Climate talks: A faint ray of sunshine in Cancun

But storm clouds loom for efforts to protect Africa's environment
From Africa Renewal: 
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Drought-prone Moyale regionCollecting water in the drought-prone Moyale region along the Ethiopia-Kenya border. African climate negotiators are pressing for more aid to poor countries most affected by environmental changes.
Photograph: Reuters / Irada Humbatova

When thousands of ministers, scientists and activists descended on the Mexican resort town of Cancún for another gruelling round of talks on climate change in early December, they brought with them limited expectations. The 2009 meeting in Copenhagen had produced little more than acrimonious disputes between developed and developing countries over financing and strategy, and prospects appeared no better in the run-up to Cancún. But in the end participants were surprised to find themselves in agreement on some key points.

Also, unlike during the chaotic Copenhagen conference, there was little debate about the science of global warming. The weather had seen to that. From scorching heat and wildfires in Russia to droughts in Australia, floods in Pakistan and snow in the southern US, the evidence of extreme shifts in the world's climate was impossible to ignore.

African delegates, for their part, arrived in Cancún with a common position on some of the key issues under discussion. Among other things, they called for:

  • a 45 per cent cut from 1990 levels, by developed countries, of the industrial pollution that causes climate change,
  • the creation of a multibillion-dollar fund to help poor countries adapt to the impacts of climate change,
  • access to new technologies and other forms of assistance to allow for "green" economic growth, and
  • guarantees that global climate negotiations will continue under UN auspices after the current emissions reduction treaty, known as the Kyoto Protocol, expires in 2012.

'A matter of survival'

For African and other poor developing countries, Lesotho Minister of Natural Resources Monyane Moleleki told delegates, progress in fighting climate change "remains a matter of survival." Speaking on behalf of the 48 countries — most of them in Africa — classified as least developed, Mr. Moleleki noted that they are already experiencing some effects: "sea level rises" from melting polar ice caps, "enhanced land degradation, declining land-carrying capacity, drought and biodiversity loss, to name a few." And the poorest countries, he continued, "are the most vulnerable, because they have the least capacity to adapt."

In what would become a theme of African negotiators at Cancún, Mr. Moleleki called for adaptation to be accorded the same priority in climate talks that emissions reductions now enjoy, and for industrialized countries to honour their 2009 pledge to help finance climate change programmes in developing countries.

The mood during much of the meeting was captured by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who lamented the "unmet expectations" at Copenhagen, but insisted that "tangible progress is possible here in Cancún."

"We do not need final agreement on all issues," Mr. Ban said on 7 December, "but we do need progress on all fronts. We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

Surprising success

Tree planting in the Usambara Mountains in TanzaniaTree planting in the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania: The Cancún conference secured some agreement to help countries protect their forests.
Alamy Images / Imagebroker

By the time the conference ended in the early hours of 11 December, African negotiators and civil society representatives were declaring themselves encouraged and not a little surprised by the degree of consensus that had been reached on some crucial issues. Among other things, an agreement was made to set up a long-term mechanism to address adaptation needs, a longstanding African demand.

According to the UN Economic Commission for Africa, which played a significant role in supporting Africa's negotiators in Cancún, the most important achievement was agreement to create a Green Climate Fund to finance adaptation and "green" development in poor countries. African and other developing countries had long argued for the establishment of such a fund, which is projected to raise $100 bn annually by 2020. The resources are to come from levies on carbon emissions and air travel, as well as what the agreement describes as other "predictable and reliable" sources of finance from the industrialized North.

African delegates likewise welcomed an agreement in principle to provide financial incentives for countries to protect forests, an effort known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, or REDD. Forests are called "the lungs of the world" in environmental circles, because they absorb large amounts of climate-changing carbon dioxide from the air and produce oxygen. The carbon is stored in tree trunks, leaves and branches, but is released when forests are cut down, making deforestation a major contributor to climate change.

The Cancún conference rejected an effort by some countries, including Japan, the US and Russia, to move to a voluntary emissions-reduction system after the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol. Beyond that, negotiators even made a breakthrough of sorts, by agreeing in principle to include developing-country emissions in future reduction agreements. Under the Kyoto Protocol only industrialized countries are required to make cuts, although China, India and other industrializing developing countries are large emitters. Developing countries had previously resisted calls for mandatory cuts in their emissions, arguing that industrial countries are responsible for the vast majority of pollutants and the onus is on them to reduce their emissions to allow African, Asian and Latin American countries to industrialize and reduce poverty. Finding a formula acceptable to rich and poor countries, however, must await future negotiations.

Scepticism on finance

Whether the promised Green Fund will materialize is another matter. As some observers noted, details about the financing were notably lacking, and pledges made at highly visible international conferences are not always met after the delegations return home and the television cameras move elsewhere. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the chief spokesperson on climate change for the African Union (AU), reminded the leaders of developed countries on the eve of the conference that climate finance "is not aid … it is not assistance…. It is paying the price for their … emissions, for which we in Africa have borne the brunt for too long."

Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu, the director of the African negotiating team at Cancún, told reporters that after some donors "double-counted" development aid as adaptation finance after the Copenhagen meeting, "we still have to resolve the issues around transparency on the pledges."

Some African countries also expressed reservations about decision-making, noting that the Fund's governing board will be divided equally between developed and developingcountries and administered by the World Bank, where Africa has little sway.

Edward Kofi Omane Boamah, Ghana's deputy environment minister, told the UN news agency IRIN in mid-December that the AU will create its own Africa Green Fund at the African Development Bank. "We want Africa's share of [the Green Climate Fund] money to flow through that," he said, arguing that Africa needs greater control over climate change resources. Because Africa generates less than 4 per cent of the pollutants causing climate change, he added, "We want at least 60 per cent of the funds to flow for adaptation," to help Africa cope with floods, drought and other consequences of climate change.

Durban conference will be key

Agreement on the scope and timing of emissions reductions remained elusive at Cancún, however. African countries, which are likely to suffer the most from climate change, have argued for deep cuts to keep the impact to a minimum. Many industrialized countries have resisted, arguing that large and rapid reductions are too costly and will damage the global economy.

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Other analysts argue that for developing countries to be able to grow while keeping overall pollution within safe limits, developed countries will have to make even deeper emissions cuts than they currently foresee. The question of how much to cut — and at what cost and by whom — has been a major impediment to action against climate change for years. Addressing this thorny issue, and thrashing out the details of the Cancún agreements, will form the agenda for the next major meeting in Durban, South Africa, at the end of 2011.

Despite the urgency of the challenge, there is no guarantee of success, particularly with much of the industrialized North still mired in a major economic slump. More can and must be done, insisted Secretary-General Ban: "I am deeply concerned that our efforts so far have been insufficient," he told delegates. "Despite the evidence and many years of negotiations we are still not rising to the occasion…. We need results now, results that curb global … emissions, strengthen our ability to adapt and help to create a more sustainable prosperous future…. The longer we delay, the more we will have to pay — economically, environmentally and in human lives."

With Durban only months away and much at stake, noted Alf Wills, the chief South African climate negotiator, "there is a lot of work ahead of us."