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Cancun Conference

Multilateral arm wrestling

Climate change issues move forward in Mexico but a more global agreement is suspended

MARIA GUIMARÃESIn Cancun, Mexico, the afternoon of Friday, December 10 had a listless air about it. It was the last day of the sixteenth Conference of the Parties on Climate Change, also referred to as COP-16. The general belief among the participants was that no agreement would be possible, especially because of resistance on the part of Bolivia and Venezuela. The situation started to change at 6:00 p.m., when Mexican chancellor Patricia Espinosa, who was presiding over the conference, presented the documents prepared on the Kyoto Protocol and the Long-Term Cooperation Actions. In addition, she did not allow discussions to be held in the auditorium in the Azteca building, the main venue of some of the meetings. Her decision to postpone the conclusion of the event for two hours, so that delegates could work in small groups, was applauded for several minutes by most of the delegates from approximately 190 countries attending the event. One year before, the COP-15 meeting in Copenhagen had broken down into fiery disagreements at precisely the same moment. “In the 11 years during which I have participated in negotiations related to climate change, I have never seen such mass support of the kind shown to the Mexican chancellor”, says statistician Thelma Krug, a researcher at the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe) and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes (IPCC). This was the sign for a change in the general mood and for a final effort on the content of the text that would be approved – still without the agreement of Bolivia – approximately 10 hours later.

A short while before the arrival of the Mexican chancellor, Thelma, who was a member of the Brazilian delegation’s technical team, was worried about the disagreements voiced by some countries on the proposals related to emissions resulting from forest fires and from changes in land use. “After Copenhagen, when no agreement had been reached, we had to leave Cancun with some kind of result”, she commented after the conference. The approved text, even though it was far from meeting the general expectations, was a source of relief. “I left, feeling confident that the process was still alive”. The researcher from Inpe, fully aware that it is better to build results over time, commemorates the approval of the text on the Program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, the REDD+, which allocates funds for countries to offset emissions with projects aimed at reducing deforestation.

The process of the conference is comparable to that of a soccer match, says Paulo Gustavo Prado, director of Environmental Policy of Conservation International (CI) of Brazil, an NGO, and member of the Brazilian delegation at COP. “I compare it to the last match of a soccer championship, when the score is 2 x 2 until the 45th minute of the second half of the match”, he says. “In the last eight hours of a conference, which can be compared to the penalty shootout in a soccer match, political will predominates over minor differences”. The Bolivian delegation protested until the end, but in an outcome that was coherent with the transparency and firmness with which Patricia Espinosa had conducted the two-week event, she stated that a single country should not prevent progress – albeit modest – from being made. The lack of support on the part of other countries finally led the soccer ball into the goal: the score was in favor of battling climate change through the REDD+. One of the most important measures in this respect is the establishment of the Green Fund, which will be allocated US$ 100 billion a year until 2020, for the purpose of funding emission reduction projects, adaptation and transfer of technology to help developing countries adapt to inevitable climate changes.

It has not yet been defined how much each developed country will contribute nor which countries will be covered. In the opinion of Paulo Prado, Brazil is in as strong position as it can (and should) make progress in terms of reducing deforestation and emissions that are due to changes in land use. “We have the scientific ability and the internal budget”. Prado believes that Brazil is moving in the right direction, as the goals to which the government has committed ? to reduce by 2020 deforestation in the Amazon Region by 80% and in the Cerrado Region by 40% – should be achieved four years earlier than expected, according to a forecast by the Ministry of Science and Technology. This is an important issue – in the period from 1990 to 2005, 61% of Brazil’s carbon emissions resulted from the deforestation of tropical forests. The specialist from CI states that the country has good conditions to work on the three pillars of the agreement – mitigation, adaptation, and reduction of emissions – controlling its emissions while promoting sustainable growth.

MARIA GUIMARÃESConference chairperson leading the sessionMARIA GUIMARÃES

Profitable environmentalism
“This is not any kind of blind love for Nature”, says Prado, leaving romanticism on the side. “Mitigation and adaptation in relation to the climate involve strong social and economic interests”. The transfer of technology to emerging countries for the purpose of their adaptation plans will bring opportunities and profit. This transfer of funds is already in effect, but it is not enough, as stated by the President of Guyana, Bharrat Jagdeo, at an event on REDD+, held concurrently with COP-16. Guyana has been at the forefront of the movement to implement an economy based on enhancing the forest, even though this meant slower economic growth. However, this strategy will only be effective if the funding becomes more efficient. “We have shown that we achieved our goals, but this does not mean that we will get the funding”, he protested.

Countries that do not have forest wealth can also join the process by concentrating on the development of new energy sources, according to Kuwaitian meteorologist Essa Ramadan, a researcher at the Meteorology Institute of Kuwait and a technical member of his country’s delegation. “We have to become green”, says the researcher. He believes it is possible that politicians and the business community will listen to what science has to offer. This kind of view is not a problem, not even for a country with an oil-based economy. “Many other things can be done with petroleum, other than burning it”, Ramadan points out. He is in favor of investments in alternative uses and of changes in the energy matrix, which should be switched to wind and solar energy.

Climate changes are already being seen in Kuwait and in other countries. The meteorologist says that until the 1980’s, this dry country had an average 125 millimeters of rainfall per year. This precipitation rate has dropped and average rainfall nowadays is 115 millimeters per year. This is a hazardous situation for a region where water is scarce. “In winter, the temperature drops to zero degrees Celsius (°C), but in summer the temperature very often goes up to 49°C”, he says. “In 2010, we had this temperature for almost a full month”. As a result, there is increasing incidence of dust storms, which reach altitudes that are high enough and distances that are long enough to hamper airplanes flying over Europe. Moreover, health problems multiply. “It is difficult to predict climate change, because of the many factors that are involved”, he commented while riding the bus to go to the conference center. On the screen of his iPad, he drew a number of fictitious curves representing carbon gas emissions up to the year 2050. According to that improvised forecast, the program told him how much warmer the world would be on average. According to the application that he was testing, the result was almost always an increase of more than 2°C, the maximum increase aspired to by all those who fear the consequences of global warming, unless drastic measures are taken to reduce the emissions. “This is not realistic”, he lamented.

The effort to reduce emissions included a measure – defined in Copenhagen – that countries would produce inventories of their carbon gas emissions. This measure was further reinforced recently. However, according to Thelma Krug, who is helping prepare the Brazilian report together with a team from the Ministry of Science and Technology, it is still not clear who is going to pay for the preparation of such inventories in developing countries. The idea now is to reduce the term to prepare the inventories, perhaps to every two years. In Cancun, Brazil delivered a document on emissions in the period from 1994 to 2002, with estimates up to 2005. According to the researcher from Inpe, Brazil will soon be able to produce more detailed information, based on data from Inpe, from the Brazilian Geography and Statistics Institute (IBGE) and from other institutions. “On a domestic level, Brazil is taking on a stronger commitment than the one required by other countries and is conducting stricter evaluations than many other developed countries”, she adds.

International regulations, however, are moving slowly. The agreement reached in the early hours of December 11 was too lax concerning limits on emissions, says diplomat Sergio Serra, who until December had been Special Envoy for climate change. “This was a known fact, but now we no longer have the conditions to establish more ambitious goals, such as the ones advocated by the IPCC, due to the political situation in the United States and the economic crisis in Europe”,  says the diplomat, whose name tag in Cancun had a message hanging from it: “Kyoto: just do it”. The diplomat also had a device attached to his belt that measured how many steps he had walked at the conference, as part of a campaign organized by the NGO Greenpeace, which advocates that people walk more and talk less. He predicts that an agreement of this kind is nowhere near, in view of the fact that 2011 is a pre-election year in the United States and, unless the United States adheres to the protocol, other powers will continue to hesitate making a stronger commitment. “Talking about climate change there is like talking about abortion or marijuana – there are too many interests at stake”. Therefore, the advances made were the ones that were possible within the current international scenario.

Nonetheless, the Special Envoy believes that the solution lies within the context of the United Nations Organization, the UN. This is why it was so important to win back confidence in the multilateral process that had become totally discredited in Copenhagen. In his opinion, this renewed confidence is the major accomplishment of the COP-16. Three major meetings are scheduled for this year, in preparation for COP-17 in Durban, South Africa.

In the opinion of Inpe climatologist Carlos Nobre, coordinator of the FAPESP Program on Global Climate Change, there is still no reason to celebrate. He attributes the post-Cancun optimism to the low expectations related to the results of the conference. “The sum of the micro advances is not necessarily equivalent to macro progress”, he warns. In his opinion, incremental advances are not enough to avoid the consequences of climate changes. “The paradigm has to be changed, and this can only be accomplished by means of a vast global agreement”, he says. The creation of the Green Fund is a step forward, but does not go beyond what had been expected. It is also urgently necessary to change the energy matrix and totally embrace a low-carbon economy.

Up to 2020, US$ 100 billion might be far from being enough. “The Green Fund is in proportion to our lack of action; if there is no mitigation, the costs will become prohibitive on a global scale”, says Nobre. Moreover, even if the goals are achieved, in 2020 the world will have had a huge excess of carbon emissions in comparison to what is necessary, ideally below the levels in 1990. He warns that the climate changes faster than the negotiations, but agrees with Sergio Serra on one issue: real advances can only result from a broad multilateral agreement. It is important to keep in mind that the soccer match only ends when the referee blows the final whistle.

(*) Maria Guimarães went to Cancun at the invitation of Conservation International.