July 06, 2010

Cancun Week: UN Politics

Welcome to Cancun week! My next three posts will cover climate change-related current events, covering some of the most important themes of the Copenhagen Conference and speculating about what kind of impact they could have on the 16th UN Climate Change Conference to take place this December in Cancun, Mexico.

Two major shakeups have occurred at the major UN climate-related bodies since the close of the Copenhagen Conference in December 2009.  First, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Yvo de Boer, unexpectedly stepped down a little more than a month after the close of the Copenhagen Summit.  Mr. de Boer’s resignation was seen as a sign of frustration to the failure at the Copenhagen Conference to produce a binding agreement on greenhouse gas emissions, although he did not link his decision to the Copenhagen results.  The only official document regarding emissions reductions to arise from the high drama of the last few days of the conference was the Copenhagen Accord.  Thrashed out in a backroom deal between the United States and China, the accord is a non-binding document in which countries agreed to set independent emissions reductions targets to be reached by 2020 and to raise 30 billion dollars in funds by 2012 to assist with adaptation and mitigation efforts in developing countries. 

Mr. de Boer’s resignation led to speculation that the Cancun Conference would be unable to produce a legally binding emissions agreement, and his imminent departure scheduled for last week, July 1, has deepened the “sense of disarray” in the effort to address climate change on a global level, according to The New York Times.  The new appointee who will assume the Executive Secretary position, Christiana Figueres, has contributed to the pessimistic mood, stating that “I don’t believe that we will ever have a final agreement on climate, certainly not within my lifetime.” 

So on the surface, Mr. de Boer’s departure and Ms. Figueres’ grim outlook for the upcoming climate summit seem like potential impediments to success at the Cancun Conference.  Yet, in a sense, it depends on how  ”success” is defined.  Certainly, it seems less likely that the conference will produce a legally binding emissions reduction document. Instead, Ms. Figueres could help to direct the focus of the conference by breaking down the issue of emissions reductions into smaller, more easily digestible and less politically controversial pieces. Even if the Cancun Conference were able to reach an agreement on forest preservation funding and projects in the developing world (and even that is a worthy and difficult goal), for example, this could prove a tremendous benefit in reducing emissions over time, and potentially bypass the ever-present sticking point of “political will,” which has proved to be an issue in agreeing upon emissions reductions (as I will describe in my third post).

Second, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which publishes periodic reports to assess the most recent climate change science and the global implications of climate change effects, faced a barrage of criticism over errors associated with claims made in the 2007 report, specifically that the Himalayan glaciers could melt completely by 2035.  The IPCC faced further criticisms from skeptics who pointed out that the IPCC’s leader Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri, who accepted the 2007 Noble Peace Prize on behalf of the IPCC in 2007, was profiting from his work as an advisor to for-profit businesses and investment firms.  This controversy may have a less direct effect on the UNFCCC’s work in Cancun, but if it does lead to greater levels of climate skepticism around the world, some governments that are already skeptical of an agreement because of economic concerns might use this as political cover to avoid any future agreement.

On a more positive note: just last week, the IPCC announced the names of the group who will author the next assessment report due out between 2013 and 2014.  The new group reportedly includes more women scientists, more scientists from developing countries and authors with a wider range of background and potentially dissenting views, which will help the panel to address critics of the 2007 report (a special shout out and congratulations to friend and colleague Dr. Geoff Dabelko, Director of the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program, who will be an author on the human security portion of the assessment).  The more inclusive panel may also serve as inspiration for the negotiators in Cancun for greater cooperation as they seek to negotiate agreement among developed and developing countries, a topic that I will tackle in my third post.

Tomorrow: more about climate change legislation, this time in the United States.