Cancun on climate change
Based on plain deceptions about action, the upcoming global environment meeting in Mexico will not adequately address the vast threat of rapid climate change, writes Curtis Doebbler*
From 29 November to 10 December, the 194 governments who have agreed to take action on climate change will meet in Cancun, Mexico. While expectations are lower than at last year's Copenhagen Summit, the failure to take action then means that the situation is even more dire, after a year that saw the warmest average global temperatures in recorded history.
While all 194 countries are parties to the legally binding UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), few are planning to be represented by heads of state in Mexico as they were in Copenhagen. The reason is that they are sure that no comprehensive agreement will be reached. This is despite the fact that all of the same countries have solemnly pledged to take action aimed at "stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere... within a timeframe sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner."
This obligation requires all countries to adopt and report on policies that are intended to combat climate change. In addition, the 40 most developed countries and the European Union, which are listed in Annex I to the UNFCCC, have agreed to take the lead. Each Annex I country, therefore, has a legal obligation to communicate its plans to cut its emissions to its 1990 levels according to Article 4 (2) of the convention. Instead of pursuing these obligations in good faith, developed countries that are among the largest polluters, such as the United States and the European Union, are seeking to change what was agreed in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit at which the UNFCCC was adopted. Instead of developed countries taking the lead, they want to forget the past and treat everyone as having equal responsibilities or no responsibilities at all.
Using this scenario, the US and the EU threaten that they will not obey their legal obligations unless developing countries take on equal responsibilities. The hypocrisy of this feeble claim is even more apparent considering that China has pledged to cut its emissions to 40-45 per cent and India by 20-25 per cent, both below their 2005 levels, by 2020, but the US has failed to even make a voluntary pledge to these levels despite having legal obligations to make greater cuts.
Instead of trying to fulfil this legal obligation in good faith, many countries, particularly rich industrialised developed countries, continue to act selfishly to protect their economic progress by denying most of the people in the world equal development and protection from the adverse impacts of climate change. This harsh reality was made even more pointedly by Sudanese Ambassador Lumumba Diaping who, representing the 135 nations of the G77 in Copenhagen last year, accused the majority of rich countries of the world of sending the poor of Africa to "the furnaces" in an apparent allusion to the Nazi holocaust.
Diaping was describing the US-imposed Copenhagen Accord by which countries agreed to satisfy their legal obligations with voluntary action. His words were criticised as not giving the voluntary route a chance; yet one year later they have proven his point was valid. For example, of $100 billion of "new and additional" financing promised to address climate change by the states endorsing the accord, only about $30 billion has been pledged. Of this amount, less than $7 billion has materialised. And of this amount less than $3.5 billion is new and additional. These figures are de minimus when compared to the needs estimated to be between $500 billion and $1 trillion per year.
If this money does not materialise, especially the significant part necessary for adaptation, hundreds of millions of Africans will be subject to the murderous consequences of increases in deadly diseases, less access to food and water, encroaching desertification that makes farm land arid, and other interferences with their most fundamental human rights. Rather than contradicting Diaping, these almost certain consequences indicate that perhaps the ambassador spoke too softly.
By adhering to the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC, 187 States -- not including the world's largest polluter, the United States -- agreed to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases or carbon dioxide equivalents by five per cent (or some denominator thereof) below what they were producing in 1990. Of the 39 states that have this obligation, which only applies to the most developed countries that have benefited from greater pollution for more than the past hundred years, only a small number are on track to meet their targets. Even among these states, it is carbon trading -- buying capacity to pollute from other states -- that is providing them the necessary "credits" to be able to claim they are reducing emissions.
The Kyoto Protocol only includes emission targets until 2012, after which date we will be able to say for sure whether states have met their legal obligations. Everyone agrees, however, that it is essential to extend these emission targets. The EU and the US support weaker standards. The US did not even ratify the Kyoto Protocol and does not pretend that it is willing to meet its "lowest common denominator" standards. The EU has also not met these standards, except by its use of "creative carbon accounting" that is based on carbon trading schemes. One of these schemes is called REDD+ (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). Although REDD+ has never been officially made part of the UNFCCC mechanisms, due to the failure of states to agree on its operating principles, it is being implemented by the governments of developed states. At first glance this may seem like good news. At closer inspection it is not, at least not to anyone who cares about the environment and addressing climate change in good faith.
In fact, REDD+ is actually a system that has led to increased emissions. This is because developed states buy rights on the protection of forests in developing countries from the developing countries concerned, in return for the capacity to pollute. In other words, developing countries get fast cash for ecologically friendly projects or projects to adapt to climate change in exchange for not exploiting their forests, while developed countries buy carbon credits that amount to a right to produce more greenhouse gas emissions. The irony is that many developing countries are not exploiting their forests right now, but are instead protecting them by law and not merely because they are paid to do so. As a result, developed countries are buying the right to pollute from a country that does not pollute. The end result is greater pollution and more harmfully accelerated climate change impacts.
The flawed rationale of REDD+ appears so clear that a non-expert can understand it, yet developed countries are throwing so much cash around that even opponents of REDD+ in principle are willing to accept it in practice. For example, despite the fact that the indigenous president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, has cogently pointed out that REDD+'s commoditisation of the environment constitutes a challenge to the basic values that are widely shared by indigenous peoples, developed countries have been able to hire indigenous people as their spokespersons in support of REDD+. Moreover, few countries have shown themselves resilient enough in their adherence to their values to forgo quick cash handouts, especially if they can wrap them in the glossy paper of ecologically friendly action. This corruption of the commitments that states have undertaken in the UNFCCC is perhaps one of the most serious challenges that will be faced in Cancun.
The new executive-director of the UNFCCC Secretariat, Costa Rican Ms Christiana Figueres, who replaced her predecessor after the failure of the Copenhagen Summit to meet global expectations, has intentionally tried to put a damper on expectations for Cancun. She has done so by seeking consensus on a limited number of issues at the point of the lowest common denominator, which now rests far below the actions that are needed to react meaningfully to climate change. This is hardly surprising to those familiar with Figueres' business background. In her new post, she has appeared more inclined to accept invitations to speak at business events than at those of environmental NGOs. Addressing a meeting organised by international insurance conglomerate Swiss Re in New York City recently, she emphasised that adaptation to climate change will increase opportunities for private business, particularly for the insurance industry.
Figueres has also used her good relations with her regional Mexican partners to encourage restrictions on NGO participation that go further than those recently imposed by Mexico on NGOs attending a large international meeting on migration. Despite the Mexican Foreign Ministry's repeated assurances that adequate space for NGOs is available, Ms Figueres' secretariat has cancelled many NGO events. At the same time, her secretariat has failed to respond to queries about exactly how many venues are available, or how many requests for venues for side-events have been made by NGOs.
Debates about important issue of financing mitigation and adaptation action is another issue from which the voices of ordinary people might be excluded. Like the secret October meeting hosted behind closed doors in Switzerland to contemplate financing, and to which civil society was not invited, some countries are scheming in groups to ensure that the new Green Fund that is being considered is controlled by its donors. Everyone agrees that financing is necessary, but to date developed countries, the only ones who can afford to bankroll it because of their long history of benefiting by polluting the environment, refuse to do so.
Similarly, all countries agree that technology transfer is necessary to allow developing countries especially to develop green economies. Nevertheless, developed countries remain selfishly protective of their significant earnings from intellectual property in parallel forums like the World Trade Organisation and the World Intellectual Property Organisation. The secretive Davos World Economic Forum, just over a month after Cancun, is likely to lead to further backroom agreements to keep the intellectual property of green technology out of the hands of the masses that cannot afford to pay inflated market rates for it.
In this sense, much of what will transpire in Cancun is about human values and common sense. We all know that we need to do something about climate change. We are so sure climate change is happening and that it is caused by human beings that we have set this fact down in a universally adhered to treaty, the UNFCCC, which enjoys more support than the Charter of the United Nations. We have also agreed in the most fundamental principles of this treaty that are to guide our action that we must take equitable action that reflects the common but different responsibilities of each state. We have recognised that our common action is necessary because Mother Earth -- as many indigenous communities refer to our planet -- is the shared heritage of all of humankind. And we are all aware that the most fundamental human rights of the most vulnerable among us are negatively affected by climate change.
Why have we failed so long with such threatening consequences? One important reason might be our lack of moral integrity, our failures to take seriously the values that we claim underpin our civilisation on this planet. There is a conspicuous contrast between how we acted in the 1940s to create institutions and legal obligations that could protect humankind and now. In the aftermath of Nazi holocaust and worldwide war we laid down principles that we hoped would one day rid us of the scourge of self-righteous superiority. While these principles, such as internationally recognised human rights, may have guided us in the right direction, we are now faced with an even more serious challenge.
The Cancun meeting on climate change will end 10 December, the annual International Day of Human Rights. It would be a perfect time to proclaim an agreement on international action to address the adverse consequences of climate change. Indeed, this is required by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted on 10 December 1948 in its calling upon states as well as "every individual and every organ of society," to promote respect for human rights through "progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance."
However, when this year's meeting ends on human rights day it will be with the striking absence of the UN's most senior human rights official, and the likely failure to address in action the adverse consequences of climate change, that sums up the state of where we are. Instead of progress towards aspirations we proclaimed so long ago, the outcome will be an ominous reminder of how far we're away from achieving the pledges we made in 1948.
The Cancun meeting is also likely to be a stark reminder that the international community we have built over almost two-thirds of a century has failed the people it was meant to serve. But as such, perhaps it will also encourage us all to recreate these failed institutions in a manner that ensures that they can deal with the greatest challenges of our time.
* The writer is a prominent international human rights lawyer.