Sunday, January 2, 2011

Cancunhagen 2.0: Reality Strikes Back

This is the third part of our series looking back at the Cancún outcome and doing a little looking forward to what may happen in the climate change negotiations in coming years. Stick with us, because we still have several parts to consider before a fuller picture emerges.
By the end of the first week, it was apparent there were those who did not want a deal, and they would do their best to see that one would not happen. Oddly enough, the USA, Canada, Australia, and many other big polluters were not in this group. This time, that group came from the oil-rich South.

A commitment to launch the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program was one of the few successes at Copenhagen. It led to the inaugural meeting in Oslo in May of a 58-nation group to get things moving. Half a dozen rich countries put up 4.5 billion to be spent by 2012. After 2012, REDD had hoped to be sustained by carbon trading fees and offsets, but the Waxman-Markey silk purse that passed the US House became a Kerry-Leiberman-Graham sow’s ear in the US Senate. It was cut off ignominiously. It went from pork to bacon and sizzled to a burnt crisp. Now there is a metaphor you can get your nose into.
Here’s another. Deforestation can be thought of as a ski jump. Stay with us. Countries cut down their forests as they industrialize until timber scarcity and environmental disasters force protection. Take the case of China’s forests: they used to shield Beijing from duststorms and prevent mudslides in the New Enterprise Zone, now they fall to charcoal makers, and then grow beef for export. Beijing sweeps, Shenzhen bails. That is the down-slope part. The lift begins when protected areas begin to regenerate and once more provide forest products and environmental services. REDD is an attempt to bridge the dip by offering countries financial incentives to retain forest cover. The ski jump becomes a harp.

In the debates over REDD there were rational actors (Brazil, the Africa bloc, Greenpeace, Oxfam, Green Belt Movement, NRDC, Yale, Nature Conservancy, ad nauseum) and then there were irrational actors (EcoNexus, Climate Justice, Indigenous Environmental Network, Third World Network, ALBA, ad ridiculo). In Cancún, despite getting 90% of what they wanted, the irrational actors walked out, claiming they weren’t being heard; were thrown out for unscheduled demonstrations (as with CJ and IEN); or (as for Bolivia) stayed behind and threw sand in the gears.

Responding directly to the critics, the REDD plan took up land tenure issues such as those of the landless peoples of Brazil, forest governance issues like national carbon monitoring, and promised the full and effective participation of stakeholders of mixed gender, mixed culture, indigenous peoples and local communities. It became REDD-plus. Henceforth development plans by governments, the World Bank, and other players will involve rural capacity-building, technology transfer and science-based, results-based, practical demonstrations to restore ecosystem health that can be fully measured, reported and verified.

The REDD forest carbon-protection scheme is a template for what may come later: a soils carbon-protection and restoration scheme involving a shift to organic gardening and farming, broadscale municipal composting, holistic range management, keyline injection of biochar and compost teas, and much more. Carbon could be monitored remotely from space and by on-the-ground soil samples and sapling counts. Rewards would flow to those who produce the greatest soil carbon gains. Those of us in the biochar advocacy community found the opening to be very positive.

Much has been made of the final night of reckoning for COP-16. The message of all the major NGOs on the final Friday morning of the talks was “lower your expectations.” Then we heard that no plenary meetings would take place until evening. We planned to attend a US press conference in the afternoon, but it was cancelled. The same for a UNFCCC press conference. However, COP President Patricia Espinosa temporarily stopped the negotiating on Friday afternoon and, working with UNFCCC chair Christina Figueres of Costa Rica and LCA chair Margaret Mukahanana-Sangarwe of Zimbabwe, prepared a chair’s text which made hard choices on all points of disagreement. The proposed draft was handed out at 2 pm and a three hour break was called to absorb it. In those three hours there was a noticeable uptick in the optimism level.

It was as if Tinker Bell had flown over the Moon Palace sprinkling fairy dust.

When the final evening sessions convened at 9 pm, opposition did not emerge from the United States or China. They were applauded for joining in support of the proposed text. Then Bolivian Ambassador Pablo Solon opened with an attack on almost all points of compromise. Cuba, which has recently discovered it has large offshore oil potential, added severe words for both the Mexican hosts and the texts. Venezuela and Saudi Arabia called for resumed negotiating sessions to revisit the compromises taken.

The bulk of Bolivia’s arguments were procedural. First, there was an insistence that any agreement made in Cancún would completely lock the UNFCCC into a disastrous and irreversible course. Clearly that was not the case, because the Agreements embed for the first time a review process that is meticulously scientific. If 2 degrees is found after study to be inadequate, in 3 years the target goes to 1.5 or even lower. Mention of 450 ppm in this regard is struck. The targets are now results-driven.

Bolivia argued that the document was completely insufficient to achieve its stated goal of holding temperature increase at 2 degrees because it had no stated emission targets. True, there are no stated emissions targets. Is that good or bad? Two degrees is now the relevant metric, and science on how best to achieve that has been placed in the driver’s seat. Expect many more reports like the UNEP’s “Gigatonne Gap” in coming sessions. That may serve to pressure counties to tighten up national goals. Or not.

Feeling Pressured?

In the US, where the right-wing legislature has blocked all new climate initiatives (and owing to recent court decisions should remain comfortably in the service of the oil lobby for some years to come) the track for reducing carbon emissions has shifted to laws passed 40 years ago, such as the Clean Air Act. Under EPA requirements now pending, already vetted by the US Supreme Court and requiring no additional legislation, 50-67 GW, equivalent to around 20% of total US installed coal-fired capacity and 7% of the US power sector’s annual CO2 emissions, will be taken out of service between 2011 and 2015 because the older plants cannot economically meet the new standards. That number could actually go much higher, to 75% of all coal plants in the US, if the EPA gradually increases the stringency of its regulations and utilities respond by converting to (environmentally poisonous) shale gas and other fracking-awful alternatives. Republican backlash is expected to be strong, but in this case, the Congressional impasse works in favor of coal opponents.

Ironically, the Harry Reed amendments to Senate Rules now scheduled for January 5, 2011 could serve the interests of Republicans and climate change deniers by breaking the impasse and allowing a repeal of the Clean Air Act to move forward after clearing the Republican-dominated House. Campaign coffers would overflow with untold gold, frankensence and myhrr, borne by camel caravans from the East, should such a bill arise from the floor for a vote.

Making Commitments Count

The Cancún Agreements reflected serious concern for REDD leakage, the rights of indigenous peoples, the landless, local communities, and intact ecosystems and their myriad services being supplanted with monocrop GMO plantations. The document was remarkable in its scope and inclusiveness and obviously reflected attention being paid to both the science community and the NGOs. Within the Agreements are some remarkable passages on what we will need to do as a species to abate catastrophic climate change.

The Agreements call on the world’s largest emitters – China, the United States, the European Union, India, and Brazil – to commit to various targets and actions to reduce emissions by 2020. The distinction between industrial (Annex I) and developing (non-Annex I) countries is blurred. There is an abundance of politically-correct window dressing like repetitive references to “common but differentiated responsibilities,” but all the actors are brought in and placed under a uniform MRV regime, an independent panel of experts that will monitor and verify reports of emissions cuts and other actions.

The distinctions between “developed” and “developing” worlds, begun in Kyoto, were retained in the Cancún Agreements, although a mechanism was created that may allow some criteria to evolve that would allow migration between categories, as Brazil, India and China have done. More than 50 non-Annex I countries now have greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries, and given the finances of Ireland, Greece and Spain, that gap can only increase. Nonetheless, Cancún provides for emissions reductions by the “developed” world and only reductions from “business as usual” growth projections by the “developing” world. India’s point about there being 300 GtC reserve capacity in the atmosphere was therefore adopted, and the race to use that space is now on. This is a tragic flaw.

In our view, geographic borders have less significance than gross happiness indices. Cultural distinctions, while honored, matter less than built-environment harmonization with underlying ecosystem health. The only borders are ones of self-realization, which can be easily broken down by transfers of inspiration and empowerment. Oh, and a universal debt jubilee would also help. Well, while we’re at it, lets just scrap the whole Bretton Woods/Federal Reserve/IMF/WTO system and start over with community credit unions, local currencies and microfinance. But never mind, that’s just us.

The Agreements commit all major economies to greenhouse gas cuts, to launch a fund to help the most vulnerable countries, and to avoid some political landmines that could have blown up the talks, namely decisions on the future of the Kyoto Protocol or climate reparations. While many important issues were “kicked down the road,” the Agreements are structured so as to beg their gaps as important questions that must be addressed as soon as possible.

What the Agreements did not do was use mandatory language, in the style of a binding treaty. It struck an advisory tone, after the style of the Copenhagen Accord. As described by some of the law professors in the Irish government’s side event on Legal Form, this may have been the Cancún Agreements’ strength and weakness, both.

Neither the international moratorium on high seas drift nets nor the Helsinki Accord to reduce nuclear weapons are legally binding treaties but both are effective because they create a review process and pressure to conform. Cancún’s form is a strength because as an advisory agreement it does not require country-by-country ratification, which would be impossible for the US and perhaps a number of other countries. It can still foster public pressure and debate, provide social learning and stimulate domestic policy adoption, without requiring ratification.

The legal form is a weakness, as is being pointed out by many critics, because it has inherently weaker obligations, no enforcement mechanisms or penalties for violations, and less invested political capital or domestic buy-in than a legally binding treaty would have.

Had Cancún failed, the UN process itself, based on multilateralism, NGO participation, science and law, could well have ended. Attention would have shifted to the G20 or the dying Empire’s latest pet, the Major Economies Forum. Backroom deals between the large industrial economies would rule the planet until collapse overtook us all.

Instead, the UN multilateral consensus process has been reinvigorated. Transparency and inclusivity have been vindicated. Robert Stavins, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, observed,

“The key role played by the Mexican leadership is consistent with the notion of Mexico as one of a small number of ‘bridging states,’ which can play particularly important roles in this process because of their credibility in the two worlds that engage in divisive debates in the United Nations: the developed world and the developing world. … Mexico, along with Korea, are members of the OECD, but are also non-Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol. This gives Mexico — and gave Minister Espinosa — a degree of credibility across the diverse constituencies in the UNFCCC that was simply not enjoyed by Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen at COP-15 last year.”

Tomorrow: Cancunhagen 3.0: The Green Climate Fund

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