tip off

Hold the treaty, I’ll have a six pack

I’ve not been to Cancun — and somehow I missed the film of the same name — but those who have been there describe it as something like the Gold Coast during schoolies’ week, just not quite as classy.

If that’s the case, then it’s probably the perfect venue for the 16th Conference of the Parties and for the UN climate change secretariat to kick the partying college students out for a fortnight and get to work on their six-packs.

Because that, if they’re lucky, will be the extent of their achievements. The UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) has decided to manage expectations leading up to the conference by having none. Little, if any, progress will be made towards a legally binding treaty.

The G20, the group made up of the world’s largest economies, declared in Seoul on Friday that they would do their utmost to ensure success at Seoul. But apart from redefining the definition of success, those ambitions do not extend to actually sending one of their leaders to attend the meeting — which runs from November 29 to December 10.

Instead, the UNFCCC hopes that negotiators from the nearly 200 countries and the environment and climate change ministers that will likely attend the second week will advance, and hopefully seal, agreement on one or more of six key building blocks of a future treaty — mitigation, verification, finance, adaptation, technology and forests — the venerable six-pack.

According to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who met Mexico president Felipe Calderon on the sidelines of the APEC leaders summit in Yokohama over the weekend, the host nation would like to get agreement on two of them — financing and forests.

On financing, the first stage — the so-called $30 billion fast-start financing by 2012 — has nearly been achieved. The second stage, a more challenging pledge to provide poorer countries with $100 billion a year by 2020 to manage mitigation and adaptation, will likely take longer. But the UN has prepared a list of options, ranging from taxes on bunker fuels, aviation, international financing transactions and revenue from emissions schemes or carbon taxes.

Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican who is now the UN’s new climate chief, said last week there were differences over whether it was best to take a “political decision” in Cancun to set up the fund and then design how it would work, or to design the fund first. The US says the latter should come first, but not many agree.

Talks on how to save forests, under the so-called REDD scheme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) are also said to be progressing well. Chopping down forests is estimated to contribute nearly 18 per cent of global annual emissions, and REDD is considered to be a key measure to give as much or more value to a live forest than a dead one.

Of the remaining components of the six-pack — mitigation — remains the most elusive, and neatly encapsulates the frustrations of this multi-lateral process.

The Copenhagen Accord that was plucked from the drama and chaos of the last day of COP 15 is often described as a failure, but since then 135 nations, including all the major emitters, have agreed to cap global greenhouse emissions at 450 parts per million – equivalent, most scientists believe, to getting a better than even chance of limiting average global warming to 2°C.

The problem with the accord is that it doesn’t spell out how this will be achieved. And the pledges made so far by individual nations fall well short of the target. It is not so much a commitment to act as an agreement that it would be a very good idea if they did. And while it may not sound like progress, even this would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.

This is a complex process and it’s going to be a slow process,” Figueres said. She hopes to put pressure on developed nations to firm up their pledges, because she knows that the major developing economies will not do so in their absence.

The European Union and Australia are among many countries that have given conditional targets that depend on others being more ambitious. It is the classic chicken and egg situation – which Professor Ross Garnaut more elegantly describes as the “prisoner’s dilemma”.

It is made all the more complicated by the US midterm election victories of the Republicans, which has forced President Barack Obama to abandon any attempts to introduce a carbon price and instead seek to achieve the US goal of cutting emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020 by the crude and expensive force of regulation from the Environmental Protection Authority. The Republicans have vowed to try and thwart the EPA at every turn.

As for a legally binding treaty to replace Kyoto, which expires in 2012, that seems to be as remote as ever. There remains a fundamental and seemingly intractable divide over whether the next commitment period should continue to comprise only developed nations, or include the emerging nations, who are now among the major emitters.

The laborious two-track process that has blighted the UN-sponsored negotiations for the last few years will likely continue towards Durban in 2011 and beyond. As Figueres said last week, Cancun might just strike a deal, but it’s not going to solve the whole problem.

This article was originally published in Climate Spectator.

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