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CLIMATE CHANGE: Cancun Conference Holds Out Little Hope in Face of Extreme Weather

Julio Godoy* - Tierramérica

BONN, Aug 12 2010 (IPS) - Unusually warm temperatures and more frequent and intense droughts and hurricanes… you have seen the headlines. As options dwindle for negotiating a global pact to fight climate change, the United Nations is pointing to today’s “extreme conditions.”

Dry, cracked soil in Chiapas, Mexico Credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS

Dry, cracked soil in Chiapas, Mexico Credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS

A glance at recent weather reports around the globe reveals these conditions. In the Andes of South America, the snowfall of the current southern hemisphere winter has been intense, killing hundreds of people. But at the same time, glaciers in Peru and Bolivia have been steadily melting.

In Pakistan and other parts of Central Asia, prolonged torrential rains have also caused thousands of deaths.

The current northern hemisphere summer has Europe and North America simmering, with temperatures hovering at 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) or warmer.

In Russia, an unusually hot summer, with temperatures in the 40s (in the 100s Fahrenheit), triggered massive fires in late July and early August around the capital and six other regions, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency.

The heat, drought and fire have killed thousands of people and destroyed thousands of homes and some 10 million hectares of crops.

“The rooftop of humanity is burning,” said an environmentalist who was in Bonn to attend the third round of preparatory talks last week for the 16th Conference of Parties (COP 16) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to be held in November-December in Mexico.

The halls of the gigantic Hotel Maritim in this German city were covered with posters about the consequences of global warming during the meet.

According to the U.S. space agency NASA, the high mean temperatures recorded between March and June around the globe made history: it was the warmest period in the last 130 years of officially recorded temperatures.

Apart from weather disasters, global warming has other disastrous consequences. In Europe, governments and the private sector fear that the warm temperatures and drought will lead to widespread agricultural losses.

“The harvest of grains and cereals this year will be down around 10 percent, or about 25 million tonnes,” Ludwig Höchstetter, director of BayWa and one of Germany’s leading agricultural traders, told Tierramérica.

These losses mean higher prices and shortages — in other words, growing food insecurity.

The new executive secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, once again reminded the governments of the industrialised countries of their “responsibility this year to take the next essential step in the battle against climate change.”

At the conference to take place in the Mexican resort city of Cancún, the governments are to approve a binding agreement to further reduce greenhouse-effect emissions as of 2012, when the first period of emissions cuts ends, as established under the Kyoto Protocol.

“We have to stabilise emissions before 2030, and reduce them 50 percent before 2050” in order to limit the average increase in the global temperature to two degrees Celsius, with respect to the pre-industrial age, Figueres told Tierramérica.

But the world faces a paradox. On one hand, nations need to meet growing demand for energy, especially in the developing world. On the other, they have to avoid increases in greenhouse gas emissions caused by burning more fossil fuels, like petroleum and coal.

In order to generate clean energy and create low-carbon economies, the UNFCCC Secretariat estimates that some 20 trillion dollars in investments are needed. More than half of those funds should benefit the developing world.

That sum is relatively low, compared with what it will cost to mitigate climate change. According to Figueres, for every dollar invested in clean energy in developing countries, the world will save seven dollars in mitigation costs.

The responsibility to reduce greenhouse gases falls to the industrialised nations, according to Huang Huikang, China’s special representative on climate change.

“In the last 200 years, the industrialised countries, with their mode of production and lifestyles, have caused a great accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Huang told Tierramérica in Bonn. “The historic and moral responsibility of the industrialised countries is very clear.”

Although Huang did not mention the United States specifically, his message was aimed at Washington. The U.S. continues to have the highest per capita rate of carbon emissions, but the government has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and in late July the Senate abandoned a wide-ranging bill on climate change legislation.

Washington’s failure to assume its global environmental responsibilities remains an obstacle in the negotiations ahead of Cancún, to the point that experts and observers have suggested calling off the conference and pursuing alternative channels.

“Perhaps we should simply approve the extension of the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012,” Figueres told Tierramérica. Others, like Jo Leinen, president of the European Parliament’s environmental committee, believe the UNFCCC has proved useless in negotiating a way to fight climate change.

“If Cancún fails — and everything suggests that it will — we should consider a voluntary coalition of countries that are truly committed to fighting climate change,” Leinen said in a conversation with Tierramérica. “That coalition should represent at least 80 percent of global emissions.”

Given that China heads the list of polluters, with 23 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, followed by the United States (20 percent), such a coalition would have to include at least one of those two nations — a mission that, for now at least, seems impossible.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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