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.

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.

Those who tout Cancun must explain why what has not been achieved in 13 years can be achieved in the next year.

After the debacle of Copenhagen, the delegates were desperate to come home with a victory — any victory. But privately, few observers — and noneprivy 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.

Some spoke of the power of ‘green growth’ to do what the United Nations cannot.

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 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.

If Plan B takes flight, the time may come when the UN’s best contribution would be to get out of the way.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said his country intended to become carbon-neutral by 2025, while also becoming a “middle-income 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.

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.