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This blog is expressly directed to readers who do not have strong training or backgrounds in science, with the intent of helping them grasp the underpinnings of this important issue. I'm going to present an ongoing series of posts that will develop various aspects of the science of global warming, its causes and possible methods for minimizing its advance and overcoming at least partially its detrimental effects.

Each post will begin with a capsule summary. It will then proceed with captioned sections to amplify and justify the statements and conclusions of the summary. I'll present images and tables where helpful to develop a point, since "a picture is worth a thousand words".

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Cancun Conference on Global Warming, Nov.-Dec. 2010

Summary: Environmental and climate negotiators from 194 states and regions of the world met at Cancun, Mexico Nov. 29-Dec. 11, 2010 to continue efforts under way at the Copenhagen conference of one year earlier, to agree on steps to combat global warming.  The final product, the Cancun Agreements, was finalized the last day.  The Agreements emphasize the urgency of the need to address global warming, and specify in considerable detail various undertakings in mitigation, adaptation, transparency of reporting and verification, establishing financial vehicles to aid in these efforts, and facilitating technology transfer related to mitigation and adaptation.  Participating representatives have expressed gratification that the Cancun Agreements represent considerable progress in the quest for a global approach to limit global warming and its effects.

Introduction.  One year ago the world’s environmental and political leaders gathered in Copenhagen, Denmark to develop a framework to lower man-made emissions of greenhouse gases and to constrain the resulting global average temperature rise to less than 2 deg C (3.6 deg F) above the level that prevailed before the industrial revolution began.  This meeting, and others like it in a long series, was held in accord with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  194 parties (nations and the region of the European Union) are included in the UNFCCC.  Groundwork had been laid at a previous meeting held in Bali a few months earlier.  Nevertheless, the proceedings in Copenhagen were quite fractious and unproductive.  At the last minute a nonbinding agreement was hammered out in a short document, the Copenhagen Accord.

The Cancun conference, convened for two weeks ending Dec. 11, 2010, was a follow-up to the Copenhagen meeting.  Issues raised in the Copenhagen Accord but not resolved with any degree of specificity (see my earlier post) were further addressed in Cancun.  These included
  • efforts at mitigation of the increasing emission of greenhouse gases around the world (i.e., reducing the rate of such emissions),
  • efforts at adaptation to the adverse effects of global warming that have already occurred,
  • reduction of emissions coming from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries,
  • assuring transparency of knowledge and information concerning efforts at mitigation and adaptation by establishing standards for measurement, reporting data and verification of results, and
  • establishing an international fund to support mitigation and adaptation efforts in developing and least developed countries.
The Cancun Agreements are the final product (text and press release; see the Cancun meeting web site for additional documents) of the Cancun conference.  Whereas the Copenhagen Accord is considered nonbinding, the objectives and implementing structures set out in the Cancun Agreements were approved by all the parties except one, in the final session.  As such, the Cancun Agreements, while still not representing legal obligations in the way that the Kyoto Protocol does, nevertheless reflects affirmative assertions of objectives and concrete steps to be taken, that were agreed to by all the parties going forward. 

A signal feature of the Agreements is the explicit acknowledgement by all the participants that “climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet, and thus requires to be urgently addressed by all Parties”, and that they must strive to constrain the average global rise in temperature to 2 deg C or less.  It states that “deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required according to [climate] science, and as documented in the Fourth Assessment Report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change” (IPCC).  It thus recognizes the important role that climate scientists have played in defining the phenomenon of global warming and in establishing an upper limit for the average global temperature in order to prevent severe consequences from afflicting the planet.  The Parties further agreed that global emissions should peak as soon as possible.  Agreement by all the parties further represents the first time that they have accepted to work together to attain this goal, and to ease the burden of least developed countries in their efforts at both mitigation of and adaptation to global warming.

Mitigation.  The developed, or already industrialized, countries (such as the U. S., Europe, and others) are encouraged to develop more ambitious targets for reducing man-made greenhouse gas emissions as recommended by the IPCC.  They are to develop and implement ways to achieve them, and assess the best ways of doing so including market mechanisms involving carbon credits.  The developed countries are to report their inventories of greenhouse gas emissions every year, and to report on progress toward reducing emissions, as well as on financing and adaptation activities, every two years.

Countries undergoing rapid transformation from agrarian to industrialized economies are called developing countries (such as China, India and others).  They are to be beneficiaries of financial and technological support originating in developed countries in order to promote and enable their mitigation efforts, while recognizing their objectives of economic development and reduction of poverty among their populations.  Developing countries are to publish reports on their progress toward reducing emissions every two years.  Mitigation activities in developing countries are to be measured, reported, and verified domestically and by international analysis, as discussed below under transparency.

Reduction of emissions due to deforestation and forest degradation (given the acronym REDD) is a major undertaking in the Cancun Agreements.  Destruction of forests, especially in tropical regions, has been rampant in recent decades, resulting in large contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.  Most of these forests are in developing and least developed nations.  Reversing deforestation and undertaking planting of trees for restoring forests is a significant feature of the Agreements.  In addition, preserving and restoring forests frequently contributes to preserving and restoring indigenous cultural life, and promotes adaptation efforts as well.

Adaptation. Among other measures, the Agreements establish a Cancun Adaptation Framework, an organization that will oversee both the substance and the financing of projects that help countries (such as island nations and least developed nations) adapt to the effects of global warming.   Its mission includes ongoing and expanded projects addressing resource losses and damage.  These include adverse effects such as sea level rise, increasing temperatures, ocean acidification, glacial retreat and related impacts, salinization, land and forest degradation, loss of biodiversity and desertification.  These activities are most important for least developed countries as being most vulnerable and least able to develop programs by themselves.  Concrete steps toward setting up an Adaptation Committee are to be undertaken by February 2011.

Transparency.  A major impediment to progress in addressing global warming at the level of a global conference has been a perceived or suspected lack of credibility when a particular nation reports its emissions, and its mitigation and adaptation activities.  The Cancun Agreements have established formal mechanisms for assuring transparency in the measurement, reporting, and verification (given the acronym MRV) of activities in these areas. They include a process for international consultations and analysis (ICA) of reports provided by developing countries in a way that respects national sovereignty.  The analyses will be carried out by competent technical experts in consultation with the respective countries.

Financing.  The Copenhagen Accord established objectives for financing adaptation and mitigation efforts among poorer nations of the world.  In the year leading up to Cancun, little progress had been made in providing these funds.  The Cancun Agreements have set up goals and administrative structures to implement these objectives.  A fast start financing round from industrialized countries is to achieve a committed level of $30 billion by 2012 prioritized for the most vulnerable developing countries.  It further establishes a long-term goal of providing $100 billion/yr by 2020. 

Additionally a Green Climate Fund is to be established with a supervisory board that includes equal representation from developed countries and developing countries.  Its purposes include verifying accountability and establishment of functions and priorities for the accumulated funds.

Assessment of the Cancun Agreements.  Among the agreements negotiated under the UNFCCC only the Kyoto Protocol has legally binding requirements of the contracting parties.  This is because, after it was negotiated in 1997 it required the signature of each state for that state to be bound by it.  It became effective in 2005 after the requisite minimum number of states had ratified it; the United States never approved the Protocol and so is not bound by its requirements.  It expires in 2012; the Copenhagen and Cancun conferences, and earlier ones, have had as one objective establishing the legal framework for continuing the regime of the Kyoto Protocol after it expires.  Neither the Copenhagen Accord nor the Cancun Agreements are legally binding as neither established a requirement for ratification by participants.

In general, although hopes for the Copenhagen conference had been high before it convened, the final Copenhagen Accord was brief in form and relatively vague in content (see my earlier post).  The Cancun Agreements, on the other hand, were approached with much diminished expectations.  Webcasts of press conferences and other plenary sessions are available.  After the Agreements were made public this writer viewed separate concluding press conferences by the European Union representative, Connie Hedegaard, and the United States representative, Todd Stern.  (The webcasts are recommended for viewing; 20-30 min each.) The general tenor of their comments reflected satisfaction with the outcome, i.e., the Agreements.  The Agreements are considered to provide extensive detail in both expectations and provisions for structures to be set up for carrying out the administrative tasks provided for. 

An important issue, seemingly resolved here for the first time, is that of transparency.  The mechanisms for MRV and review by the ICA, described above, were characterized as being a major accomplishment, one which can only lead to enhanced confidence and trust among the parties.  Todd Stern pointed out that the Cancun Agreements were positively affirmed in final session by 193 of the 194 participants who collectively are responsible for more than 90% of global carbon emissions (the holdout was not a large country contributing significantly to global warming).  He contrasted this overwhelming affirmation with that for the Kyoto Protocol, whose signatories produced only about 28% of global emissions at the time, and with the Copenhagen Accord, which was not approved by the participating states.  Mr. Stern has come to the conclusion that perhaps a legal structure such as the Kyoto Protocol involving most or all nations of the UNFCCC may be impractical or impossible to attain, and that perhaps the better approach is a pragmatic one such as he feels the Cancun Agreements represent.  It may be better to establish trust and confidence, and to proceed with initiatives that arise within states rather than with strictures imposed by treaty; the Agreements in fact present ample wording enabling or encouraging such actions.

In a press conference a few days earlier, the representative of the People’s Republic of China, Xie Zhenhua, emphasized China’s measure of progress as limiting its carbon intensity (i.e., greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP).  (This press conference is difficult to watch, as the translations were sequential rather than simultaneous.)  In the current (11th) 5-year plan, carbon intensity has diminished by 20%.  This writer feels, however, that with an economy that has been growing at 9-10% for the last several years, the absolute amount of emitted greenhouse gases has certainly continued increasing.  In response to a question in this regard, Mr. Xie summarized China’s position that the industrialized nations have already attained high levels of economic prosperity, whereas China is still a developing country with a high level of poverty and increasing extents of urbanization still proceeding.  Nevertheless, he stated that China is building into the next (12th) 5-year plan a goal of reaching a peak in carbon emissions (implying a subsequent decrease). 

In closing, Todd Stern indicated that after several negotiating sessions with Mr. Xie over the past few months, he sensed that at Cancun Mr. Xie appeared to reflect a change of tone in his negotiating stance.  Mr. Stern posited that China may be coming to realize that it is in its own interest to reduce global warming emissions.

© 2010 Henry Auer

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