Environmental Voices: The path for climate change beyond Cancun

The UN Climate Change Conference–recently held in Cancun, Mexico–delivered what is considered to be a balanced package of decisions in the form of the ‘Cancun Agreements’ to serve as a foundation for future talks.  

After serious concerns about the longevity of the UN multilateral system since the fiasco in Copenhagen in 2009, many are now optimistic about what seems to be a regained faith in the system after Cancun.

Yet others believe that Cancun didn't go far enough. Governments renewed their trust in each other, but to succeed fully they must press boldly ahead with what they have agreed.

Most analysts say the accords were enough to rescue the dying negotiating process from potential collapse, but deferred the most painful decisions for at least one more year.

As a result, from a political point of view there is a lot of optimism, but from a scientific point of view there is not. This is because the Cancun agreement is too weak on emission cuts and, as things stand, the world will probably see temperatures rise beyond the 2C or 1.5C levels that most nations say they want.

So, as climate change remains a pressing threat and the pace of the multilateral system (working or not) is not fast enough to address the environmental issues at hand, where do we go from here ?

Certainly, South Africa–host of the next round of talks under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to be held in Durban at the end of 2011–has much work ahead in adding flesh to the Cancun Agreements and coming out with a legally binding treaty, considering the several important issues that remain outstanding.  

Durban might also require all-night marathons to achieve an agreement.

Developed and developing countries remain divided, with developing countries taking the view that while rich countries are calling upon them to pledge emission reduction targets, they are not pledging enough themselves–though developing countries do not carry a historical responsibility in causing climate change.

There is also a point of contention regarding the finances involved for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

The Cancun deal took into account the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, under which developed countries pledged US$30 billion as fast-start finance for adaptation and mitigation efforts from 2010 to 2012. But the accord has already generated a lot of acrimony among developing countries, who have accused rich countries of ‘double counting’ their official development assistance (ODA) as support for climate change efforts. This issue must be resolved.

Finally, another unresolved issue from Cancun is the request to have a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol, which will end in 2012. Developing countries want to ensure that the rules and mechanisms laid out in the Kyoto Protocol will continue beyond 2012, giving them incentives to reduce their emissions.

The problem is that there is strong opposition from certain key developed countries such as Japan, Canada, and Russia. These countries are unwilling to commit to a second Kyoto Protocol commitment period without having comparable commitments set out in another agreement imposed upon non-Kyoto signatories such as the US. This is another contentious issue postponed until Durban.

The concern is essentially that Durban will be the last chance to save the Kyoto Protocol before it expires in 2012. As this is currently the only legally binding agreement on climate change, we cannot afford to lose it. Without it, there will only be a series of agreements which stand as political commitments, but are not legally binding.

So from now until the Durban meeting later this year, there is an urgent need for countries to continue to develop national action plans to curb climate change independent of the results of the UNFCCC negotiations. In bringing these national action plans to the international arena, we stand to strengthen the negotiating process.

This article is part of Al-Masry Al-Youm's weekly "Environmental Voices" series, in which issues related to the environment–whether local, regional or international in nature–will be discussed from the point of view of environmental experts.

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