Cancún's First Goal: Do Better than Copenhagen

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Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP / Getty Images

A man works at the Cancunmesse convention center in Cancún, Mexico, on Nov. 25, 2010, during preparations for the U.N. climate summit

It took about half a year for my toes to unfreeze after the U.N.'s climate summit in Copenhagen last December. O.K., I may be exaggerating, but it's no exaggeration to say the Copenhagen talks — the object of so much hype and hope in the months leading up to the event — were an unmitigated disaster. They were hampered by logistical woes from the beginning, with far too many diplomats, journalists and activists trying to jam into Copenhagen's Bella Center, with the result that thousands (including me) were left to wait for accreditation in a freezing scrum outside the gates for hours.

Matters weren't much better inside. The summit was saved from a total collapse only by the last-minute intervention of President Barack Obama and a handful of other world leaders, who drafted the Copenhagen Accord, a political agreement designed to help developed and developing countries undertake steps to reduce carbon emissions. But while the accord saved the summit from going into the books as a complete bust, it was a long way from the global deal that had been its aim. Worse, the last-minute objection of a handful of countries kept it from earning official status from the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), although more than 180 nations have approved it.

Expectations will be much lower at this year's U.N. climate summit, to be held in the Mexican city of Cancún beginning on Nov. 29. The slow global economic recovery has sapped the will for countries to agree on ambitious emissions targets, while Obama's embarrassing midterm-elections defeat — plus the death of domestic carbon cap-and-trade legislation in the Senate this summer — has severely weakened America's credibility and leverage. Even the summit's resort setting — Cancún in December — doesn't exactly promise two weeks of hard work, though at least if things go south we can all hit the beach. (Note to my editor: I'm kidding. Mostly.)

Still, while global negotiations have stalled, climate change hasn't — 2010 is on track to be one of the hottest years in recorded history, while carbon emissions will likely hit an all-time high. There's a lot of unfinished business from Copenhagen that needs to be dealt with at Cancún — and paradoxically, the low expectations for the summit, and the more subdued media coverage, could actually allow more to get done. Here's a rundown of what's at stake:

That's what World Resources Institute president Jonathan Lash has called the upcoming meetings, because Cancún first needs to deal with the hangover from the Copenhagen Accord. The accord was drafted as a way to sidestep the problem of dividing up emissions reductions, which has plagued international climate negotiations for nearly two decades. Instead of agreeing to mandatory emissions cuts, the agreement lets countries — developed and developing alike — declare what they'll do on a national level. (So the U.S. declares it will cut emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, while China pledges to reduce its energy intensity — the amount of energy used per unit of economic output — 40% to 45% from a 2005 baseline.) Washington, which was the main force behind the accord, rightfully argues that the pact marks the first time major developing nations and rich countries alike have committed themselves to climate actions, even if they aren't binding. Still, it's hardly the same as a global carbon market — a long-standing dream of greens — and a recent report by the U.N. Environment Programme found that even if every country fulfilled its pledges under the accord, it would represent only 60% of the carbon cuts needed to keep warming from reaching dangerous levels.

Here's the problem though: it's not at all clear if even that limited promise will be fulfilled. China had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the accord, mostly because it opposed the American insistence that all pledges be "measurable, reportable and verifiable." While China has moved forward with green actions — aggressively investing in renewable power and energy efficiency — it has steadfastly resisted making those efforts binding on the international level. At the same time, with cap and trade dead and a Republican House preparing to convene, it's far from clear how the U.S. will live up to its own promises. If this isn't settled at Cancún, the accord could be headed for discord.

Kyo-Yes or Kyo-No
Americans usually try to forget this — mostly because they never ratified it — but there actually is a global climate agreement already in effect. The Kyoto Protocol commits developed nations who have ratified the pact to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions by a collective 5.2% from 1990 levels. By most measures, the Kyoto Protocol hasn't been very successful. Global carbon emissions keep rising, and some signatories like Canada have almost totally ignored their commitments. Still, it's the only global agreement on carbon emissions currently in effect, but its first commitment period expires in 2012, leaving its fate up in the air. Under one scenario, the protocol could be extended, but that's by no means a sure thing. Even if it's allowed to lapse, European countries — the only ones that have been observing Kyoto anyway — will likely continue to follow its guidelines, though under a European trading system that effectively achieves the same goals.

The U.S., which has long viewed the Kyoto Protocol as inherently flawed because it doesn't include developing nations, wants it to die out quietly. Washington has a point: fair or not, the vast majority of future carbon emissions will come from developing nations, and any pact that doesn't include them will do little to slow climate change. (U.N. officials recently pointed out that if the E.U. were to increase its carbon cuts from 20% to 30% by 2020, the difference would represent only two weeks of Chinese carbon emissions.) But much of the rest of the world, especially India, is still devoted to the ideals of the Kyoto Protocol, arguing that climate change is historically the fault of developed nations and that they should fix it. Expect that debate to overshadow Cancún — and every U.N. climate summit that follows.

Can We Avoid Deforestation?
One bright spot at the Copenhagen summit was the progress made by negotiators on REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. Forests store approximately 25% of the carbon in the terrestrial biosphere, and the destruction of forests, especially in the tropics, accounts for 12% to 17% of the planet's annual greenhouse-gas load. Negotiators behind REDD — also known as avoided deforestation — are looking for ways to compensate tropical countries for keeping their trees standing, most likely by wrapping up the forests into a carbon market. Not only would that reduce global carbon emissions, it would help save rain forests that are the foundation for much of the world's biodiversity. If anything in the climate sphere is win-win, it's this.

Negotiators still have to work out the final details, though they're getting close. There are already pilot programs working at the U.N. level, and developed countries have pledged $4 billion toward REDD. The stage is set for a REDD agreement in Cancún; the only thing that might hold it back is everything else. Washington in particular seems opposed to signing on to REDD in the absence of what it views as a more balanced global agreement, and there's no guarantee that will be forthcoming at Cancún. Still, with a Latin American country like Mexico hosting the summit, you can bet that tropical nations will push to make REDD happen.

Show Us the Money
Notwithstanding Obama's personal diplomacy on the final day, the Copenhagen summit would have truly collapsed had Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not earlier announced support for $30 billion by 2012 in fast-track climate financing bankrolled by developed nations, plus longer-term public and private financing for $100 billion a year by 2020. That promise helped peel off poorer developing nations in Africa and Asia from a Chinese-led opposition bloc at Copenhagen, and paved the way for the accord.

There's just one problem: the money actually has to materialize. Developed countries have already shown on paper that they can meet their $30 billion commitment for fast-start financing by 2012, although it's not like the money is waiting in a Swiss bank account for developing nations to withdraw. As is often the case with development pledges, the amount of money promised generally lags behind the money actually delivered. But at least there's a plan in place for that money.

The bigger concerns though will be over the longer-term $100 billion number, which will assist developing nations in carbon mitigation and, even more important, climate adaptation. (With every year the world fails to curb carbon emissions, adaptation will become ever more vital.) A report this month from the U.N. Secretary-General found that reaching the $100 billion target was "challenging but feasible," and would require private investment along with money from carbon allowances or taxes. But where will that come from? Cap and trade in the U.S. was meant to generate money for climate finance, but that's dead, while Tea Party Republicans have the foreign-aid budget squarely in their sights. Failure to deliver on climate finance, more than anything else, could sink the U.N. climate process.

What Exactly Are We Doing Here?
After Copenhagen ended and I staggered home, I had one thought: The U.N. process was finished. From beginning to end, it was fraught with trouble. More than 190 countries take part in the U.N. climate summits, and all of them — from gigantic Russia to tiny Tuvalu — have to reach consensus for anything to get done. That allowed rogue countries like Sudan and Venezuela to block the Copenhagen Accord from final approval (or, to flip it around, rogue countries like the U.S. to stand in the way of stronger action). Given that a relatively small number of big countries are responsible for most of the carbon emissions on the planet, it seemed like more progress might be able to be made in smaller forums — just as was done in arms control — rather than the entire U.N.

That's not necessarily true. If any threat is truly global, it is global warming, and the U.N. summits give the smaller countries that are most vulnerable to climate change a rare voice. They won't give that up easily, and they shouldn't. But you may see countries — especially the U.S., which isn't as wedded to the UNFCCC as the E.U. or the developing world — pushing for bilateral or multilateral climate pacts, rather than waiting for the entire world to get its act together. (A similar shift has already occurred on global free-trade talks, which have been almost as dysfunctional as climate negotiations.) The G-20, the World Trade Organization, the G-8 — those forums could provide a more realistic platform for moving climate action along, though they're already stuffed with other issues. If more progress isn't made at Cancún, this could be the last stand for the UNFCCC.