Big players pull all the strings at climate meeting


ANALYSIS:UN climate conferences are not for the faint-hearted – and Cancún was no different

BULLYING DOESN’T only happen at school. In Cancún, Australia was accused of “bullying” the tiny and vulnerable Pacific island nation of Tuvalu to drop its opposition to plans by developed countries (including the EU bloc) to hide emissions from logging forests, saying relations between them would be damaged if it didn’t.

Bolivia went much further, claiming that all developing counties had been “bullied” by their richer cousins into accepting the deal that finally emerged at the UN’s climate change conference in Cancún during the early hours of Saturday morning. But its claim was drowned out by deafening applause from other delegations.

When diplomats or ministers representing 193 countries gather for the annual round of talks on what to do about the world’s changing climate, we only witness the open plenary sessions and “side events”. The real negotiations take place behind closed doors – and they can get very tough and, at times, quite dirty.

What many observers have long suspected they now know from the latest series of embarrassing revelations by WikiLeaks of US diplomatic cables. These confirm that the Obama administration has not been averse to applying pressure and even manipulating other, less powerful countries to get its own way.

The prospect of receiving $50 million (€38 million) in aid for climate-related projects was enough to persuade the Maldives – one of the countries most endangered by rising sea levels – to fall in behind last year’s loose Copenhagen Accord, cobbled together by the US, Brazil, China, India and South Africa.

The US also sought EU backing so that Washington and Brussels could “better handle third-country obstructionism [from the likes of Bolivia and Venezuela] and avoid future train wrecks on climate”, as Obama’s deputy national security adviser Michael Froman told EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard.

Representatives of indigenous peoples expressed outrage over the Cancún deal, claiming that it was “not the result of an informed and open consensus process, but the consequence of an ongoing US diplomatic offensive of backroom deals, arm-twisting and bribery” that targeted countries opposed to the Copenhagen Accord.

It is because every country plays hardball in its own interest that a comprehensive agreement on how to tackle global warming has proved so elusive. Cancún was the 16th successive annual conference held under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and we still don’t have such a deal.

Not only were expectations for “COP 16” low, after high hopes were dashed in Copenhagen last December, but even the idea that we will have “this one magical treaty [is] not going to happen for some time” and we need to start understanding that reality, according to Eileen Claussen, a former US climate negotiator.

This is due, in large measure, to adverse political conditions in Washington DC and the impossibility of getting US Senate approval for any new treaty. That’s why the US has become a “wounded elephant” at the climate talks, as Gambia envoy Pa Ousman Jarju put it. “We know there’s nothing they can push.”

The only thing that would change this grim prognosis would be a willingness by China, India and other major developing countries to accept legally-binding cuts in their emissions. And that’s not going to happen anytime soon, particularly if the Kyoto Protocol is not renewed by the EU and others after its expiry in 2012.

“Kyoto is the linchpin,” according to Alden Meyer, veteran delegate for the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists. “If the message out of here is that Kyoto is dead or on life support with no chance of resuscitation, then the developing countries will block anything going forward,” he told Bloomberg in an interview in Cancún.

Yet it seems difficult to see how Kyoto can survive, given opposition from Japan, Russia and Canada – all signatories of the original treaty.

As Japan’s Akira Yamada said, renewing it would be neither a fair nor effective way to tackle climate change globally as long as the biggest emitters (China and the US) were “spectators in the stands”.

What’s likely to happen, therefore, is that countries will get on with the transition to a low-carbon economy, fulfilling – and perhaps even strengthening – the pledges they’ve made under the Copenhagen Accord. Meanwhile, poorer countries will get aid from the new Climate Fund and compensation for protecting rainforests.

“Fast-start funding” for 2010-12 has been pledged, amounting to $30 billion in all. The really big challenge will be to raise a promised $100 billion per year from 2020 onwards – much of it coming from carbon levies on power plants, energy-intensive industry, aviation and shipping, rather than relying on entirely on governments.

This is as it should be, for otherwise what incentive would they all have (apart from rising fuel prices) to switch to less carbon-dependent technologies? And even the International Energy Agency, which recently accepted that oil production will peak sooner or later, now wants to see that transition happening quite urgently.

Inevitably, there are spats between different sectors. Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Carbon War Room and owner of an airline, launched a broadside against shipping, publishing the estimated carbon emissions of every ship on its website. Except that he got it wrong, according to the International Chamber of Shipping.

“Shipping is already the most carbon-efficient form of commercial transport, at least 30 times more so than cargo aviation, and the high cost of marine fuel – due to escalate further as it switches to low sulphur fuels – already means that shipowners have every incentive to reduce their fuel consumption even more,” the chamber said.

Both aviation and shipping escaped having to meet targets for emissions cuts under the Kyoto Protocol, but they will soon be drawn into the net – one way or another. The wider issue of whether to renew the protocol after it expires at the end of 2012 was fudged at Cancún and will be debated again in Durban next December.

The question mark over its future could increase the cost of tackling climate change, according to David Hone, chairman of the Geneva-based International Emissions Trading Association.

“If there is no international cohesiveness, it makes it more difficult for a responsive market-based approach to develop,” he told Bloomberg.

And whatever about the long cold spell in Ireland and northern Europe, Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies said last Friday that 2010 has been the warmest year in its 130-year climate record — beating 1998 and 2005 — due to a combination of climate change and the cyclical El Niño warming pattern in the tropical Pacific Ocean.

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