Cancun Climate Change Shakedown

First dispatch from the United Nations Climate Change conference in Cancun


Cancun—Mexicans are much more competent at running a U.N. conference than are Danes. The Copenhagen climate change conference last year was infamous for its chaos. Last December I stood in line for eight hours in subfreezing weather to try to get registered and didn't succeed. I had to come back the next day at 4 a.m. to stand in line for another four hours in order to pick up my press credentials. This year, the whole process took less than one minute. In addition, the Mexican government is managing various climate change constituencies by keeping them apart. The negotiators from 194 countries are installed in the well-guarded and luxurious Moon Palace resort; the non-governmental organizations put on their shows at the isolated CancunMesse Convention Center; and obstreperous activist groups are largely relegated to the more distant Climate Change Village. All are knit together by a huge fleet of buses.

Not only are the Mexican conference hosts good at logistics, but some participants are praising them as being pretty good at jumpstarting negotiations. The pre-meeting buzz (or the conspicuous lack thereof) on the 16th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention (or in the alphabet soup nomenclature of the U.N.—COP 16 of the UNFCCC) was low expectations.

Instead of encountering gloom on my first day at COP-16, activists and members of the European Union delegation at their morning press conferences were surprisingly upbeat. At the Climate Action International morning press conference at the Moon Palace, Tim Gore from Oxfam noted the improved atmosphere at the conference commenting, "We are in a much better place than were last year in Copenhagen." Gore also asserted that the conference was putting negotiations "back on track to a binding agreement by 2012." Former Irish President Mary Robinson cited the plea of the Colombian delegation over the weekend to "lay the ghost of Copenhagen to rest." Robinson is not alone; a wide variety of activists and delegates repeated this meme. So what will exorcise the ghost of Copenhagen from Cancun? In a word, money. 

Here at Cancun, a petition signed by 215 "civil society" groups calls for the establishment of a fair global climate fund. The petitioners consist of environmental activist organizations ranging the alphabet from Action Against Climate Change Liberia to the Zona Especial Indigena de Nicaragua. The fair climate fund would dole out billions to poor countries to enable them to combat climate change.

Activists argue that establishing such a fund under U.N. auspices would fulfill rich country pledges hastily made last year at the Copenhagen conference. The developed countries, including the U.S., promised to give $30 billion in "fast track" climate funding to poor countries by 2013. That's $10 billion per year. By 2020, the rich countries are supposed to annually hand out $100 billion in reparations—ah, aid—to help poor countries mitigate and adapt to climate change being imposed on them by rich country carbon dioxide emissions.

Gore argued that such a fund "would get desperately needed climate funds to those who need it most and who can spend it best." Gore asserted that the prospects for negotiating the details of a fair climate fund are pretty bright.

One hundred billion dollars per year in climate reparations is the bare minimum that the rich countries owe the poor, according to an afternoon panel discussion sponsored by the Chinese Association for Science and Technology. Researcher Wang Mou from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences outlined a planetary carbon budget in which adding 2,771 gigatons (a gigaton equals one billion tons) of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere above the level in 1900 would still keep the average global temperature below the 2 degree Celsius threshold. Call that the global emissions space. According to Wang, the world added 740 gigatons to the atmosphere between 1900 and 1989. Since the world adopted 1990 as the emissions baseline under the UNFCCC negotiated at the U.N. Earth Summit in 1992, the world has put an additional 363 gigatons into the air. This leaves 1,168 gigatons to be emitted by 2050. 

Assuming that it's safe to add only 2,771 gigtons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, that threshold implies an allocation of 2.33 tons per person of annual emissions between 1900 and 2050. But emissions have not been evenly divided. If emissions were to be allocated to countries on a per capita basis, Wang calculates that China has used up only 19 percent of its portion of the atmosphere's capacity and India only 7 percent. On the other hand, the U.S. has used up 300 percent of its share, Europe 150 percent, and Japan 100 percent. Without going into details, Wang calculates that at prices between $5 and $10 per ton of carbon dioxide. That means the rich countries owe the poor countries $4.1 trillion for their overuse of the atmosphere, or about $100 billion per year from now until 2050. "One hundred billion dollars annually is not a contribution, but a repayment to developing countries," concluded Wang.

Wang was mild in comparison to long-time anti-corporate activist Martin Khor who heads up the intergovernmental organization South Centre. In his version of the global carbon budget, Khor calculated that 1,280 gigatons of carbon were added to the atmosphere between 1850 and 2009. In order to meet the 2 degree threshold, he argued that future emissions must be kept below 750 additional gigatons. Since 1850 rich countries have emitted 878 gigatons or 72 percent of the total. With just 25 percent of the world's population their share would be 310 gigatons, an overuse of 568 tons. On the other hand poor countries accounted for 336 gigatons, just 28 percent of the total. Thus Khor argues that their fair share was 904 gigatons, an under-use of 568 gigatons.

Assuming that 750 gigatons is all the emissions space left, going forward the rich countries, which are projected to be just 16 percent of the world's population, would be have a share of only 120 gigatons, while the rest is allocated to poor countries. However, Khor claims that the rich countries have a historic carbon debt of 568 gigatons, so actually they have a negative carbon dioxide budget of 448 gigatons. If the carbon debt of 568 tons were to be valued at $40 per ton, the total owed to the poor countries would amount of $23 trillion dollars, implying climate debt payments of about $600 billion per year over the next 40 years. "One hundred billion dollars per year is just not sufficient," asserted Khor. By way of comparison, consider that the rich countries currently spend a little over $100 billion per year in foreign development aid. Since 1970, the rich countries have spent over $4 trillion (2008 dollars) on foreign aid with not that much to show for it.

In any case, the Cancun strategy seems to be: negotiate financing now and cut emissions later. From the point of view of the developing countries, this makes perfect sense: they get money while making no commitments. U.S. negotiators are trying to at least get developing countries to agree to an international scheme for monitoring, reporting, and verifying (known as MRV in UN-speak) their emissions and how climate change aid is spent before agreeing to the climate fund. But some reject this U.S. plea for developing country accountability as too onerous. "There is no excuse for the U.S. to hold progress on this issue hostage to MRV," complained Tara Rao of the World Wildlife Fund.

Besides financing, the other big issue under discussion at COP-16 is how to officially incorporate Copenhagen Accord pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions into the U.N. climate change negotiations. The Copenhagen Accord was cobbled together in a back room by the leaders of the U.S., China, India, South Africa, and Brazil as a last-minute face-saving measure as that conference came to its chaotic close. It currently has no official standing in the United Nations multilateral climate negotiations.

The Accord set the goal of keeping greenhouse gas emissions below the threshold that would lead to an average global temperature increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial average. To meet that goal rich countries made various pledges to cut their emissions, e.g., the U.S. promised to cut emissions by 2020 to 17 percent of what they were in 2005. Some developing countries also agreed to make efforts to reduce the growth of their future emissions, e.g. China declared that it would try to lower [pdf] its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45 percent by 2020 compared to the 2005 level.

Climate activist Tim Frio from Greenpeace asserted that this is not enough. Why? Because all the pledges added together fall far short of what is needed to put the world on track to keep temperatures below the 2 degree Celsius threshold. Environmentalists want to take the pledges in hand but create a mechanism to increase their "ambition" as part of a binding agreement next year committing rich countries to cuts of 25 to 40 percent below 1990 emissions levels by 2020. This would probably be done by extending the Kyoto Protocol beyond the end of its first commitment period in 2012, but also somehow getting the U.S. to go along.

Last year, President Barack Obama himself showed up at the negotiations. This year the highest official from the U.S. administration at the conference is Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. Chu gave a talk this afternoon on the science of climate change and the $70 billion federal stimulus monies his department is spending on alternative energy and conservation projects. Afterwards, I overheard Chris Flavin, head of the Worldwatch Institute, justly complain that Chu's talk amounted to a boring basic science primer. There was one interesting moment in the talk, however. Chu started out by noting that 2010 was one of the warmest years on record. However, he also reluctantly acknowledged that global average temperatures have been plateaued for the last 10 years. Chu quickly added that we shouldn't focus on just the past 10 years, but should look at 50 to 100 year temperature trend. But that raises the question: If the temperature plateau continued for another 10 years, would that be enough to cast doubt on the climate computer model predictions?

Tomorrow, the ministerial segment during which the environment ministers and other top climate negotiators gather to hammer out whatever agreements will be reached here.

Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey will be filing daily dispatches from the Cancun climate change conference for the rest of this week.