COP16 saves UN process–at what cost?

COP16 in Cancún ended recently with agreements signed by all but one of the 194 nations. The UN-sponsored negotiating process moves forward, but at what cost?

The facts about the Cancún accord:

  • It calls for deep cuts in carbon emissions worldwide to keep global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees C and preferably no more than 1.5 degrees C.
  • The agreement is not legally binding; countries will report on their progress.
  • It sets up a Green Climate Fund, administered by equal numbers of people from rich and poor countries. Money from wealthy nations (the CO2 emitters) will be distributed to poor nations to help repair climate change damage and help people adapt to changing climate conditions.
  • It adopts REDD, an agreement on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

On the bright side:

  • 193 out of 194 nations is nearly consensus. (Bolivia alone dissented.)
  • These agreements are more detailed than last year’s decide-nothing document out of Copenhagen. They show deeper commitments to slowing climate change on the part of more nations than ever before.
  • There is more attention to the large role that deforestation plays in climate change and the need to stop clear-cutting.
  • By moving forward, however incrementally, the agreements preserve the climate negotiation process begun by the UN, the ONLY worldwide negotiating process we’ve got.
  • As Robert Stavins, chair of environmental economics at Harvard, says, incremental progress is still progress.

But there’s a not-so-bright side:

  • The emissions targets are nowhere near adequate to preserve the world as we know it. The recommended emissions levels will likely result in a rise in global temperatures of 3 to 4 degrees C (rather than 2 or less). The work remaining is enormous.
  • The United States was, as usual, one of the biggest foot draggers in the process. As reported by Liz Butler, executive director of 1Sky,

The U.S. consistently slowed progress in Cancun and negotiated down to the lowest common denominator before finally shifting course and allowing an agreement to go forward.

  • The rights-of-nature approach put forward by indigenous people and developing countries (outlined in my previous post) got nowhere; it was struck from the negotiating document even before COP16 opened. (More on this in a future post.)
  • The solutions recommended in the Cancún agreements are primarily market-based—for instance, applying a cap-and-trade (or carbon offsets) model to deforestation. The “Republican construct” of cap-and-trade was put forward by Reagan and implemented by the first Bush, and such emissions trading schemes suffer from the weaknesses of the market, namely, increasing the wealth gap between rich and poor countries and operating in tension with more democratic processes.
  • Indigenous people—not coincidentally, the same ones who proposed the rights-of-nature model—are opposed to emissions trading schemes for reasons that are at once religious, political, and economic (more on this in the future). From the Indigenous Environmental Network:

The market mechanisms that implicitly dominate both the spirit and the letter of the Cancun Agreements will neither avert climate change nor guarantee human rights, much less the Rights of Mother Earth.

The sidelining of rights-of-nature language at Cancún plus the implementing of market-based solutions is alienating indigenous people from both rich and poor nations. As Patrick Bond of Global Research reported about Cancún: “The distance between negotiators and the masses of people and the planet grew larger not smaller over the last two weeks.”

But for now, the UN process rolls on, albeit at a snail’s pace. Will it be effective enough to make a difference? Only time will tell.

But time is the one thing we do not have. This T-shirt worn by young people at Cancún says it all. It was spoken by Christina Ora, a youth delegate a year ago to COP15 from the Solomon Islands:

Liam Moriarty / KPLU News /

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2 Responses to COP16 saves UN process–at what cost?

  1. Gail Storey says:December 31, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    Thank you for this coherent clarification, Priscilla. A gift to your many followers.

  2. Laurel Kallenbach says:January 5, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    Yikes! It’s hard to stay positive when your own country, one of the world’s largest carbon emitters drags its feet.