Deadlines are sometimes called “drop dead” dates. When you miss one, you usually work harder than ever to get the project completed as close to the deadline as possible. But in the climate negotiations, the utter failure to arrive at an agreement at the deadline—last December in Copenhagen—has been followed by a period of political lethargy. Greenhouse gas levels building up in the atmosphere have a lifetime of 100 years. The destabilizing influence of warming gases is already having devastating impacts in fires, droughts, floods, and threats to low-lying areas.
Starting next week, UN climate negotiators will meet again. Much is at stake. This will not be the flashy summit of world leaders. We are back to the plodders—the diplomats and bureaucrats who have been working on climate treaties for 20 years.
The negotiations for a climate treaty began in 1990. A brisk two-year sprint of negotiations resulted in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed with much fanfare by all world leaders (everyone from Castro to Bush Sr.) at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. It agreed that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions represented a threat, and pledged to stabilize emissions at levels prior to the danger point. The UNFCCC essentially created its own global parliament. All nations that ratified were known as “parties”. Starting in 1995, the parties started to meet annually to agree on tougher, more precise measures. These annual meetings are called the conferences of the parties—or COPs. We have had good COPs and bad COPs, and now we are heading into COP16 in Cancun.
COP3, in Kyoto, resulted in the ill-fated protocol of the same name. It is still in force. It is a legally-binding global treaty whose first phase ends in 2012. Other than Canada, all ratifying nations to Kyoto have either met their targets or have, at least, made progress toward them. The U.S. has never ratified.
It was in Montreal in 2005—the last good COP—that the pledge was made to complete a successor agreement to the first phase of Kyoto by 2009, at COP15. That deadline and its high expectations were smashed to bits in the miserable failure of COP15 in Copenhagen.
Copenhagen can be said to have suffered from high expectations. It also was sabotaged by the intervening negotiations (COP 12-14) in which progress was slow and retreat in vogue. Canada led the way in obstructing progress. That was why Canada was awarded the Fossil awards. The Fossil of the Day (and Colossal Fossil for the most awards in any COP) gives recognition to the worst country in the room, the biggest saboteur in each day’s negotiations. That Canada under Harper out-sabotaged the U.S. under George W. is something to ponder.
The one thing that was supposedly negotiated in Copenhagen, the “Copenhagen Accord”, was not part of the official UN process at all. It is a political fig-leaf—transparent even without full-body scanners. It is a non-binding statement with no legal effect. And even at that, the targets adopted by Copenhagen Accord countries are wholly inadequate to avoid tripping past the atmospheric tipping points that spell catastrophic and politically destabilizing levels of climatic destruction.
The upcoming COP, starting next week in Mexico, is certainly not suffering from high expectations. Imagine low expectations, and then lower them. Developing countries want to see industrialized countries live up to their responsibilities. They want to pursue the Kyoto Protocol. Industrialized countries, with some exceptions, are now prepared to jettison Kyoto and embrace the fraudulent Copenhagen Accord. The Copenhagen Accord proponents hoped that by throwing money at developing countries, or rather the promise of money, consensus could be achieved. Low-lying island states are far more interested in survival than money. The debate about building on Kyoto or dumping it will continue in Mexico.
The issues of financial transactions and transparency, funding for developing countries to adapt to climate change, the importance of protecting forests as carbon sinks, all these will be negotiated in Mexico. If there is any hope, it is that enough progress will be made in Mexico that a full negotiation of all issues can be concluded at next year’s meeting in Cape Town, South Africa.
As for Canada, the most helpful thing the Harper government could do would be to stay home. Sadly, our government, fresh from killing the only climate bill before Parliament, will send a team, headed by a part-time environment minister, to battle progress. And Canada’s reputation, or what’s left of it, will be further eroded.
The atmosphere is not interested in negotiating with humanity. Runaway global warming becomes a greater and greater risk. It has to be hoped that sufficient good will and political courage can be mustered to make real progress.
Elizabeth May is the leader of the Green Party of Canada and will be attending the negotiations as part of the Global Greens delegation.