Can Cancún’s COP deliver?

Another year, another Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, number 16 in a series that looks set to run and run. Mexico is the host, Cancún the seaside resort where thousands of diplomats, negotiators, activists and apparatchiks are gathering to have another go at sorting out a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. High hopes for a comprehensive deal in Copenhagen last year were dashed on the rocks of US inaction, Chinese intransigence and a failure of political will. A weak but face-saving Accord was cobbled together at the last minute, but it satisfied very few — least of all those who’d like to do more than pay lip service to a 2ºC target.

By way of contrast, the build-up to Cancún has seen prospects of a final deal downplayed by just about everyone involved in the process. COP 16 will make progress on the building blocks of a Kyoto follow-up, we are told, but few expect anything substantial to happen before COP17 in Durban next year.

Nature News has a good overview of expectations:

“It’s a question of trying to get some incremental gains,” says Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London. “The approach of all-or-nothing that we took in Copenhagen blew up in our faces, and we can’t just sit back and do nothing at all.”

John Vidal in the Guardian reports on the impatience of Latin American and African nations:

“There is deep frustration among the least developed countries”, said Bruno Sikoli, the spokesman for the 54-strong group of mainly African countries. “We feel there has been far too much talking. If the rich countries put nothing new on the table, then it will be very serious. Climate change is affecting our countries hard now. It is most urgent.”

Johann Hari in The Independent takes the bleak view:

The collapse of Copenhagen has not shocked people into action; it has numbed them into passivity. Last year, we were talking – in theory, at least – about the legally binding cap on the world’s carbon emissions, because the world’s scientists say this is the only thing that can preserve the climate that has created and sustained human civilization. What are we talking about this year? What’s on the table at Cancun, other than sand?

Hari’s extended riff on the “great ecological crash” we’re staring in the face is well worth a read — he’s a compelling writer — and he articulates all too well the reality of the huge disconnect between the evidence piling up that we need to act fast and the complacency of the international realpolitik.

The Economist joins the chorus with perhaps the ultimate in negative perspectives. In an editorial the magazine declares:

In the wake of the Copenhagen summit, there is a growing acceptance that the effort to avert serious climate change has run out of steam. Perhaps, after a period of respite and a few climatic disasters, it will get going again. It certainly should. But even if it does, the world is going to go on getting warmer for some time.

The chance of hitting a 2ºC target has passed. It’s now time to focus on adapting to the inevitable:

Though they are unwilling to say it in public, the sheer improbability of such success has led many climate scientists, campaigners and policymakers to conclude that, in the words of Bob Watson, once the head of the IPCC and now the chief scientist at Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, “Two degrees is a wishful dream.”

The fight to limit global warming to easily tolerated levels is thus over. Analysts who have long worked on adaptation to climate change—finding ways to live with scarcer water, higher peak temperatures, higher sea levels and weather patterns at odds with those under which today’s settled patterns of farming developed—are starting to see their day in the uncomfortably hot sun.

What’s left is planning to adapt, and The Economist does a characteristically through job of providing an overview. I’d say it was notably optimistic in the face of the climate numbers — particularly those presented in a “theme issue” of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society AFour degrees and beyond: the potential for a global temperature increase of four degrees and its implications. [All the papers in the special issue are available free until Nov 30, and many beyond that date.] The Guardian does a good job of summarising the bad news:

Rachel Warren, at the University of East Anglia, described a 4C world in her research paper: “Drought and desertification would be widespread … There would be a need to shift agricultural cropping to new areas, impinging on [wild] ecosystems. Large-scale adaptation to sea-level rise would be necessary. Human and natural systems would be subject to increasing levels of agricultural pests and diseases, and increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.”

Warren added: “This world would also rapidly be losing its ecosystem services, owing to large losses in biodiversity, forests, coastal wetlands, mangroves and saltmarshes [and] an acidified and potentially dysfunctional marine ecosystem. In such a 4C world, the limits for human adaptation are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world.”

Another Met Office study analyses how a 4C rise would differ from a 2C rise, concluding that threats to water supplies are far worse, in particular in southern Europe and north Africa, where regional temperatures would rise 6-8C. The 4C world would also see enhanced warming over most of the US, Canada and northern Asia.

In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), “the prognosis for agriculture and food security in a 4C world is bleak”, according Philip Thornton, of Kenya’s International Livestock Research Institute, who led another research team. He notes there will be an extra billion people populating Africa by 2050.

Expectations for Cancún are low, but the stakes just keep on getting bigger. The next two weeks will give us an idea which way the chips are falling. Hot Topic will once again be featuring guest posts by Oxfam NZ’s Barry Coates, who is already in Cancún, plus I’ll add comment as news catches my attention. You can also follow the NZ Youth Delegation at their blog.

For more detailed news, there’s the International Institute for Sustainable Development‘s Reporting Services’ coverage, including their Earth Negotiations Bulletin, a daily update of events. iPhone owners can even download a UNFCCC app, Negotiator, designed to keep you up to date with COP 16 news — even read conference papers. Slightly more quixotic is the Twitter newspaper The unfccc-ipcc-cop Daily at It’ll be interesting to see how that goes…

And finally: we can expect more comedy gold as the Scaife-funded Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow is flying Christopher, Viscount Monckton of Brenchley into Mexico to bring his unique brand of, er, something or other to proceedings. He’ll even have Roy Spencer to act as his bag man… I confidently expect high jinks.

36 thoughts on “Can Cancún’s COP deliver?”

    1. “Currently” means ………………. free for today only.

      That’s 30 November GMT. So best to just get the ones that interest you right now. Read them in detail later. Access delayed means access denied.

      1. A significant number of the articles in the Four degrees and beyond issue are covered by Exis Open Choice which means that the authors pony up £1400 +VAT so you don’t have to pay to look at them. These will be free ad infinitum but as you point out the “free for all” on other articles is about to end:

        The Royal Society Digital Journal Archive, from 1665 to 2010 inclusive, will be free to view until 30 November 2010.

        The BBC World Service is running a Climate Connection 2010 series this week to coincide with Cancun and you can find the mp3 podcast of the first episode (brought to you by the letter C) in the Related Links section of this page.

  1. I looked at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow website ( and it is one of most unashamed playgrounds of the right wing nut case fan club I ever came across.
    It is so obvious how they put up one rubbish article after the other. lying must become habitual for these morons white washing bad industry practices while ridiculing all efforts towards a sustainable future.
    They proclaim “The current wildlife extinction rate is the lowest in 500 years”… among other flat out lies. What bunch of %@#*%*%

  2. Just in time for Christmas, people in the northern hemisphere have been saved from the horrors of manmade global warming as they enjoy yet another record cold and early winter. The fourth in a row! Good for them!

    Considering how nasty a bit of warming is, according to Al Gore and the infinitely wise IPCC, they might have had to endure a mild winter instead. But fortunately it comes complete with bitterly cold blizzards and massive snow dumps to alleviate the HORRENDOUS 0.6oC of extra warming we’ve all had to suffer since the Industrial Revolution.

    This little tidbit of warming is of course catastrophically bad for the planet because the IPCC and Al Gore (God bless him!) say so. And since the IPCC is a branch of the wonderfully kind UN, itself bursting at the seams with honest politicians never known to exaggerate or have ulterior motives and agendas, it must be entirely true. How relieved they all must be that it’s fekking cold in the northern hemispere!

    What a splendid Christmas present!

    1. What a predictable slur from well known troll….

      The actual connection of GW and induced climate shifts can be seen here:

      Also the fact that Greenland melting can attenuate and possibly even stop the Gulf Stream due to salinity shifts and the raise in surface water temperatures in the far north has been long predicted effect.

      While it sounds paradoxical to the ignoramuses it is a well supported theory that we will see a rise in weather extremes in Europe and especially northern Europe due to the overall warming of the region.

      So troll on Jon….

    2. “Just in time for Christmas, people in the northern hemisphere have been saved from the horrors of manmade global warming as they enjoy yet another record cold and early winter. The fourth in a row! Good for them!”

      I wonder why Joe always seem to get hot under the collar when the Northern hemispehere experience a snowy winter, which is expected anyway, as elevated atmospheric moisture levels rise more extreme precipitation events are expected. But droughts and heatwaves he is perfectly comfortable with.

      I think that Joe will only be convinced of AGW if the world becomes uniformly warm everywhere (no exceptions), and that temperatures from day to day increase steadily. Clearly if there is a drop in temperature at any stage then that proves that AGW can’t be happening.

  3. One of the few things that came out of last years COP debacle is that scientists have become much more positive about their views and forecasts. NOAA have a CO2 forecast chart which shows 900 ppm of CO2 by the end of the century and they are blaming it on humans.
    Getting very tough.

  4. I am tending to agree more and more with the view that we should hope that Cancun like Copenhagen will fail.

    The Kyoto approach has simply provided cover for polluters as the problem gets more and more urgent and extreme. NZ’s ETS is an emperor without clothes. Our government wants to weaken it further by arguing that cut timber put into houses should not be counted as an emission. Other quite rational adjustments and amendments can no doubt be made as we mark towards 4 degrees with a well balanced set of carbon accounts.

    We should strip the issue back to its basics. Burnt fossils fuels have become a dangerous contaminant which must be phased out as soon as possible. They make as much sense as using whale oil for lamps a century ago. Its time to move on.

    This suggests a moratorium on new extraction. A simple focus. One that is already being adopted in NZ in relation to coal by the Greens and others. Easy to argue, easy to protest, easy to enforce.

    1. But it will never fly. Not as a New Zealand only policy anyway.

      Unless ALL major coal nations could be made to agree to leave X% in the ground. But then the policy has no short term effect and does not spur investment in alternatives (other than to send a long term policy signal).

      Agree the Kyoto style approach is dead.

      On timber production, the proposal makes sense. Carbon removals from forestry are accounted gradually over the life of the forest. Emissions are all presumed at harvest when in fact they will also occur gradually. This makes it hard to ‘carbon farm’ as foresters have to keep most of their credits if they ever want to harvest. Having the emissions mirror the second rotation will mean that land owners can sell a greater proportion of credits from the first harvest so long as they replant.

  5. So just to be clear here Tom. Your position is that we should penalise people for building timber framed houses, and we should not use any fossil fuels?

    Anything else that is in your Utopian dream?

    Perhaps that we all become naturists and eschew the trappings of Chinese made clothing? Or that we only eat raw food grown by ourselves?

    I realise that the green’s are barking mad; you certainly seem to be confirming that view.

  6. bill: “tick the little red box, and they really will go away”

    Just what you wanted. Right Bill? Can’t stand anyone disagreeing with your fundamentalist religious viewpoint. All you want is a nice little back-slapping group of happy clappers all singing together.

    1. I quite like the ambiguity in Bill’s statement – the “imbecile two step”

      I think even an intellectual pygmy such as Bill can follow those instructions.

  7. Please read what I actually wrote.

    There is a rational argument to be made that timber in houses should not be counted as emissions. Its the context that I was commenting on. What good is the further development of a carbon accounting scheme that quite obviously is having no measureable impact on BAU and when we dont have time to await further refinement?

    As for small steps like the Green Party stance on coal being a non-starter (NZ is too small etc etc), I seem to remember that the non-nuclear weapon thing worked out OK. Might have had a hand in saving the planet. Fancy that.

    Lets have a NZ Prime Minister at Oxford, “I can smell the fossil fuels on your breath”.

  8. So will you be giving up your car then Tom? And using any form of public transport that relies on fossil fuels? Why not lead the way and start now? Walk everywhere. Or cycle. Up to you. Or do you have a horse and cart tucked away somewhere?

    1. There is no need to be so black and white on the issue. We can all reduce our carbn footprint significantly by smart measures. Total removal of FF in today’s society is nearly impossible but our use can be greatly reduced.

      Use the car less and walk,cycle, PT more (not give up the car entirely use judicously).

      Fly less and stay longer when you do travel. Use modern IT and telcom tech.
      Consume less of the discretionary stuff. Borrow from others and lend your stuff.

      When you purchase try for stuff that will last and not break or go out of date. Stuff that you wil enjoy for a long time (use discretion when you purchase)

      Try Joe you might find you are actually a happier person

  9. Joe – I am so glad you asked.

    Its what Doug said.

    As I am sure lots of folks will tell you (including myself and a few friends), you can pretty easily reduce to 1-2 tonnes carbon per adult per year with some fairly basic steps. No non-essential air travel. If you can, dont own a car. Borrow/share one as required. Use public transport where possible. Insulate your house well. Get solar water heating if you can.

    At work, go big on tele and video conferencing and reducing unnecessary out of town meetings (if you are self employed you end up earning more by not wasting time travelling). I also have my IT guy currently outsourcing as much of our computing as possible to lower energy (and cost) central servers.

    This is just basic, sensible forward thinking stuff in response to some pretty compelling scientific evidence.

    Joe, you are also permitted to have fun. Get yourself a yuba mundo bike with a huge cargo platform:

    I have one, they are brilliant, a lot of fun for taking the kids to school, on rides around the block and to the beach, and only $1000 NZ.

    I am afraid I am not a great vege grower. But I have heard of strange people (fanatics I agree!) that do that also.

    Joe, I share your fear of a return to horse and cart days. One assured way of making that happen is letting the planet warm by 4 degrees celcius. And I am not sure horses would be much use then anyway.

    1. Aha; now that’s a familiar machine – here’s a link you can follow to see the ancestor of the Yuba, the Long-Bike, which was designed by Ian Grayson and ‘Bicycle Bruce’ Steer here in Adelaide back in the 80s –

      A great way to transport kids indeed, and a friend of mine even used to shift his oxy-welding kit around with one!

      The same pair designed another machine – the Ho Chi Minh* – which kept the same extended frame but substituted a large, low slung carrier rack behind the base of the seat-post that wrapped around the rear wheel. This was specifically a cargo mover, but kids would still lobby to be carried on it!

      Because, as the blog says, Long Bikes were built like tanks there are still several in service today. I had one myself for a few years. One of our state parliamentarians – a Green – still uses his.

      *Named after the extensive use of bicycles along the Ho Chi Minh trail to transport huge volumes of supplies and materiel during the Vietnam war.

  10. John D

    You are quite right. It makes no sense at all to incur the significant adverse effects of travelling all the way to Oxford via a metal airframe boosted to 30,000 feet by burning ancient stored sunlight, leaving a soot trial, carbon and other gases, at high altitude, just to talk to a room full of people.

    The debate would need to be held via telepresence or similar:

    Cutting down balsa logs for the Kon Tiki raft probably has less environmental effects, but also makes little sense, given the alternatives.

  11. Gareth, this is simply the best work you’ve done. Fabulous post. The importance of this turning point in our History can not be overstated. Thanks and gratitude for this important contribution.

  12. While teleconferencing is useful to reduce travel costs I’m not sure that it can replace face to face get togethers completely.

    For a start a lot of effort at many conferences is involved with lobbying behind the scenes rather that at the formal events. You can’t replicate this via the use of technology very easily.

    Imagine someone you don’t know wanting to private message you about some sort of topic which they say is very important. How would you react? I know I’d likely treat it like some sort of cold call and tell them I was too busy.

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