reported that a senior Chinese delegation official said that his country was willing to make its voluntary carbon emissions limitations legally binding. One observer called that statement a “game-changer,” but Meyer was more circumspect. He said it was a promising development, but cautioned that the “devil was in the details.” A day later the Chinese delegation said the statement was translated incorrectly and that the country’s position had not changed.

UCS at Cancún

Alden Meyer surrounded reporters just after speaking at a Climate Action Network press conference.

UCS sent a smaller delegation to Cancún than the one it sent to Copenhagen. Besides Meyer, who has attended all but one of the 16 annual U.N. climate conferences and become a recognized expert on the negotiations, the UCS delegation included Doug Boucher, director of climate research and analysis; Pipa Elias, a UCS policy analyst; Erin Rogers, manager of the Western States Climate and Energy Program; Elliott Negin, UCS’s media director; and Earl Saxon, a consultant on tropical forests.

Meyer was a featured speaker at two Climate Action Network press briefings the second week of the conference. CAN, an international coalition of more than 500 organizations, held briefings updating reporters every day. On Friday, December 10—scheduled to be the last day of the conference—Meyer shared with reporters the inside story of the U.S. delegation’s hardball tactics to get what it wanted in the negotiations. Earlier in the week, at CAN’s Tuesday briefing, Meyer identified areas of disagreement from the first week of the negotiations and the issues likely to create dissension over the next few days. Meyer also met with reporters one-on-one throughout the conference to help them grasp the nuances of the ongoing talks.

Meyer was particularly easy to chase down for news interviews: He was on crutches due to recent hip surgery, and reporters appreciated the fact that he made the trip. “We all breathed a sigh of relief when we heard that Alden’s doctor gave him the go-ahead to attend the conference,” one reporter told Elliott Negin. “We wouldn’t know what was going on without him.”

From November 20 through December 11, Meyer was cited in more than 200 climate conference stories, including ones by the Associated Press, Bloomberg, New York Times and Reuters. He also appeared on NPR, BBC television and radio, and a live opening segment on the Al Jazeera television network.

Meyer did more than schmooze reporters—he met with conference participants to try to influence the outcome of the proceedings. For example, he participated in a number of small group meetings with ministers from key countries and country groupings, including Mexico, China, the European Union and Japan. He warned the Japanese environment minister that his country’s hard-line stance on Kyoto could lead to the collapse of the negotiations in Cancún, and that such an outcome would be eagerly exploited by opponents of climate action in the United States. In addition to these high-level meetings, Meyer had countless hall conversations with ministers and delegates, many who have known Meyer for years.

Erin Rogers, who was only able to attend for a few days, met with representatives from California businesses and environmental groups. Starting in 2012, California will allow companies in the state required to cut their carbon pollution under the state’s landmark climate law, AB32, to offset some of their emissions by funding forest protection projects in Brazil and Mexico.

Doug Boucher, UCS's director of climate research and analysis, gave a presentation on tropical deforestation co-sponsored by UCS and the National Wildlife Federation.

Doug Boucher and Pipa Elias, meanwhile, co-hosted two events with the National Wildlife Federation on tropical forest protection. The first, on December 7, focused on new satellite technology and featured Boucher and experts from NASA and from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. The second, on how to end deforestation from cattle production in the Amazon, was on December 9. UCS released a new report at the second event that concluded that merely reducing deforestation and forest degradation will not be enough to combat climate change: Tropical nations have to take immediate action to restore these lands by promoting forest growth and increasing carbon sequestration. Currently deforestation and forest degradation in tropical countries account for some 15 percent of global warming pollution annually. Boucher also spoke to the international trade union delegation about climate science and to the Mexican government’s forum on “Communicating Climate Science.”

Tropical Forest Protection

Tropical forest protection was one issue that found some resolution at the conference. Delegates adopted a decision establishing a three-phase process for tropical countries to reduce deforestation and receive compensation from developed countries, and it includes protections for forest peoples and biodiversity.

“The real bright spot was moving forward with REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, Plus Related Pro-forest Activities), the program to eliminate tropical deforestation as a major driver of climate change,” said Boucher. “Historic changes are happening in conference halls and in the Amazon that can end tropical deforestation in our lifetime.”

Forward Momentum

There was positive movement in other issue areas, including increasing the transparency of actions by both developed and developing countries to constrain their emissions. This measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) issue was a priority for the United States, which wanted greater openness from large developing countries—particularly China—on their progress on carrying out their emissions-limitations pledges.

The outcome was mixed on the key issue of setting stronger goals for limiting emissions. While the final Cancún text calls on countries to take “urgent action” to keep global temperatures from increasing more than 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels, it does not explicitly acknowledge the significant gap between the current pledged emissions-reduction commitments and those needed to meet this goal.

“The Cancún decision creates an opportunity for the world to raise the collective level of emission-reduction targets in the months and years ahead,” said Meyer. “But it doesn’t guarantee success, and there is no greater level of agreement on how much should be done, and by which countries, than there was when negotiators arrived in Cancún.”

Next Steps

After the last stories about the United Nation’s 16th Conference of the Parties, or COP, are filed, participating nations will be faced with some daunting challenges going into the next COP in December 2011 in Durban, South Africa. The fate of the Kyoto Protocol hangs in the balance, given the statements by Japan and Russia and suspicions that Canada and perhaps other countries would like to join them in getting out of Kyoto’s legally binding framework.

Likewise, the creation of the Green Climate Fund in Cancún does not ensure that it will become an effective institution with the substantial resources needed to meet its lofty objectives, especially given the fiscal and political challenges in the United States and other developed countries.

“World leaders must significantly raise their game if we’re going to meet the challenge of climate change,” Meyer concluded. “Time is running out, and the atmosphere doesn’t negotiate with politicians.”

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