The (slow) road to Cancun

26 July 2010

Damian Ryan, Senior Policy Manager for The Climate Group, analyzes what progress has been made so far and what remains to be done in the build up to COP16 in Mexico at the end of the year.

They say a week is a long time in politics. The same cannot be said of international climate change efforts. While political fortunes are often subject to rapid change (consider Australia’s recently disposed Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd), global efforts to tackle climate change continue to inch along.

This is not from wont of activity. The past month or so has seen a flurry of international get-togethers, which have dealt with climate change to varying extents. Leaders met for the G8 and G20 in Canada, senior climate officials gathered in Italy for a Major Economies Forum (MEF) discussion, climate negotiators held two weeks of talks in Germany and the first-ever Clean Energy Ministerial took place in the US.

For the most part, however, progress in all forums has been fairly limited. The G8’s communiqué largely repeated the group’s 2009 statement; the G20 devoted just one paragraph to climate change in a 28 page declaration; the MEF held substantive discussions on the critical and sensitive issue of monitoring reporting and verification (MRV) but achieved no breakthroughs; and the UN climate talks concluded with dissatisfaction amongst many countries over the latest negotiating text that is meant to be the basis of a new climate agreement.

With less than six months to the next UN climate summit (COP16) in Mexico in November, and only two further weeks of formal negotiations scheduled, it remains unclear what exactly countries will be able to deliver. Most observers and many negotiators agree that it won’t be the final global deal originally promised for Copenhagen.

A number of countries have instead suggested that agreement is possible on a subset of key issues at COP16. Top of the list is the issue of deforestation, for which $4.5billion of financing has already been pledged. Agreement on a technology mechanism which would establish a network of regional research hubs and a central coordinating committee is also possible. Other countries however, including the US, have pushed back on this approach, arguing that issues must be agreed as a “package”. The concern of these countries seems to be the loss of leverage and trade-offs that would occur through addressing issues individually.

In any case, something tangible must be delivered in Mexico, simply to maintain the reputation and future viability of the UN process. Another COP which fails to show investors and businesses that governments are committed to a low-carbon future could fatally undermine the UNFCCC’s legitimacy as the premier forum for climate action.

The irony is that this lack of international political progress is taking place against a background of ever-increasing business and regional action. In South Korea, for example, the country’s powerhouse industries are set to invest $18billion dollars in ‘green-growth’ sectors over the next three years. This represents a 48% increase over the previous three year period 1. In California, electric vehicle pioneer Tesla Motors raised over $200million last month through a record-breaking IPO 2. And a report this week showed that Chinese investment in solar, wind and other low-carbon technologies soared by 72% compared to the previous year. The $11billion of spending was more than the combined total of EU and US investment over the same period 3.

The disconnection between the politics of UN negotiations, and the reality of what progressive and entrepreneurial businesses are achieving on the ground, is frustrating to say the least. Former UN climate chief Yvo de Boer recently summed up the problem and the challenge for anyone concerned about creating the clean revolution: “...if… a significant number of people outside the environmental movement don't believe the green growth story, then it's just not going to happen. Very few governments are going to be willing to run their countries into the ground to save the planet.” 4

As the countdown begins again to the next COP, the need to reconnect the international political debate with the pragmatic actions of business and regional government remains as great as ever. Upcoming Climate Group initiatives, such as ‘Climate Week NYC’ in New York in September, and the annual ‘Climate Leaders’ Summit’ at COP in Mexico, are designed to play a part in making the critical connections happen. If a week really can transform political fortunes, then five months should be more than sufficient to change our climate fortunes.



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