The world urgently needs a deal on climate change

The United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Cancun, Mexico, from 29 November to 10 December, encompasses the sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP) and the sixth Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP)

Negotiators from 194 nations will attend the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference with expectations of reaching a new climate accord at any time far lower than they were at Copenhagen a year ago. Reality bit in Denmark over how far the world was from a meaningful agreement on the next round of global action covering the period 2013 to 2020.

United Nations remains confident about progress

Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Planning Robert Orr told journalists at United Nations Headquarters in New York on 22 November that he did not expect the conference of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to deliver a “final answer” on solving climate change but remained positive about the possibilities.

“Significant progress is possible in Cancún,” he said. “That is not to say that we expect all issues to be resolved.” “We need a package of decisions and outcomes. One or two [agreements] won’t an outcome create.”

Mr. Orr noted that Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon will attend the high-level segment of the talks, where he will urge countries to work towards a balanced set of agreements that move the climate change agenda forward across the board.

“He will urge governments to take decisions on those issues where there is consensus – on protecting forests, technology transfer, adaptation and the creation of a new fund to house long-term financing,” said Mr. Orr, adding that the Secretary-General will also be encouraging governments to make progress on more challenging issues.

Key focus of negotiations

The areas to be negotiated are the level of emissions reductions targets and how they are shared between rich and poor countries, funding from rich countries to poor to tackle climate change, mechanisms to transfer clean technology to poorer countries, and a global mechanism to halt deforestation in poor countries.

Developing countries are demanding deeper emissions reduction targets from the developed countries, which are the nations putting most of the excess greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. The developing world wants a new, steeper set of targets from developed nations via the Kyoto Protocol, and from the US which is outside Kyoto.

Currently, the 2020 pledges in the Copenhagen Accord struck last year, from the developed world in particular, fall well short of the level needed to limit global warming to +2 degrees Celsius. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says that the current level of pledges will lead to a 5 to 9 billion tons emissions overshoot by 2020. UNEP’s Executive Director Achim Steiner has called on the 140 nations now signed up to the Copenhagen Accord to lock in their commitments and build on them in Cancun.

Developed versus developing countries

On the big questions of targets for emissions reductions, however, the dispute between developed and developing countries in general, and the US and China in particular, has progressed very little if at all since Copenhagen.

The last UNFCCC negotiation session in the lead up to Cancun underscored the intractability of this issue with the two biggest emitter nations at loggerheads over the same old ground; the US coming good with substantial targets to reduce emissions and China being bound to meaningful curbs on its emissions growth and the transparent international verification of them.

These two nations must agree on these issues before the world can agree and before a global accord emerges. A resolution is not going to come at Cancun, but progress toward one is vital yet it is hard to see it happening.

Tackle the loss of forest

On forests, an agreement on Reducing Deforestation and Degradation and enhancing forest carbon stocks in developing countries, or REDD+, was close to agreement last year in Denmark, possibly only held back by the lack of an overall climate agreement. So an agreement to tackle the loss of forest that is responsible for at least 12 per cent of total world greenhouse emissions every year is one of the more likely success stories that could emerge.

There is still significant devilish detail to be worked out to agree a global REDD programme that is workable – with safeguards for forest communities and indigenous groups; financing mechanisms, and the balance between public funding and carbon markets; and, the significant methodological questions around monitoring, reporting and verification.

“There are enough issues that are close to resolution that give us hope that an important outcome could be achieved in Cancún,” Mr. Orr said. “Negotiators need to remind themselves that the longer we delay, the more we will pay; both in terms of lives and in terms of money.”

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