The Cancun climate change conference scored “eight out of 10″ as far as Chris Huhne, the UK’s energy and climate change secretary, was concerned. He told MPs on Wednesday afternoon that the conference marked “real progress”, and added that although there was hard work still to be done – he singled out agreeing on a legal form for any future climate deal as the toughest nut to crack – the willingness to move forward shown at Cancun was a good omen for the negotiations to come.
Greg Barker, a ministerial colleague of Huhne’s (though from the Conservative side of the coalition government, while Huhne is a Liberal Democrat), chided the secretary of state for being “unduly modest” in his account of the talks. The UK, along with the environment minister of Brazil, Izabella Teixera, chaired a working group that sought to agree a compromise on the future of the Kyoto protocol, a key sticking point in the talks.
As the UK government prepares to announce its proposed “radical” reforms to the energy market, it is worth recapping on some advice meted out by the Committee on Climate Change a few days ago.
The Committee on Climate Change has calculated that, over the period from 2023 to 2027, the UK must reduce its carbon dioxide emissions to about 390m tonnes a year, compared to annual emissions of about 570m tonnes at present.
In order to achieve this the UK will need to generate low-carbon energy – from renewables, nuclear reactors and coal and gas-fired power stations equipped with carbon capture and storage technology – equivalent to the output of about 25 large-scale fossil fuel power stations.
Against expectations, the Cancun climate change conference came up with a deal. Not a full, comprehensive deal. Not a legally binding treaty. Not a perfect deal. But a compromise that represents real progress compared with the entrenched positions that negotiators have held for more than a decade.
Some of the hardest decisions have been put off until next year. The future of the Kyoto protocol is a totemic issue for developing countries, and it was put aside as too hard to sort out this year. The question of what legal form any new agreement should take has also been left hanging. And while a “green fund” was ushered in with much fanfare, there is still no agreement on how exactly the $100bn a year it will require should be raised.
But those who leapt to attack the Cancun deal as soon as the chairman’s gavel had been brought down should be ignored. They would have said that anyway – they always do. By the yardstick of those perfectionists who work in NGOs, all climate change talks, like all political careers, end in failure.
With the Cancun climate conference entering its final hours, delegates and observers conceded that although progress had been made on several important issues – forestry, clean technology cooperation, a green fund for poor countries – there were still many areas yet to be resolved, including the legal form of any agreement, private sector financing, and the future of the Kyoto protocol.
Ambassador Shin of South Korea told the FT: “We are going to have to leave many things as homework for the next year.”
There was a minor controversy at the Cancun talks on Wednesday when the question of whether Chris Huhne, the UK energy and environment secretary, would have to return to London came up.
The problem was over the crunch vote on higher education tuition fees. With several Lib Dems threatening to rebel against the leadership on the issue, there was a real chance Huhne would be recalled to cast his vote.
That would have been gravely disruptive, because Huhne is, with his Brazilian counterpart Isabella Teixera, co-chair of a vital working group – the group with the task of forging a compromise on the future of the Kyoto protocol, one of the most contentious issues at the talks.
Developing countries and some major emerging economies – chiefly China, but also including India and others – insist that the Kyoto treaty must continue beyond 2012, when most of its current provisions expire.
This issue of a “second commitment period” in the jargon – so-called because when the treaty was originally signed, it was envisaged that the signatories would meet their 2012 targets then set a new set of tougher targets, and keep doing so at intervals – is one of the trickiest in the talks.
As ministers arrived in Cancun to join their officials, the star of the show so far was obvious: the Mexican hosts.
Praise has been heaped on the Mexicans for their skilful chairing of key meetings and the way they have managed to rebuild trust – especially among developing countries – after the acrimonious scenes that marred the final stages of the Copenhagen summit last year.
The gorgeous grounds of the Moon Palace resort in Cancun are chock full of people. Hurrying from one meeting room to another, sitting on the grass with laptops, queuing for soft drinks or munching on sandwiches in the shade of palm trees, taking shelter in the airconditioned lobby – the hotel can never have seen so many thousands of people at one time.
Most of these people are not residents – only the delegations themselves staying here, owing to security concerns – but participants who have travelled miles to get here each day. To get to the conference centre entrance takes half an hour to an hour from most of the hotels in Cancun, which itself is effectively a long strip of beach hotels stretching for tens of miles down the coast. Then participants have to pass security and take another half hour ride on a special shuttle bus to get to the Moon Palace, where the actual negotiations are going on. As some of the important side meetings are taking place at far distant hotels, many people seem to be spending most of their time at this conference in transit.
Forestry is one of the key areas of focus at the Cancun climate change talks, now in their second week. A programme – called REDD, for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation – that would provide poor countries with financial incentives to keep their remaining forests standing is being worked out, and has broad support.
Getting to this point has taken nearly two decades, even though keeping trees standing is by far the cheapest way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and staving off dangerous levels of global warming.
Some of the problems that have plagued the forestry talks include how to ensure that if logging is stopped in one part of a forest, it does not resume elsewhere; how to define land that has been degraded but could be restored; how to monitor the vast tracts of trees; whether and how to allow some forms of sustainable logging; and how to respect the rights of indigenous forest peoples.
The global shipping industry gives rise to more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire German economy. Yet shipping has been all but ignored in international climate change negotiations. Shipping emissions were excluded from the Kyoto protocol, and from the European Union’s emissions trading scheme.
Though the shipping industry has made some moves to monitor and reduce its emissions, these have not yet resulted in industry-wide action.
The Carbon War Room, a grouping founded by Sir Richard Branson to try to enlist businesses in the battle against climate change, is hoping to change all that.