Cancún: Plus Ça Change, Plus C’est la Même Chose

  • December 13, 2010

Environment & Ecology

Following the embarrassing failure of Copenhagen, our leaders have become so obsessed with saving multilateralism that they proved willing to sacrifice anything just to keep Kyoto alive – even the climate itself.

We always knew Cancún was always going to be a diplomatic circus. Yet the climate deal that was struck this weekend is so farcical that it defies even the most hyperbolic denunciations by its critics.

As Suzanne Goldenberg rightly points out in The Guardian today, “the modest deal wrangled out by the 200 countries meeting [in] Cancún may have done more to save a dysfunctional UN negotiating process from collapse than protect the planet against climate change.”

Essentially, world leaders agreed on a global deal that will legally commit countries to a global temperature increase of 3.2 to 4 degrees by 2060 – a level previously considered off bounds by virtually everyone.

While such an increase would spell catastrophe for the world’s poor, the concerns of developing countries were either bought off or briskly shoved aside by Europeans and Americans alike. Yet despite a desperate plea from Bolivia for more ambitious targets, we unfortunately have to accept that this is the best that international climate talks can deliver.

After all, multilateral negotiations, by attempting to forge consensus between nearly 200 countries – many of them with diametrically opposed interests – is structurally bound to produce the lowest common denominator. Given the gravity of the crisis we are facing, this does not seem like a very rational approach to climate policy.

As Steve Rayner of Oxford University has pointed out in a recent article, we now need a radically new, multilayered, bottom-up approach focused on national politics and revolving around a commitment to long-term public investment in research, development and deployment geared towards making clean energy cheap.

The core of the Cancún deal – and the process whereby it came about – remains fundamentally flawed. So obsessed have our leaders become with reaching a global agreement – any agreement at all – that they have completely lost sight of the actual goal of climate policy in the first place.

Certainly, the diplomatic outcome of Cancún was better than even the EU President or the French government had expected, but its climatic outcome is nothing short of disastrous. As The Guardian’s environmental editor John Vidal observed today, “loopholes were left in and dates were left out. The world is in limbo.”

The IPCC’s business-as-usual scenario projects an average global temperature increase between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees by 2100. Yet while the Cancún agreement recognizes for the first time that even a 2 degrees target is not enough, the actual pledges made under the agreement will set the world on course to reach a 4 percent increase by 2060.

The problem here is not that the accord does not go far enough; the real problem is that it exists at all. The agreement will give the semblance of action, whereas in reality it will serve to justify inaction and provide a perverse incentive to keep increasing emissions up to a point that was previously considered utterly unacceptable.

Most importantly, not once does the agreement mention how we are to bring about the global energy transformation that will be required to provide a largely impoverished and rapidly expanding world population with adequate energy sources without destabilizing the climate.

As John Vidal points out:

when the loopholes are counted, it actually means that the rich countries have so far only agreed to cut emissions around 2% on 1990 figures. In other words, after four years of talking, politicians are congratulating themselves for doing nothing in 20 years.

At Cancún, it appears that our leaders agreed to continue doing nothing for the next 20 years. Despite a façade of good intentions surrounding the proposed $100bn Green Fund, contributions to the fund will rely principally on the private sector, raising the question of whether commitments will be met in the first place.

As I pointed out in an article for Breakthrough Europe last week, there are strong social and economic motives for Europe to stick with the internationally binding framework of the Kyoto Protocol.

As such, it was no surprise to see David Cameron and Angela Merkel exerting serious pressure on their Japanese counterpart to reverse his previous refusal to extend Japan’s Kyoto commitments. In a display of the sheer absurdity of the agreement, John Vidal reports that “in the end, lawyers found a form of words that allowed Japan to avoid making new pledges until later.”

The best thing would have been for Europe to follow Japan in abandoning the flawed Kyoto framework and committing itself firmly to an EU-wide public investment campaign to make clean energy cheap and to disseminate its application throughout the developing world, where the greatest increase in energy consumption will take place.

But such a breakthrough never came about at Cancún. The zombie of the Kyoto framework continues to stumble along aimlessly as the carbon caravan of the global climate circus prepares to touch down in Durban next year to carry on its annual charade. As long as the venues keep changing, the poor will continue to suffer. Or, as the French put it, plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.

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Jerome Roos

Jerome Roos is an LSE Fellow in International Political Economy at the London School of Economics, and the founding editor of ROAR Magazine. His first book, Why Not Default? The Political Economy of Sovereign Debt, is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.

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