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Is “Cancun” Spanish for “BAU”?

Lou Grinzo's picture

Lou Grinzo is a writer and researcher residing in Rochester, NY. He blogs at The Cost of Energy (

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  • Dec 11, 2010

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Like many of you, I awoke this morning to the news that A Deal Had Been Reached In Cancun at COP16. Because of the importance of doing something of substance regarding CO2 emissions, and my experience in being fooled by reports that turn out to sound better than the underlying facts justify, I was about as cautiously optimistic as I’ve been about anything in recent years.

When I started to dig into the coverage to find out just what had and had not happened, I have to admit that I had a really hard time finding the pony in that house-sized manure pile. For what seems to be a fair summary of the deal, see Global warming deal hopes revived after Cancun agreement:

Environmental campaigners said it threw a lifeline to efforts to get a deal to tackle climate change but there was still much work to do, in particular to close the “gigatonne gap” between the greenhouse emissions cuts countries have pledged and the reductions needed to limit temperature rises to no more than 2C.

The agreement acknowledges the need to keep temperature rises to 2C and brings non-binding emissions cuts pledges made under the voluntary Copenhagen Accord, hammered out in the dying hours of last year’s conference, into the UN process.

It also includes an agreement to set up a green climate fund as part of efforts to deliver 100 billion US dollars (£60 billion) a year by 2020 to poor countries to help them cope with the impacts of global warming and develop without polluting.

It includes a scheme to provide financial support for countries to preserve their forests, in a bid to combat deforestation which accounts for almost a fifth of global annual emissions, and makes progress on how countries’ actions are going to be monitored and verified..

Earlier progress had been held up by the major stumbling block of what is to be done about the existing climate treaty, Kyoto protocol, and how major emitters such as the US and China should be included in a future deal.

But in scenes in the final hours that were in sharp contrast to last year’s angry debates between countries in Copenhagen, the Mexican president of the conference Patricia Espinosa received two standing ovations in the meeting for her work to achieve agreement, with the Indian delegation describing her as a goddess.

Representatives from country after country acknowledged the agreement was not perfect, but that they supported it as progress towards a final deal – although Bolivia hit out at the proposals, likening them to genocide.

Friends of the Earth’s international climate campaigner Asad Rehman described the Cancun agreement as weak and ineffective – but said it gave the world a “small and fragile lifeline”.

And he warned: “”The emissions cuts on the table could still lead to a global temperature increase of up to five degrees which would be catastrophic for hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people.”

Keith Allott, head of climate change at WWF-UK, said: “After Copenhagen it was hoped that Cancun could establish a platform for progressing action on climate change.

“Despite some last minute hiccups, countries leave here with a renewed sense of goodwill and some sense of purpose,” he said.

But he said a lot of work had to be done to make sure the agreements achieved in Cancun were built on next year.

Examining the draft of the deal itself (available here via Google Docs) reveals on page 10, under the heading “B. Nationally appropriate mitigation actions by developing country Parties”, the following three paragraphs:

Recognizing that developing country Parties are already contributing and will continue to contribute to a global mitigation effort in accordance with the principles and provisions of the Convention and could enhance their mitigation actions, depending on the provision of finance, technology, and capacity-building support provided by developed Parties,

Reaffirming that social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing country Parties, and that the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social development needs,

48. Agrees that developing country Parties will take nationally appropriate mitigation actions in the context of sustainable development, supported and enabled by technology, financing and capacity-building, aimed at achieving a deviation in emissions relative to ‘business as usual’ emissions in 2020;

This section goes on for pages, but I think it’s fair to say that the text quoted above encapsulates the major points. (Just to be clear: The document in Google Docs linked above has page images, so I had to transcribe the paragraphs above. If I made any errors please leave a comment pointing them out, and also accept my apology.)

Without descending into blatant snark, I think it’s safe to summarize the quoted text above as: The developing nations (most prominently China and India) are free to put their economic development ahead of emissions mitigation, the world expects the emissions from all developing nations to increase, and each such nation gets to do whatever they want, based in part on help from the developed countries, to try to come in under the BAU emissions path for 2020.

And this is a change from the pre-COP16 world… how, exactly? What are the steps forward, in terms of financing, technology sharing, or (dare I say it) actual reductions in CO2 emissions, that this deal locks in?

Yes, it’s a good thing that everyone is still talking, and that the negotiators could save face by coming home with something aside from frequent flier miles and little bottles of shampoo from the hotel.

Yes, reaching a worldwide agreement to do anything close to what’s needed in terms of emissions mitigation is an unimaginably difficult task, so progress will come in very small and intermittent steps, and will surely include some setbacks and surprises. No one should expect anything more convenient than that. (Although I’m sure we’ll hear some mind-warping spin about Cancun from the deniers any second now.)

But there is nothing here that I can see as anything but “laying the groundwork” for the next big meeting, in Durban, South Africa, in 2011. Given what we know about the state of the climate and what we’re doing to it (and therefore indirectly to ourselves), that’s a very big problem. We’re decades past the starting point for making a “comfortable” transition to a carbon neutral worldwide economy, and most people looking at our situation from a reality-based perspective agree that it will be extremely difficult to reduce emissions enough to avoid some hideous human impacts. But we pissed away a year by failing in Copenhagen, and now we’ve pissed away another year with this paper tiger of a deal in Cancun. We’re running out of years before “extremely difficult” turns into “impossible” and we’re “suddenly” forced to start making triage decisions about quick but very expensive mitigation vs. even more expensive adaption efforts.


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