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International Climate Change Negotiations Update

Analysis of the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change for the 16th Conference of the Parties meeting in Cancun, Mexico, November 29 to December 10, 2010

By Pamela Sparr


Governmental delegation and nongovernmental organization expectations were rather low going into Cancun, unlike the hopes for the previous Conference of the Parties (COP) negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark, which ended on a disappointing and divisive note. Despite lower expectations this time around, participants were anxious to reach some sort of agreement, even if meant poor content. While many officials hailed the conclusion as a victory for "multilateralism," this is a questionable victory when one examines the details.

There was limited but discernable forward movement on international climate finance, deforestation and the establishment of a mechanism for promoting clean-technology transfer to developing countries.

Once again formal democratic process was breached in a push to create a positive ending, this time by the Mexican hosts proclaiming a consensus, though this consensus is disputed by participants. The fate of the Kyoto Protocol remains uncertain. If the "pledge and review" framework agreed to in Copenhagen and continued in Cancun gets enshrined at the next COP meeting in Durban, South Africa, then the Kyoto Protocol for all intents and purposes is dead. The agreements in Cancun do nothing to achieve the kind of emissions cuts necessary and for some go backward as they have put tighter standards on developing countries and weaker ones on the developed. The official negotiators continue to give human rights concerns (e.g., gender equity, indigenous rights, rights of permanently dislocated peoples) insufficient attention. They also emphasize market-based approaches to curbing emissions, which essentially represent a commodification of Creation. All of these aspects are serious shortcomings.

International Targets

It is important to have a science-based international target that is strong enough to keep the global atmospheric temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. The previous United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) report estimated that this target would be sufficient to prevent a dangerous climactic tipping point. However, small island nations and some scientists are now suggesting that we set an even tighter limit of a 1.5 degree increase in atmospheric temperature given that certain phenomena (e.g., breaking up of Arctic sea ice) have been happening much faster than predicted. These targets need to be binding in order to be fair and to accomplish what is needed to promote the common good. The more ambitious the targets, the less likely that vulnerable nations will need to make harsh changes and that wealthy nations will demand "adaptation financing."

At the COP-15 meetings in Copenhagen in 2009, the United States pushed for a voluntary, "bottom-up" approach to international targets. Consequently, the Copenhagen Accord used a "pledge and review" system whereby individual governments set their own nonbinding target that was not required to be science-based. The pledges made before Cancun were far below what is needed to meet the 2 degree Celsius goal.

No movement came from Cancun. The inadequate and unequitable "pledge and review" system was continued. The level of pledges currently offered is estimated to produce a 3 to 5 degree Celsius increase in atmospheric temperature.

Preserving the Kyoto Protocol Framework

The Kyoto Protocol is far from perfect but presently offers the only legally binding international framework related to climate change. The United States currently is not party to it. The protocol’s first commitment period will expire in 2012, so we are looking for a second round of commitments under this framework and a way of bringing the United States into compliance and coordination with the protocol. The protocol established the principle of "common but differentiated responsibility" in terms of the levels of emissions reductions expected of various countries. Wealthier nations are responsible for the most sizeable historic emissions—and thus the current climate crisis—and under the protocol are expected to reduce more than most developing nations, which are producing very few green house gas emissions. We need to preserve the  process established by the protocol that sets equitable emissions targets that enable the achievement of the overall international target.

The future of the protocol was uncertain going into Cancun. The negotiations started on two tracks: one for the protocol signatories and another one that applied only to the United States. The U.S. position essentially has been to scrap the protocol, although many other wealthy nations and developing nations are interested in preserving it.

The future of protocol is in serious doubt. Japan flatly stated that it would not commit to a second round of protocol. COP-16 made it easier for developed nations to opt out of protocol while putting tougher demands on developing countries.

The International Forum on Globalization (IFG) developed a chart comparing the COP-16 agreements to the current UNFCCC standards, pointing out that the pledges made in Cancun to cut emissions "fall short by 40 percent of what science says is needed to avoid a climate catastrophe" and that "all major emitters act in unison, regardless of their status as developing countries or per person emissions." The chart can be found on the IFG website at http://www.ifg.org.

The IFG in its analysis of COP-16 states, "Perhaps the world could tolerate such an approach as provisional—until the U.S. gets its act together by creating a national climate policy—but it would be collective suicide for governments to accept it as a permanent paradigm for governing our atmosphere. The world desperately needs democratic global governance mechanisms that stand a chance to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our shared atmosphere. Fundamental to that effort is establishing ecological limits and living within them. … If we don’t get commitments soon, we will create atmospheric anarchy.This would permit powerful polluters to continue emitting dangerous gases that poison everyone’s atmosphere, overwhelm the natural world, and overpower the rights of poor countries and communities." (Read more at http://www.ifg.org/programs/climatechange/cop16cancun.html)

International Climate Finance

New monies from donor countries that are above current foreign assistance commitments are needed. These funds could be channeled through transparent institutions accountable to all governments through the UNFCCC in ways that protect human rights and allocate funds to communities and vulnerable nations most in need. Directly affected peoples would be involved in setting funding priorities and evaluating the impact of projects financed. Attention is paid to ensure gender equity in the composition of the board and in the allocation of funds. At least half the money would go toward adaptation projects. Funds should not be administered by the World Bank or other multilateral bank given their poor track record.

The Copenhagen Accord established a goal of a $100 billion annual contribution to climate finance by 2020, but did not specify the source of the funds or the channel by which they would be distributed. The COP-16 agreed to establish a Green Climate Fund under the aegis of the UNFCCC and with the World Bank as interim trustee. There are conflicting views in the nongovernmental orgination world whether this role for the World Bank will ultimately be a problem. No money was allocated. No governance rules were agreed on.

An agreement on reducing emissions from deforestation was reached at COP-16. There was no decision on how to finance this, and the agreement contains much weaker safeguards than many hoped for. The loopholes raise questions about whether this agreement will actually cut emissions and whether forest peoples and communities will benefit.

Last Updated: 04/17/2014

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