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The Copenhagen climate summit was widely perceived to have been a failure. Campaigners hope the follow-up in Cancun may bring better results

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Cancun: your five-minute guide to the COP16 climate change conference

Vi Nguyen

25th November, 2010

Following the hype and failure of last year's Copenhagen COP15 summit, the Ecologist outlines what's on the agenda at the forthcoming COP16 Cancun conference – and assesses the chances of progress...

What are the dates?

29th November-10th December 2010

What is it?

This will be the 16th annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP), which meets every year to agree international efforts to address climate change. It was set up as part of a UN treaty on climate change, known as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Where is it taking place?

Moon Palace Hotel and the Cancun Messe complex in Cancun, Mexico.

Who is attending?  

While the Copenhagen summit in December 2009 quickly escalated into a major political event, this year’s gathering in Cancun is expected to be a much more subdued affair.

Last year’s meeting saw the largest-ever collection of people come together for a climate change meeting, with 4,000 reporters and more than 120 heads of state in attendance, including US president Barack Obama and UK prime minister Gordon Brown. The BBC sent 20 reporters to cover the event, but is reported to be sending just one to Cancun. No heads of state are expected to attend, with energy secretary Chris Huhne and climate change minister Greg Barker due to represent the UK.

What was agreed at Copenhagen?

No actual agreement was reached, but instead a two-page accord was produced. This called on industrialised countries to list their emissions targets, for all countries to monitor their emissions with complete transparency, to promote low-carbon technology and stated an ambition to keep global temperature rises below 2C.

An agreement is needed to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which was the last major international agreement for industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. This protocol expires in 2012. No countries signed the so-called Copenhagen Accord, so it is not legally binding, though they did agree to ‘take note of it’.

Perhaps the most important outcome of Copenhagen was the development of a Climate Fund scheme, totalling $100 billion by 2020, for less-industrialised countries. Initially, industrialised countries promised to raise funds of $30 billion between 2010 and 2012 to help less-industrialised countries cut back on deforestation and efficiently deal with climate change.

What’s on the agenda at Cancun?

The matter of climate finance. How the funding to less-industrialised countries should be distributed, and whether the current pledged climate fund amount is enough to make a difference are topics that need to be discussed.

Another topic on the agenda will be the development of the controversial REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) programme. A commitment to interim financing for REDD+ and deforestation projects in less-industrialised countries needs to be agreed upon for the future.

Also, exact details on how countries should reduce their carbon emissions and at what level they should cut back will also be discussed. This is to ensure that global temperature rises do not exceed 2C, the threshold beyond which scientists predict dangerous environmental impacts.

Specific actions need to be agreed upon, with detailed legislative instructions on financing, targets and how to tackle these climate change issues.

What are the key sticking points?

Aside from an agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the other major issue could be climate finance. Of the agreed $30 billion that has been pledged since Copenhagen, only 26 per cent ($7.9 billion) has actually been committed to international climate change programmes. So far, only 13 per cent of the promised amount ($3.9 billion) has been received.

This has raised great concerns in the less-industrialised world, which is fearful that industrialised countries are failing to live up to promises made in Copenhagen. Additionally, many of the industrialised countries have refrained from revealing how their climate financial aid is going to be spent.

Of the money that has been committed so far, a large proportion has been channelled through the World Bank. This is a move that has been met with distrust amongst many of the less-industrialised countries. In February, Bangladesh voiced strong opposition to the UK’s climate fund aid of £60 million being disbursed by the World Bank. Less than 1 per cent of the funds has been channelled through the UN, which many of the developing countries trust and want their climate finance to be handled by.

There are also concerns over which of the vulnerable developing countries should be prioritised to receive climate funding first. Some contest that countries such as China and India, which are experiencing large economic growth, should start taking responsibility for their carbon emissions, while these countries feel they are still particularly vulnerable and are entitled to financial climate aid. The US, one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters and economies, is unwilling to be included in a globally binding deal until it sees measurable emissions cuts from the less-industrialised countries. This reluctance has made the unanimous move of all countries towards signing an international binding deal less realistic or likely.

There are issues, too, around whether the pledged climate fund is enough to help the more vulnerable countries tackle climate change. Many believe that the climate fund target of $100 billion is nowhere near large enough, and that at least $200 billion should be raised by 2020. The condition set in the Copenhagen Accord was that climate funding from the industrialised countries would be ‘new’ money that was additional to existing international aid. However, only 7 per cent of the initial $30 billion climate aid fund has been additional to pre-existing aid commitments. None of the UK’s climate finance to date has been raised in addition to current aid commitments, although Greg Barker is determined to bring in private-sector funding to do so.

Many countries also want to secure an international agreement for funding the protection of rainforests (REDD+) to tackle deforestation and protect biodiversity. Some forest projects are already underway, but many feel that these projects have been approved without proper assessment of how effective they are, especially with regard to the interests of the indigenous peoples who live within these forest habitats. This is a point that many feel is a large concern for the future of REDD+ projects.

What are the predictions?

The less-industrialised countries are expected to have a large say in the talks at Cancun this year. However, with the more subdued tone of the COP 16 meeting, the expectations of a positive outcome are not overly optimistic. The executive secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, believes a single, all-encompassing deal is unlikely to happen in her lifetime. Chris Huhne believes a final global agreement will not happen at Cancun, but hopes the summit will bring about a sense of momentum for a more positive outcome at the next climate change summit in 2011.

Although a global binding agreement is not expected to happen at Cancun, it is hoped that matters such as forestry, climate finance and mitigation commitments will be further developed.

This year, with no heads of state appearing, it is also hoped that a stronger scientific voice will be heard on the political stage, advising how best to tackle climate change in the future. A recent report describes how climate science was under-represented in the media following Copenhagen, and calls for a stronger scientific emphasis in the reporting of climate change in order to raise public awareness about the seriousness of the issues at hand. In accordance with this, Chris Huhne believes that all climate change policies should reflect and change according to the current scientific understanding.

However, many are looking ahead and hope that COP 16 will set the stage for an internationally binding commitment to be reached at the next meeting in South Africa in 2011.

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