Opening of Cancun shows UN process is at stake, while governments shoot for smaller targets than binding CO2 reductions

Publish date: November 30, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

The UN climate Summit has opened in Cancun, Mexico amid fairly low expectations of the world media, and there is little hope that any binding treaty on carbon dioxide emissions will emerge – but reports indicate that delegates will shoot for more achievable goals such as curbing other greenhouse gases that are forcing global temperatures up.

Bellona has meanwhile established its presence at the summit. The organization has set up in room 1101 of the Tequila Building, and will over the course of the summit hold 17 workshops (dowload PDF schedule at right).

The dominating feature of much of the coverage coming from Cancun is that this year’s meeting, called the Conference of Parties 16, or COP16, doesn’t even yield the hopes of COP15 in Copenhagen, which initially aimed for a binding international deal until deadlock broke those negotiations down.

This year, the divisions remain as stark as ever, and many delegates are weighing whether moving forward in smaller and less formal pacts may yield better results. Nonetheless, countries still seem to want the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) to remain in place, though many admit that the 193-nation group cannot survive the kind of pummelling it took in Copenhagen last year.

Further lowering hopes of a major breakthrough is that very few heads of state are expected to attend, as was the case at COP15. This years, deals will be hashed out by midlevel envoys whose main hope, the New York Times reported, is “averting disaster.”

The Cancun summit also takes place against the grim backdrop of forecasts that carbon emissions are set to start rising again after a brief interlude from the recession, and analyses showing that countries’ current pledges are not big enough to keep the global average temperature rise within bounds that most nations say they want.

Immediate short-term measures

But early talks on Monday indicated that experts are pushing for more immediate cuts in industrial chemicals, soot and methane, all of which contribute to short-term warming. And these goals are something that could possibly keep the UN agenda on track.

Rafe Pomerance, a senior fellow at Clean Air-Cool Planet, told the Washington Post that a campaign to reduce these non-carbon dioxide emissions “can provide momentum that the world needs on significant greenhouse gas cuts.”

The United States, Canada and Mexico will launch as early as this week a North American initiative to curb hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, which are used as industrial refrigerants, along with methane and the black carbon that comes from some diesel engines and wood-fired stoves, the Post reported. UN negotiators in Cancun will also press for the adoption of language next week that would ease the way for phasing out HFCs under a separate climate treaty, said the paper.

A significant move in this direction has come from 400 major companies, including Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Unilever and WalMart, who all announced on Monday they would stop using HFCs by 2015.

The US government is also mounting a push to immediately reduce HFC. Deputy assistant secretary of state for environment, Daniel Reifsnyder, told the Post that, “We think we have a huge potential to do something about this very quickly. If we act today, we could head off a problem that will be 20 percent of the greenhouse gas problem by 2050.”

Bellona’s international advisor, Svend Soeyland, who is in Cancun, said, “We are hopeful that the negotiators can, through the establishment of a technology advisory group, be able to expedite the deployment of low-carbon and no-carbon technologies in developing countries.”

“This together with the plans to phase out the hydroclorocarbons (HFC) are lessons learned from what is considered the most successful environmental agreement to date – the Montreal Protocol,” Soyeland added. 

British doubts

But even these early seeming breakthroughs have not impressed long time British climate negotiators who see the UN process as outdated and flawed.

On Friday, former UK deputy prime minister Lord Prescott – who led the UK delegation to the 1997 climate summit that agreed the Kyoto Protocol, and played a key role in negotiations there – called for governments to acknowledge that the UN process is failing, the BBC reported.

“The legal framework is falling apart. Let us be practical, recognise that it has happened, and go for an alternative,” he said.

“Each country is still trying to cut carbon emissions in its own way – the US has a programme, the EU has a programme, China has a programme.

“Let each of them go ahead voluntarily […] but let’s at least agree on a few basics of fairness and transparency.”

But developing countries are bridling against the notion of abandoning the UN procedure. These countries insist that Western nations must keep the promised they have made at key watersheds in the UN negotiations process that began in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

This approach is bolstered by the support of a majority of environmental organisations, which say the UN framework, as well as a contentious extension of the Kyoto Protocol whose first compliance period ends in 2012 –  is the only route to guarantee a comprehensive, multifaceted response to the climate challenge.

“The UN process is at a crossroad. Governments and businesses need a second period of the Kyoto agreement to ensure predictability for investing in a low-carbon scenario. Perhaps even more important is action ‘on the ground’ is sectors such as rainforest preservation, aviation, steel and cement,” said Bellona’s Soeyland.

“The Bellona Foundation is happy to see pragmatism among negotiators taking the best out UN process and merging it with bilateral agreements on specific issues,” said Soeyland.

“Only an equitable, comprehensive and legally binding agreement will bring the much needed international commitment to manage the climate crisis,” Stewart Maginnis, director of environment and development with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), told the BBC.

“What governments should focus on in Cancun is ensuring that confidence in the UNFCCC (climate convention) process is rebuilt, which will bring us a step closer to that final deal,” he said.

Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican diplomat who took over this year as executive secretary of the UNFCC agreed that the framework was the only way to proceed.

“We’re not going to solve the whole problem this year, but we can lock in bigger and better agreements every year,” Figueres told the New York Times. “Multilateral negotiations such as this one involve not just solving an environmental problem but actually involve the transformation of economic patterns and the economic structure we have lived with for decades.”

A need for comprise

For some governments, Cancun will be a success if it generates an atmosphere of constructive dialogue, rather than descending into the rancour that characterised the Copenhagen gathering.

Others, however, are looking for concrete progress on issues such as transfer of clean technologies from the industrialised world to developing countries, the provision of funds from the west to help poorer nations adapt to climate impacts, and reducing deforestation.

But even these matters are unlikely to prove straightforward.

Bellona Staff in Cancun

Questions about Bellona’s agenda in Cancun can be directed to the organisation’s COP16 coordinator Magnus Borgen at +47.977.28.476 and, or to Bellona’s Head of Information, Anne Karin Sæther, at +47.902.05.520 or