16 Dec 2010: Opinion

Did Cancun Prove the UN
Irrelevant in Tackling Climate?

The Cancun conference is being credited with keeping international climate talks alive. But the real potential for bringing emissions under control may lie in a Plan B, with nations acting on their own in moving toward a low-carbon economy.

by fred pearce

The almost universal conclusion from those who attended the Cancun climate conference last week is that it “put the negotiations back on track” and that after the diplomatic meltdown in Copenhagen, the good temper on show in Cancun means there is now a real prospect of a full deal next year in South Africa.

Not so fast. Diplomats may be happy, but the rest of us do not have much to cheer. There is still no new treaty, and no successor to the Kyoto Protocol. In heeding the warning of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that “we cannot make the perfect the enemy of the good,” the negotiators signed up to a compromise that takes them no farther forward than they were a year ago.

In fact, in some important respects, they are farther away. In Cancun, both Russia and Japan announced that — despite being part of the original Kyoto deal back in 1997 — they would accept no new Kyoto emissions targets when the existing ones expire in 2012. Neither country sees why it should do so while the U.S. continues to sit on the sidelines.

But the upshot is that none of the world’s six biggest emitters of greenhouse gases (the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, India and Indonesia) are now willing to accept legally binding UN emissions limits. The conference backed away from confronting this deadlock by inventing some ludicrous diplomatic language that all sides could sign up to. As one wag put it, the firmest agreement they reached was to meet again next year.

After the debacle of Copenhagen, the delegates were desperate to come home with a victory — any victory. But privately, few observers — and none
Those who tout Cancun must explain why what has not been achieved in 13 years can be achieved in the next year.
privy to the private briefings of the U.S. administration — see any realistic prospect of a deal anytime soon. Looking toward next year’s international climate talks in Durban, South Africa, Eliot Diringer, of the well-connected Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said, “We don’t think South Africa is practical. We don’t think the politics will be ready. If we set Durban as a deadline, we will have Copenhagen all over again.”

Negotiators have known for 13 years that they would need another deal when the Kyoto Protocol’s first “compliance period” expires in 2012. Those who talk up the Cancun outcome have to explain why what has not been achieved in 13 years can be achieved in the next year, especially since in important respects the process has gone backwards in the past year.

It may be that the tortuous negotiations required to persuade countries to sign up to binding targets are just too much for the UN system. Too many nations — and both the U.S. and China are prominent here — place too much emphasis on their national sovereignty to cede power on matters of such importance.

But there is good news, too. For finally recognizing that the UN negotiations are truly broken could be the key to unlocking a Plan B. There is growing evidence that countries are willing to do unilaterally what they refuse to commit to at the UN.

Listening to the negotiations in Cancun was depressing. But my tours of the events in the exhibition halls across the resort city reinforced the fact that there is a huge amount of activity going on around the world to cut emissions. And this is unilateral activity that is not dependent on a UN deal.

That activity may not be enough yet to stave off warming of two degrees Celsius or more. But it is real. And it is a dynamic process — a technological revolution — that could make the UN process irrelevant.

Plan B is based not on burden sharing (the basic UN proposition), but on profit-making. It is based on the growing realization that low-carbon business is good business. Low-carbon is often more energy efficient and thus more cost-effective. And it is smart business — it feeds a growing appetite among consumers for products made without trashing the planet, an issue I wrote about in my last Yale Environment 360 post, on the sustainable palm oil business.

Last year in Copenhagen, China promised a 45-percent reduction in the carbon intensity of its economy, with no strings attached. Now that pledge has been enshrined in the country’s next five-year plan, which comes into
Some spoke of the power of ‘green growth’ to do what the United Nations cannot.
force next month. Of course, pledges do not necessarily become reality. And there are real concerns about China’s reporting regimes for both its carbon emissions and its GDP, which could make verification tricky. But it is clear that China is now acting to reduce its emissions, even though it has no Kyoto targets and won’t accept any in the foreseeable future. And it is the world’s largest producer of wind turbines and solar panels and so has a clear interest in developing local markets for these products.

A special issue of the government-controlled China Daily, widely distributed in Cancun, carried the headline: “Even as we talk, China is acting. Countries must not wait until legally binding documents are hammered out.”

And many countries are doing just that. Lord Nicholas Stern, the British economist who wrote an influential report on the economics of climate change, spoke of the power of “green growth” to do what the UN cannot. “South Korea, Mexico, Indonesia, Ethiopia, and many other developing countries provide important and credible examples of the way forward,” he said. “All are driven by the attraction of the new energy and industrial revolution and the prospects for sustainable low-carbon economic growth.” Stern would prefer a UN deal, but he says its failure would not stop the low-carbon revolution.

Brazil last year promised a 36- to 39-percent cut from business-as-usual. And visitors to Brazil’s pavilion in Cancun could hear its ministers and top scientists expounding in detail how that would be achieved — through cuts in deforestation (it has already cut rates of forest loss in the Amazon by 70 percent) and a dramatic move to turn its rapacious commercial agriculture into a low-carbon industry. As with China, all this may not happen, but the intent is clearly there, and the policies are consistent with what researchers believe can be delivered. Brazil’s agricultural goals are based on rehabilitating the vast areas of cattle pastures gouged out of the Amazon rainforest, and the spread of no-till cropping, which involves not plowing the field but planting the next crop in holes drilled among the stubble of the previous crop, thus keeping more carbon in the soil.

Barbara Bramble, the National Wildlife Federation’s senior program advisor on international affairs and a U.S. veteran of Amazon campaigning, says Brazil is undergoing a cultural revolution to greener values. Until recently, deforestation made Brazil the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. But now farmers and slaughterhouses are falling over themselves to join a nationwide “zero deforestation” campaign.

This is partly because the new public mood in Brazil means that “ranchers are being blacklisted and public prosecutors are even targeting supermarkets and slaughterhouses that accept cattle products from rainforest areas,” Bramble said. But it’s also partly because ranchers and farmers can unlock “sustainable” markets both in the West and in Brazil that demand beef, leather, soybeans, and other products untainted by the stigma of deforestation.

This is Plan B in action, Bramble pointed out. With prospects of a UN treaty receding, she said, “We are looking at what we can do now, and perhaps instead [of a treaty], by eliminating deforestation from the supply chain.”

Indonesia, currently the world’s third-largest CO2 emitter, says it is trying to turn over a new leaf by placing a moratorium on deforestation and rehabilitating drained peat bogs. Financier George Soros told a side meeting in Cancun that he was attempting to assemble funding to help the Indonesians achieve that ambition.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said his country intended to become carbon-neutral by 2025, while also becoming a “middle-income
If Plan B takes flight, the time may come when the UN’s best contribution would be to get out of the way.
nation.” That sounds overly ambitious. It is based on switching to hydroelectric power generation (something the country’s neighbors on the Nile might have something to say about) and on following Brazil’s lead by turning its eroding soils into carbon sinks. But it shows how developing nations have gotten the message that green economics and low-carbon development are not the fanciful visions of Western environmentalists, but real practical options for them.

I don’t want to get carried away. What has been voluntarily pledged so far, of course, may never materialize. And even if it does, it will not be enough to set the world on track to capping warming at two degrees, which is the scientific consensus of what is needed to prevent warming from becoming globally dangerous. (It is locally dangerous in some places already, of course.)

According to the UN Environment Program (UNEP), a realistic trajectory for global carbon dioxide emissions that might achieve that goal requires CO2 emissions, which are currently around 32 billion tons a year, to peak by 2020 at no more than 44 billion tons. Thereafter they need to decline to very low levels by mid-century. But UNEP says that current pledges will overshoot those emission levels by between 5 and 9 billion tons. It calls this the “gigaton gap.”

Can Plan B bridge the “gigaton gap”? Its proponents believe so.

Take the most positive outcome of the Cancun talks, an agreement on the outline of rules for the operation of a system to compensate countries that curb deforestation and the carbon emissions they cause. The system, known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), would tap into billions of dollars each year from companies keen to meet emissions targets through carbon offsets.

REDD can only tap funds if companies face emissions targets and a “cap-and-trade” regime to allow them to use offsets to meet them. So, on the face of it, REDD needs a global deal and the creation of a global carbon market. Plan A would certainly be best. But it is a remote prospect. And following the U.S. mid-term elections in November, the United States, a large potential source of REDD funds, will not be enacting cap-and-trade legislation anytime soon.

But that is not the only game in town. California is going ahead with its own cap-and-trade scheme in 2012. And the existing European Union carbon-trading market will grow in 2013, with the activation of the EU’s new targets, aimed at reducing emissions by 20 percent by 2020. There also is talk of China setting up its own carbon-trading scheme.

So REDD negotiators, who are in despair at slow progress on the big deal, are contemplating other options. “REDD could go forward independent of the UN process,” says Diringer at the Pew Center.

A Positive Path for Meeting
The Global Climate Challenge

A Positive Path for Meeting the Global Climate Challenge
Climate policies that require public sacrifice and limiting economic growth are doomed to failure, writes Roger A. Pielke Jr. To succeed, policies to reduce emissions must promise real benefits and must help make clean energy cheaper.
Three years ago in Bali, when the current round of negotiations for a successor to the Kyoto protocol began in earnest, the representative for Papua New Guinea — Kevin Conrad, son of American missionaries and a graduate of Columbia University — told a filibustering U.S. delegation: “If you are not prepared to lead, get out of the way.” They did.

Before long, the same request might be made to the tortured UN system as a whole. The thousands of government delegates in Cancun thought they were essential to cutting carbon emissions. Perhaps they are. But if Plan B takes flight, the time may come when their best contribution would be to get out of the way.

POSTED ON 16 Dec 2010 IN Climate Energy Policy & Politics Water Asia Asia Central & South America North America 


You are very right that green is the new gold and will usher amazing technology that will reduce global carbon emissions. Plan B is the way to go coupled to a bottom to top action using green consumerism. COP meetings are riddled with politics and its all about expedient drafts in abstract with little details.

I have committed to advocate energy efficiency in Nigeria and also climate change awareness in 2011. Waiting on Plan A can be stagecraft in a multi lateral world that breeds bureaucracy..let's enable the green race, its next cycle of innovation and any nation misses it will be plugged in the 20th century, t we will close the gigaton gap if more nations see this technologies needed. of planet survival ...for more oluseunoni.tigblog.org

Posted by Oluseun Onigbinde on 16 Dec 2010

As an individual, I have reduced my carbon footprint by 80% (except for air travel) in the last ten years through lowered energy use and energy efficiency in my home and car.

For instance, I use 1300 kwhr / year of electricity but my solar panels produce about 3000 kwhr / year.

And I am not suffering! My lifestyle is fine.

Others are doing this too. But we must have mandated action in the U.S. on emission reductions to meet the goals for a bright future for future generations of all creatures.

Posted by John Roberts on 16 Dec 2010

I agree with the conclusion that it might be best if the UN gets out of the way. That organization has passed its prime and is a lame duck with ancient, crippling policies and a wretched record of allowing genocide to occur while "calling on rogue countries to cease crimes against humanity".

It appears that the UN has little credibility among the major powers. It might have more credibility if it actually did what I understood to be its original mandate of intervening where humanitarian crimes were being committed and staying out of the climate forum.

Posted by Patrick Hampson on 18 Dec 2010

I think Mr. Pierce raises a good point here. Even in the U.S., the real players are actually individual states. See what California has done recently, rejecting Prop. 23 and initiating a carbon emission market independently. A solar manufacturing grassroot movement is also shaping up in Detroit.

Whether plan A or B, we need to tackle this increasingly big issue.

Luca Semprini

Posted by Luca Semprini on 20 Dec 2010

I'm not sure where community action fits into Plan B, but perhaps it could be called Level A, Level B, and Level C etc, or Class A action, Class B action, etc.

These are not alternatives or successive plans to be enacted at each stage as they fail...these are concurrent strategies.

If A is international/multinational, B is at the nation-state/corporate-state/California-sized state level, then I think it is safe to define Plan C action at the community level.

I think Level C action, community action, is where individuals can actively participate. I think Level A action and for the most part level B action by nation states, states, and corporate states is outside the realm of what the individual can reasonably hope to effect.

Lately, I've been thinking that we can jump start community cooperative power or housing retrofit schemes and use our communities, HoA's, churches, and friend networks to self-finance these changes. I see no reason individual counties, townships, and housing developments cannot go ahead and use some of their commonland to build community green power or to use greener land managemnt practices or in a townhouse/condo community to use their boards to do simple things like picking better siding/roofing material.

Global warming is a slow and pernicious problem that will be with us for a long time no matter what we do. The solution will be made up of what sounds like boring mundane stuff. Local zoning laws, upgrading insulation, etc.

But I think people can get involved in more exciting green power projects and once they're hooked into the process and know their neighbors again, they'll keep going to improve their community.

Let us pool our money and create regional Green Credit Unions. Imagine going to your local GCU and getting a 2% loan for any housing improvement that'll have a great Return on Investment? Efficiency is a goldmine. Americans give more in charity per year from their own pockets than the US government does in foreign aid. If we tapped into that 300 odd billion dollar pool of money, we could finance our own revolution. Using Credit Union banking models we'd give people responsible banking choices, empower folks with community owned banks, and make our money work 10X as for every $10 you loan you only need $1 in the Credit Union/Bank. Then it gets paid back and works again. Charity becoming Community Action with a bite!



Posted by spiritkas on 21 Dec 2010

As an observer at the Cancun conference, I agree with you that bottom-up solutions or “green revolution” is important to meet our climate challenges, but it is important to realize that many of the progress made on this front is largely due to political pressure from international climate negotiations, particularly for initiatives in countries like China and Brazil. Therefore, it is rather amusing to read that the author uses China’s commitment for 45% carbon intensity reduction as a proof of the irrelevance of the UN process.

In addition, I do think the use of Kevin Conrad’s quote from COP13 is very inappropriate in this article. Maybe the author should address further why the UN system should “get out of the way”? Why does the author think this dynamic international process is harming those bottom-up actions, but not encouraging it?

Yupu @ Yale F&ES

Posted by Yupu Zhao on 29 Jan 2011

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He reported on the Cancun conference for New Scientist magazine, where he serves as environmental consultant. He is the author of numerous books, including When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence and The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future. In earlier articles for Yale Environment 360, Pearce has written about global climate talks in the wake of Copenhagen and the fallout from the “Climategate” incident.



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