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Climate Change & Environment

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Cancún Agreements Save Climate Talks But Not the Planet
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Negotiators at the Cancún climate talks reached a series of agreements on emissions reductions, aid and the protection of forests. The outcome may have renewed faith in the UN process, but it is woefully inadequate in terms of stopping global warming.

Baby steps made at climate summit pale in comparison to the change needed - Tina Gerhardt, AlertNet

Cancún climate agreements at a glance - Adam Vaughan, The Guardian

Summit ends without solving emissions puzzle - Diana Cariboni, Inter Press Service

The climate deal that failed us - Shefali Sharma, Think Forward 

Cancun Agreement stripped bare by Bolivia's dissent - Nick Buxton, Transnational Institute

14th December 2010

Baby Steps Made at Climate Summit Pale in Comparison to the Change Needed

12th December 2010 - Tina Gerhardt, AlertNet

As the sun rose over Cancún early Saturday morning, an agreement was reached at the COP 16. Nations lauded the work of the Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa, Mexican President of the COP 16, and Mexican President Felipe Calderon. They received a standing ovation at the end of the plenary.

Some touted the last minute agreement, arguing that it had reignited the UNFCCC process. Others argued that while it might have saved the UNCCC process, it had not saved the climate. And yet another group pointed out the myriad ways that the new Cancún Agreement had trammeled numerous tenets of the UNFCCC, as texts emerged through back room negotiations, and were thus not inclusive and transparent. Moreover, Bolivia's refusal to sign on to the agreement were overrun, thwarting the stipulated consensus decision-making process.

So what does the new Cancún agreement contain? How does it compare with the Kyoto Protocol? With the Copenhagen Accord? And how are various nations, nation groups and NGOs responding to it?

The UNFCCC negotiations in Cancún sought to achieve three goals: 1. to establish greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions reductions commitments; 2. To secure funding and technology from developed countries for developing countries, to help them adapt to climate change; and 3. To decide on a method for monitoring, reporting and verifying (MRV) the agreed upon targets. So how did nations do on these three goals?

In essence, the Cancun Agreement agreed to emissions reductions of 25 to 40 percent based on 1990 levels by 2020; it secured emissions reductions commitments from both developed and developing nations; it set up a climate fund but did not establish new funding; it worked to smooth the way for technology transfer; and it set up mechanisms to ensure transparency in reporting and monitoring.

Gordian Knot

The final days of the COP 16 were marked by a stalmate between those countries who were supportive of extending the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen Accord. The Kyoto Protocol, due to expire in 2012, puts the burden on developed nations, such as the U.S., to make emissions reductions. Nation groups, such as the G77, Least Developed Countries (LDCs), the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the European Union (EU) - in other words the majority of the countries -- sought to extend the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012.

The work of the Mexican negotiating team was thus clearly to cut through what U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern referred to as the "Gordian Knot" of those who wanted to extend Kyoto and those who were keen to implement the Copenhagen Accord.

The Mexican delegates decided that the best method for making progress on the matter was to invite a handful of countries to participate in negotiations. Figueriedro of Brazil and Christopher Huhn of the United Kingdom led the negotiations and, according to Stern, "about 12 countries," which included "both major and minor countries" took part in the discussions, held during the last day of the summit and lasting about twelve hours. They were responsible for drafting the new agreement, which was then brought to the two working groups for discussion.

This meeting was not the only backroom meeting of select countries convened to address particular matters and it was these backroom deals that angered Bolivia so much because it violated the UNFCCC's guiding principles of inconclusiveness and transparency. Bolivia argued that in form, agreements put forward for discussion had to come through the UNFCCC's two working groups and not emerge through backroom discussions.

Other countries decided that making progress, any amount of progress, took precedence. They feared that not having any results emerge from this year's summit would put the entire UNFCCC process into question. And they argued it would do even less to avert climate change.

Cancún Agreement -- Mitigation and Emissions Reductions

What does the Cancún Agreement achieve? First, it's important to know that it is not a legally binding international agreement. It does, however, pave the way for a global treaty to be agreed upon and implemented. This work will undoubtedly form the centerpiece of next year's summit.

In terms of mitigations or action needed to avert climate change, the Cancún agreement explicitly states that emissions should not allow temperature increases to rise above 2.0 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), a temperature that is commonly agreed by the worldwide scientific community as the threshold above which the consequences of climate become irreversible.

Hedegaard touted the inscription of the 2.0 maximum in the agreement, stating "for the first time, the pledges 2.0 is acknowledged in a UN document and the pledges are documented; and we acknowledge that we are not there yet." 

The door has been left open for a review to bring the limit down to 1.5 degrees. Many African nations have called for a 1.5 degree limit, since temperature disproportionately affects the region: a 2.0 degree temperature increase elsewhere equals a 3.0 temperature increase in Africa.

Additionally, the Cancún agreement seeks emissions reductions of 25-40 percent from 1990, which is in agreement with what the worldwide scientific community has called for. The agreement seeks commitments from all nations, that is, from both developed and developing nations.

In this way, it brings together the Kyoto Protocol, which sought commitments from developed nations and was signed onto by 37 nations, and the Copenhagen Accord, which sought commitments from developing nations and had 55 signatories.

Since the Copenhagen Accord commitments were entirely voluntary and neither the Copenhagen Accord nor the Cancún Agreement is legally binding, these pledges at present cannot be enforced. This remains to be worked out.

Earlier this year, countries were asked to submit commitments for the Copenhagen Accord by January 31, 2010 and appear as the Accord's Appendix I. A list of countries and their commitments can be found here.

The reduction commitments made in the Copenhagen Accord are thus now anchored in the COP framework and part of the UNFCCC process. Their inclusion was of keen interest to the United States, which has been working tirelessly over the last year for their recognition and implementation.

Stern acknowledged that there were "quite different views with respect to the anchoring of pledges of the Copenhagen Accord." Many nations opposed their inclusion, since the Copenhagen Accord was a backroom deal that did not emerge from the working groups.

Countries are to develop low carbon development plans and strategies and decide how best to implement them. For developed nations, the options can include market mechanisms. For developing nations, mitigation will be matched by funding and technology.


The negotiations also sought to secure funding, in order to help developing nations adapt to the consequences of climate change, which disproportionately hit them harder. The commitments from Copenhagen were repeated: $30 billion dollars in fast track funding for three years, 2010-2012; and $100 billion in long-term funding to be raised by 2020.

The Cancún Agreement establishes a Green Climate Fund under the Conference of the Parties, which will be run by a board consisting of equal representation from developed and developing countries. It will not be run by the World Bank, which was of concern particularly to developing nations, who have often had negative experiences with the World Bank.

Mark Stevenson of the AP challenged U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern in a press conference to explain how the agreement was a success in terms of funding: "You have started a Green Fund with no funding ... How can you call this a success? Could give us a small resume of what additional funding the United States pledged here in Cancún?"

Stern responded that "we do have new funding. We are part of the fast start pledge from last year, which carries for three years. The first year was 2010, then there's 2011 and 2012." Yet his answer belies the problem: funding from last year is not quite new funding.

A Technology Executive Committee and a Climate Technology Center and Network were also set up. They are intended to help transfer technology from developed nations to developing nations, in order to help the latter address and adapt to climate change. Discussions were stuck on questions of patents involved in international technology transfers.

Enforcing Pledges

Lastly, the Cancún Agreement negotiated a way to monitor, report and verify (MRV) pledges made. Having transparency in this area was particularly important to the United States. Developed nations are to report their emissions inventories annually and developing nations are to report their inventories every two years.


Additionally, the UN program to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation was going to go ahead. The controversial program ostensibly seeks to curb emissions from deforestation by providing developing nations with financial aid, if they do not chop down their forest. Trees soak up C02 emissions when standing, but inversely when chopped down release them into the air.

Opponents argue that rampant abuses exist, since the program does not provide enough oversight. A key tenet of the agreement coming out of the World People's Conference on Climate Change, convened by President Evo Morales in Bolivia in April, opposed REDD. Numerous NGOs participating in this year's COP 16 took a stance against REDD through actions and panels. Forested areas are mostly inhabited by indigenous peoples, who are therefore impacted intensely.


Bolivian lead climate negotiator Pablo Solón refused to sign on to the agreement, saying it condemns humankind to 4.0 temperature increases and would doom millions living in the most impoverished and vulnerable nations. COP 16 President Espinosa overrode his protests, stating that she would note his concerns but that the consensus process did not allow one person to hold up the support of the other countries.

Response from NGOS

Friends of the Earth International called the agreement a slap in the face, and warned that it could still lead to a temperature rise of 5C. "In the end, all of us will be affected by the lack of ambition and political will of a small group of countries. The US, with Russia and Japan, are to blame for the lack of desperately needed greater ambition," said Nnimmo Bassey, Friends of the Earth's international director.

Rose Braz, from Center for Biological Diverstiy, said: "While the Cancun agreement moves the process forward, it doesn't move the process forward boldly or quickly enough. In Cancun, led by the U.S., countries refused to even acknowledge the gap between the cuts pledged in Copenhagen and the cuts to global warming pollution science requires, let alone establish a concrete process to close that huge gap. Today, the planet remains on a course for warming of over 3.5º C (6.3º F) -- a truly horrifying prospect."

On Friday, NASA announced that 2010 is set to be the warmest year on record. The next Conference of the Parties is scheduled to take place in Durban, South Africa, from 28 November to 9 December 2011.

Tina Gerhardt is an independent journalist and academic, who has covered international climate change negotiations, most recently in Copenhagen and Bonn. Her work has appeared in Alternet, Grist, In These Times and The Nation.

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Cancún climate agreements at a glance

13th December 2010 - Adam Vaughan, The Guardian

Cutting carbon emissions

Scores of rich countries made pledges over the past year to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 under the Copenhagen accord but they were not incorporated in the official UN process. Cancún now formally puts those pledges into UN documentation, although they may increase or decrease in future. For the first time, developing countries also agreed to look at how they can cut emissions in the future – but did not make specific pledges.

Crucially however, none of the cuts are legally binding, and analysis suggests the pledges would lead to a 3.2C rise in temperatures – far higher than the 2C generally considered to be a level of "safe" warming.

Climate aid

A new climate green fund was agreed at Cancún to transfer money from the developed to developing world to tackle the impacts of climate change. Poorer countries saw this as a success because they will outnumber rich countries on an supervisory panel for the fund, which is due to be set up in 2011. But no figure was put on how much money will go into it.

Separately, ministers repeated their political promise made last year at Copenhagen to raise $100bn (£63bn) in climate aid by 2020, starting with $30bn (£19bn) by 2012 for "fast track" financing. This headline-grabbing promise, however, is not part of the UN process and is merely an aspiration of rich countries.


Formal backing was given for the UN's deforestation scheme, Redd (reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation), under which rich countries pay poorer nations not to chop down forests and so lock away carbon emissions. But details on when and exactly what form the scheme will take – particularly whether developed countries will be able to use it to "offset" their emissions rather than make cuts at home – are still vague.

Kyoto protocol

Decisions on the future of the Kyoto protocol, the current international treaty binding rich countries to cut emissions, were effectively deferred until South Africa next year. Whether countries will sign up for a second "commitment period" to cuts beyond 2012 remains to be seen.

In addition, decisions on the role that the protocol will play in an ultimate future legal document that binds the world's countries to emissions cuts – the "holy grail" of the UN negotiations - were delayed.

Technology transfer

The idea of transferring knowledge of clean technology between countries was backed at Cancún. A technology executive committee and a climate technology centre and network are to be set up, but there are no details on the money, where they will be based, when or by whom.


Countries agreed to the principle of having their emissions cuts inspected. Such "monitoring, reporting and verification" will depend on the size of the country's economy, though who will carry out the inspections – the country itself, the UN or another body – was not specified.

Link to original source

Summit ends without solving emissions puzzle

11th December 2010 - Diana Cariboni, Inter Press Service

"We are the coldest country in the world... so global warming is good for us. The warmer it is, the bigger the harvests... They talk about stopping deforestation of the tropical jungles to fight climate change, but we don't have tropical jungles."

The frankness of Russian lawmaker Viktor Shudegov revealed an "inconvenient" truth, the ongoing lack of awareness about global warming, in a parallel meeting to the climate change summit hosted by Mexico in the resort city of Cancún, Nov. 29 to Dec. 10.

Shudegov synthesised how difficult it is for public opinion in a country like Russia to take up the challenge of climate change, despite being the most serious global problem -- according to scientists -- that humanity will face this century.

This dynamic, in which urgent domestic problems take the fore -- like the economic crisis afflicting nearly the entire industrialised world -- means that attempts to adopt a binding global pact to reduce climate-changing gas emissions repeatedly crumble.

And the Cancún summit, officially known as the 16th Conference of Parties (COP 16) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was no exception.

A driving force of the UN-led negotiations for years has been the effort to attract the private sector, offering more and more opportunities for business in the still nascent "green economy."

The inclusion of carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems among the financeable mechanisms for reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases is one example of that trend.

It means extracting carbon dioxide, one of the leading greenhouse gases, and sequestering it in "sinks," deep in the oceans, in forests and underground. Those investing in such deals would then be able to trade emissions credits on the carbon market.

But many environmentalists and scientists believe that the carbon market is getting ahead of itself.

"Carbon capture and storage technology has not been proved yet. It is not ready to be put into practice. It is a further way of moving away from renewable energies, moving away from mitigation, to some kind of technology that would not solve the problem," Nigerian Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International (FOEI), told Tierramérica.

"What is coping with global warming? Reducing the carbon launched into the atmosphere. So why don't we leave the carbon where it belongs... in the ground?" said Bassey, one of the 2010 winners of the Right Livelihood Award, known widely as the Green Nobel.

Greenhouse gases are released by the combustion of petroleum, natural gas and carbon, and in deforestation, agriculture, land-use changes and industrial production.

The biggest emitters, led by China and the United States, cannot reach an agreement on goals for reducing emissions that would keep the global average temperature increase under two degrees Celsius.

If we cross that threshold, say climate scientists, global warming will reach a tipping point that would unleash catastrophic changes.

Adopting a green or low-carbon economy means dramatically modifying the way that most of humanity conceives of economic activity.

At first glance, it is easier to begin by halting deforestation of the world's forests and jungles, responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse emissions.

The REDD+ initiative (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), which attracted a lot of attention at COP 16, calls for rich countries to finance forest-saving actions in developing countries, benefitting local actors, and rural and indigenous communities in particular.

REDD+ "is attracting both rich countries and countries with forests" to some form of "carbon exchange," because, said Bassey, "rich countries can keep polluting, and countries with forests believe they can get some money through the REDD mechanism."

It is not true conservation, but rather a way of reducing emissions, according to the Nigerian expert. When a forest is included in the mechanism, it will prevent the local communities from utilising it as they have for their livelihood, "because whoever is in the forest will have to assure that the carbon stock would be retained."

The key lies in establishing a system of clear controls, says attorney Adrianna Quintero, of the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), a U.S.-based environmental group.

To achieve the goal of conservation, "monitoring and transparency are critical, as it is for ensuring respect for the rights of indigenous and rural peoples," Quintero told Tierramérica.

Despite all the problems, the UN system of negotiations remains the only one possible. "The diplomatic process is a little slow," but how else can the interests and positions of the 192 countries party to the Convention on Climate Change be taken into account, she said.

In Quintero's view, the different stances have been drawing closer towards common ground that can serve as the basis for a broader treaty. And much of that progress is the result of the way that host Mexico led the negotiations -- not only in Cancún, but over the course of the year.

One pillar on this common ground is to provide funds to poor countries for confronting their new climate and weather realities, adopting new technologies and paying for the enormous losses resulting from more frequent and intense weather disasters.

But once again, there are clashing interests. At COP 15, held last year in Copenhagen, the pledge was to deliver at least 30 billion dollars a year, "and not even the 30 billion is coming," said Bassey.

According to the FOEI leader, the rich countries have done all they can to move money set aside for aid to use instead as loans, "to make profits out of the misery of the poor countries hit by global warming."

This does not mean not just looking for funds, it means "rich countries paying their climate debt," said Bassey. "European countries for years have been colonising the atmosphere with their carbon emissions," he added.

There is an enormous gap between the climate justice Bassey is seeking and the route of "the possible" pursued in the official negotiations.

And there is little hope of addressing the central question -- how to halt climate-changing emissions -- until the next summit, COP 17, in Durban, South Africa.

"The biggest and most powerful nations on earth simply aren't paying attention to physics and chemistry," said Bill McKibben, founder of global climate campaign in a statement.

Civil society is "not big enough yet to beat the fossil fuel industry and its allies, but we're gaining," said McKibben.

"What is the point of all theses meetings during two weeks," wondered Bassey. "We are heading nowhere. And it shows the lack of recognition of the seriousness of the warming crisis."

"When the impacts really multiply, when the climate hits a tipping point, not even the rich countries will escape the disaster that will follow," he warned.

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The climate deal that failed us

12th December 2010 - Shefali Sharma, Think Forward 

“History will be the judge of what has happened in Cancún.” These are the last lines of the Bolivian Government’s press release yesterday about the outcome of the climate negotiations here in Cancún. The talks ended here today after two weeks of negotiations by a 192 governments. It is a deal that will be remembered by our future generations as one that killed the climate treaty, unless we radically change course.

Witnessing standing ovations and applause in the closing hours over negotiating texts that basically kill the Kyoto Protocol and make emissions reductions voluntary for all governments fills me with a profound sense of disillusionment (you can view the final plenaries here). Disillusionment at the utter lack of leadership exhibited by virtually every government except Bolivia and disillusionment at the role that many environmental and development groups played in legitimizing these governments’ actions.

The compromise arrived at Cancún was a coup for the United States. The U.S. came in with nothing to offer in terms of binding commitments to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and yet managed to effectively push for voluntary targets. The source of these targets is the Copenhagen Accord that President Obama negotiated by cornering a few key countries in a back room in the last hours of the climate negotiations a year ago at COP 15. 

“There is only one way to measure the success of a climate agreement, and that is based on whether or not it will effectively reduce emissions to prevent runaway climate change. This text clearly fails, as it could allow global temperatures to increase by more than 4 degrees, a level disastrous for humanity,” says Bolivia.

Sadly, Bolivia was set up as the scapegoat at the meeting—portrayed as the only country standing in the way of multilateralism and progress on a climate deal. “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” they said. 

Manufacturing Consensus

This scapegoating is nothing new. I have witnessed it in the WTO where governments, under great pressure by powerful countries like the United States and the EU, are too afraid to speak out or too keen to be seen as constructive actors on the geopolitical theater. And theater it was last night as country after country applauded the president of the COP for her “open and transparent” process and successful outcome. Yet in reality, we all knew that the deal had been negotiated behind closed doors by a handful of countries. At times, there were 50 countries in a room somewhere in the conference complex. 

But we did not know where and we did not know what they were negotiating. Civil society, unlike other U.N. negotiations, was not allowed in any of the drafting groups. And what governments drafted did not even seem to appear in the texts crafted by the chairs of the two negotiating tracks of the climate talks.

In the closing hours of the COP, Bolivia made strong statements that it did not agree to the outcome and that there was no consensus. In the U.N., all countries must agree and have “consensus” before a treaty or a deal is adopted. In Cancún, the deal was ceremoniously gaveled as agreed.

For civil society organizations, Cancún must be a wake-up call for serious reflection. How have we been complicit in an outcome that has ultimately not respected the science of global warming? Worse still, some have applauded an outcome that lets industrialized countries off the hook from legally binding and mandatory targets to reduce GHGs—something they agreed to when they signed the Kyoto Protocol.

The 20th anniversary of the birth of the Climate Treaty is 2012 and the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. Lets ensure that by the time we get there, we have managed to shift the fundamental elements of what was agreed here in Cancún towards a much more accountable framework to address climate change. 

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Cancun Agreement stripped bare by Bolivia's dissent

December 2010 - Nick Buxton, Transnational Institute

In the famous Hans Christian Anderson fable, The Emperor's New Clothes, a weaver famously plays on an emperor's arrogance and persuades him to wear a non-existent suit with the argument that it is only invisible to the 'hopelessly stupid.' The moment of truth comes, as we can all remember, when a child in an otherwise silent crowd yells out, “But he is not wearing any clothes!” What we don't always recall is that the naked Emperor suspects the child may be telling the truth, but carries on marching proudly and unclothed regardless.

The story is a rather apt parallel for the Cancun climate agreements that were signed last week. Only one dissenting nation, Bolivia, dared to voice its dissent with the agreement. Yet their voice was silenced by the gavel of the Chair and by the standing ovations of 191 countries. They, like the Emperor, must know that the deal is naked and without substance, yet they march on proudly regardless.

Cancun sets us on dangerous path to runaway climate change

Bolivia's indefatigable negotiator, Pablo Solon, put it most cogently in the concluding plenary, when he said that the only way to assess whether the agreement had any 'clothes' was to see if it included firm commitments to reduce emissions and whether it was enough to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The troubling reality, as he pointed out, is that the agreement merely confirms the completely inadequate voluntary pledges of reductions of 13-16% by 2020 made since Copenhagen's talks.

Analysts at Climate Action Tracker have revealed that these paltry offers are nowhere near enough to keep temperature increases even within the contested goal of 2 degrees. Instead they would lead to increases in temperature of between 3 and 4 degrees, a level considered by scientists as highly dangerous for the vast majority of the planet. Solon said, “I can not in all in consciousness sign such as a document as millions of people will die as a result.”

To a stony silence from fellow country negotiators, Solon also pointed out a whole range of critical flaws in the agreement from its complete lack of specifics on key issues of finance to its systematic exclusion of voices from developing countries. As a press statement from Bolivia put it: “Proposals by powerful countries like the US were sacrosanct, while ours were disposable. Compromise was always at the expense of the victims, rather than the culprits of climate change.” Solon concluded that in substance the Cancun text was little more than a rehashed version of the Copenhagen Accord, that had been widely condemned the year before.

Mexican Environment Minister Patricia Espinosa, chair of the talks, refused to open up any points of her draft text for negotiation and cheered on by other delegates made the legally dubious ruling that Bolivia's opposition did not block consensus. The Cancun agreements were 'approved' to great celebration from the international community.

Cancun mood-music sways opinion

It became clear soon after the plenary ended, that what seemed like roars of support for the Cancun text, were more cries of relief or desperation. After the debacle in Copenhagen and following a probably deliberate policy by major powers who spoke constantly of ‘low expectations',  the mere existence of an agreement seemed enough. As Chris Huhne, UK climate secretary put it, “This is way better than what we were expecting only a few weeks ago.” The mood seemed to infect the larger non-governmental organisations who were gathered in Cancun. Greenpeace that had labelled the almost identical Copenhagen Accord last year a “crime scene” said that Cancun had put “hope over fear and put the building blocks back in place for a global deal to combat climate change.” Oxfam echoed them, saying that “negotiators have resuscitated the UN talks and put them on a road to recovery.”

In the aftermath of Cancun, the main defence of the text has been based on appeals to realism.  As Tom Athanasiou of Eco Equity puts it in his analysis on the Accord: “The reason that so many people are celebrating the Agreements is because they believe that, setting aside the details, they capture the only agreement that was possible.” Many environmentalists argue that at least with this accord and a reinvigorated belief in the UN, we live to fight another day. Meanwhile they warn that a collapse of negotiations in Cancun would perhaps have for ever destroyed the UN process and even the possibility of any future binding agreement on climate change. Nearly all use one of the favourite mantras of the negotiations, saying that critics should “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”  

Realism of science, or realism of the powerful?

However this argument supposes two things: firstly that progress, even if small, was made at Cancun and secondly that it is better to have some kind of agreement than none at all. This reasoning along with both the financial offers, cajoling and bullying of the major powers – which was revealed most dramatically in wikileaks cables – is no doubt what drove most government negotiators to sign the Cancun texts. Yet both suppositions are highly questionable.

First in terms of analysing progress, aside from the many other critiques of the texts, there is strong evidence that the Cancun agreements take us backwards rather than forwards. One of the key characteristics of the otherwise wholly insufficient Kyoto Protocol is that it had legally binding targets based in theory on the science. As we come up to the first deadline of 2012, seventeen nations will almost certainly breach their commitments to reduce emissions by 2020 by 5% compared to 1990. Some nations like Canada, Australia, Turkey and Spain have instead vastly increased emissions. However the fact that they signed legally binding targets does open up the possibilities of legal challenges and a more effective incentive in future for countries to abide by their commitments.

By contrast, the Cancun agreement effectively kills off the Kyoto Protocol and replaces it with a pledge system of voluntary commitments. Not only does this lead to countries only offering what they plan to do anyway, ignoring what science demands; there is absolutely no possibility of legal penalties if a country fails to fulfil its commitments. It is an ineffective and highly dangerous way of tackling one of the biggest crises humanity has faced.

Will good be the enemy of the necessary?

The second questionable supposition is that any agreement is better than no agreement. This may be true for some international discussions on less critical issues, but is it for discussing a climate crisis where urgent and radical action is the only way to avert runaway climate change? As even supporters of the Cancun agreement note, the text has mainly punted off most difficult decisions to the next meeting of the UNFCC in Durban, South Africa in December 2011. It already seems likely that we will see a repeat of the hype built up around Copenhagen and the equal likelihood of either a fudge or a failure – particularly if delegates can seem so easily sated by a few symbolic gestures such as the ones in Cancun.

Meanwhile the window of opportunity to act is closing. One report by the London School of Economics suggested that greenhouse gas emissions will have to peak by 2015 to have even a 50 per cent probability of keeping  temperature increases below 1.5 degrees – the demand made by over 100 developing nations.  The Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change similarly identified 2015 as a time when emissions will have to peak to stabilise atmospheric CO2 at levels of 350 to 400 Parts Per Million. Yet in the face of this, the best the world community can come up with is an agreement to continue negotiating? And we are happy to call that a success? [As a side note, it can only be seen as deeply cynical that industrialised countries in Cancun agreed on 2015 as the date to review whether the global target should be 1.5 degrees rather than 2 degrees given that any action after that will almost certainly be too late].

The truth is that Cancun revealed a shocking failure by the world's nations  - and particularly those most responsible for causing climate change - to find a collective and effective response to a crisis that will affect the most vulnerable. A report by the Climate Vulnerable Forum, in December 2010 noted that already 350,000 people die from natural disasters related to climate change and that this figure is likely to rise to one million people every year if we don't radically change course. Bolivia was not an obstacle to progress, it was rather the only nation daring enough to tell the truth. Rather than less Bolivias, we need more willing to stand up and say that the agreement was 'naked' and unacceptable. Perhaps if more nations – especially major emerging economies like India and Brazil - had said they would not accept an illusory deal, it could have shocked the world into moving beyond cautious approaches and acting radically for humanity and the planet.

Only mass mobilisation can shift power balance

The needed shift in thinking and action, though, will only happen if we mobilise and on a scale that has never been done before. Bolivia's bravery came to a large degree from the mandate it received at the World Peoples' Conference on Climate Change held in Cochabamba in April 2010, and the support it felt from people on the streets just a few blocks from the negotiating halls. There thousands of indigenous people, smallholder farmers and grassroots activists marching on the streets were unequivocal in condemning the Cancun agreements and in supporting Bolivia. They already see the costs of climate change and were not prepared to be bought off with a deal that did nothing to safeguard their future. They were backed by climate justice networks  worldwide.

Yet the isolation of Bolivia in the conference plenary shows that this movement faces a huge challenge in the coming year to scale up. As Bill McKibben, founder of the global campaign, argues we need to “build a movement strong enough to take on the most profitable and powerful enterprise that the human civilization has ever seen—the fossil fuel industry” and we need to do it urgently before it is too late.

Cancun text: A backwards step

  • Document effectively kills of the only binding agreement, Kyoto Protocol, in favour of a completely inadequate bottom-up voluntary approach

  • Increases loopholes and flexibilities that allow developed countries to avoid action, via an expansion of offsets and continued existence of ‘surplus allowances’ of carbon after 2012 by countries like Ukraine and Russia which effectively cancel out any other reductions.

  • Finance Commitments weakened: commitment to “provide new and additional financial resources” to developing countries have been diluted to talking more vaguely about “mobilising [resources] jointly”, with expectation that this will mainly be provided by carbon markets

  • The World Bank is made trustee of the new Green Climate Fund, which has been strongly opposed by many civil society groups due to the undemocratic makeup of the Bank and its poor environmental record

  • No discussion of Intellectual Property rights, repeatedly raised by many countries, as current rules obstruct transfer of key climate-related technologies to developing countries

  • Constant assumption in favour of market mechanisms to resolve climate change even though this perspective is not shared by a number of countries, particularly in Latin America

  • Green light given for the controversial REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) programme which often ends up perversely rewarding those responsible for deforestation, while dispossessing indigenous and forest dwellers of their land

  • Systematic exclusion of proposals that came from the historic World Peoples' Conference on Climate Change including proposals for a Climate Justice Tribunal, full recognition of indigenous rights, and rights for nature

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