What happened during the past 10 days at Cancún?

December 7, 2010 Leave a comment

This post has been contributed by Seán McDonagh SSC, who is present at Cancún.


In racing terms we have rounded the last bend and are on to the home straight. On some courses, I am told, the final furlong or two involves climbing a steep incline, so a lot more will happen here between now and Friday, December 10, 2010, when COP 16 ends. In this report I will try and give a flavour of what has taken place here since November 29, 2010.

Inclusiveness, Transparency and Balance

Three words dominated the first week of negotiations – inclusiveness, transparency and balance. The first two were balm to many of the participants from developing countries because, from procedural perspective, Copenhagen was a painful failure. At the outset of COP 15, expectations for success were unrealistically high, given the way the negotiations had been taking place throughout most of 2009. The Danish Presidency should have spotted that before the Copenhagen conference and dampened down expectations. In fact, it did the opposite. On many bill boards around the city the name Copenhagen was changed to Hopenhagen. The wags were calling it BrokenHagen before the end of the first week. Furthermore, flying in 155 heads of state to save the planet wasn’t a bright idea, especially since they had to go home almost empty handed. Politicians do not relish that kind of failure.

In addition, many participants from developing countries were annoyed at the fact that the Danes initiated “parallel negotiations” with carefully chosen countries. When a “hidden text” appeared from this group at the end of the first week, many participants were furious. They also claimed that the face-saving  Copenhagen Accord itself hijacked the UNFCCC multilateral negotiation process. The result was that many participants left Copenhagen with a strong feeling that trust had completely broken down. Finally, the logistics at Copenhagen were also terrible. Professor John Sweeney of NUI Maynooth spent 8 hours standing in the freezing cold waiting to register. It took him 10 minutes to do the same here at Cancun. The CSO community was also furious because they were effectively banned from the conference centre during the last three days of negotiations. Some of these people had spent huge amounts of money getting to Copenhagen.

Since Copenhagen, the Mexican President Filipe Calderon and especially the COP President and Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa have worked tirelessly to rebuild trust. They have stated publicly on many occasions that there will be no “parallel negations” or “hidden texts” in Cancun, a clear reference to Copenhagen. Judged by the many compliments she received during the informal stocktaking on Saturday, December 4, 2010, she seems to have re-established trust and achieved that goal.

Two key words were used again and again by the Mexican presidency – transparency and inclusion. This even applied to the members of Civil Society Organisations (CSO). The Mexicans appear to be looking for new opportunities to engage as wide a constituency as possible in seeking solutions to climate change. This could provide new openings for CSO and religious groups to share their insights and wisdom with the other participants with a view to forging viable solutions to climate change. Such new opportunities open up the possibility for including ethical language in the final documents.

Balance and Flexibility

The two other key words which keep cropping up in the negotiations are balance and flexibility. Balance, of course, means different things to different people. As I explained in an earlier article, there are two negotiating processes taking place simultaneously here at Cancun. One is the meeting of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). All the countries here at Cancun are members of the UNFCCC, but there are no binding commitments. The second track is the meeting of the Parties of the Kyoto Protocol (KP). These are rich countries, in the jargon of the conference, Annex 1 countries. These countries have signed up to binding commitments to reduce GHG emissions by 5.2% to 7% below 1990 levels by 2012. The KP did not set any binding limits for non-Annex I countries, because, in what are called ‘common but differentiated responsibilities,’ the drafters recognised that poor countries will have to use fossil fuel to develop and overcome the poverty of many of their citizens.

Emissions are still rising

Neither the U.S. nor Australia have signed the Kyoto Protocol. For over a decade the EU was an enthusiastic promoter of the Kyoto Protocol. This diminished somewhat at the Poznan COP in 2008. The fact that Poland, which has a huge coal industry, held the presidency during COP 14 probably contributed to this change. There are also heavy industries and utilities in other EU countries such as Germany, which have also gone lukewarm on the Kyoto Protocol. Here at Cancun, the EU believes that “a balanced and comprehensive package on the Kyoto Protocol and the Convention, is within reach.”

Still a Huge Gigaton Gap

However, the most disheartening thing about the performance of Annex 1 countries, even under Kyoto Protocol, is that they have actually increased their GHG emissions, according to the National Greenhouse Gas inventory covering the period 1990 to 2007. Moreover, as the United Nations Environment Programme’s document, The Emissions Gap Report: Are the Copenhagen Accord Pledges Sufficient to Limit Global Warming to 2 o C or 1.5 o C? points out, even with all the reduction pledges currently on the table there is, at least, a 5 to 9 gigaton gap between what has been promised and what the science claims is necessary for keeping the rise in the average global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius. This is the minimum requirement for what is now being called ‘a safe future.’ The Mexican environment minister, Mr. Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada, is on record as saying that the gigaton gap must appear in the final text.


The current phase of the Kyoto Protocol is due to run out in 2012. This is why developing countries want a second KP to be signed either here at Cancun or, more realistically, at Durban next year. For developing countries this is what they mean when they talk about a balanced outcome from Cancun. The Group of 77 and China have also made it clear that a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol is indispensible and that this is what was agreed to in the Bali Road Map at COP13, in 2008.

For the U.S. however, a balanced outcome is where everyone begins to make voluntary, but measured and verifiable commitments to reduce GHGs. Unless this happens, the US has indicated that it might not be willing to push ahead with other items, such as the Climate Fund which has been designed to help developing countries reduce their dependence on fossil fuel energy as they develop their economies and overcome widespread poverty. To developing countries this sounds like bullying.

Balance for the Kyoto Protocol countries would involve the U.S. assuming comparable commitments in reducing GHG as those undertaken by the KP countries. With these mitigation commitments in place, balance for developing countries would involve taking appropriate mitigation action nationally, with the expectation that adequate finance and technology will be made available to carry out this task.

Moving Forward

The Mexican presidency is attempting to nudge both groups to forward towards an agreement on a number of fronts. This will involve compromising on both sides. But at least the process will be able to move forward politically. Mexico and others are rightly afraid that, if nothing is achieved at Cancun, the UN multilateral negotiating process will unravel and that action to deal with climate change will be placed in another forum, possibly even the G20.  For all its weaknesses, the UN process promotes inclusion, transparency and impartial implementation and has a mechanism for implementing and monitoring decisions. Mexico is willing to accept what is being called a “cheese” agreement, meaning that it might be full of holes and that all t are not crossed nor i dotted, but that, at least, there will be some substance and, most of all, movement towards a more ambitious agreement next year.

It is important to say that some countries would not lose too much sleep if the UN multilateral process broke down. I believe that the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia and others are in that camp, but none of the above wish to be blamed for pulling the roof down on a negotiation process. Nevertheless, they would probably favour a more direct role for an organisation such as the G20, which, they would argue would be more efficient in achieving the task of reducing GHG. Of course, they would also have more control in such a forum. However, the G20, unlike the UN, has no readymade architecture to carry on this kind of discussion or even a secretariat to promote and monitor implementation and compliance. Even during the administration of Democrat Presidents, the U.S. has not been fully at home with multilateral processes. That is why it has not signed the Law of the Sea, the UN Convention on Biodiversity, the Cartajena Protocol on Biosafety and many others.

On December 6, 2010, ministers from the various countries began arriving in  Cancun. They will now take the lead in the negotiations, which their officials have been pursuing on their behalf for the past week. These were welcomed by Minister Patricia Espinosa who asked them to help her in carrying out consultations in five crucial areas – shared vision, adaptation, mitigation, finance, technology and capacity building.  She called on them to “carry out consultations in order to help us identify the areas where solutions may lie, and thus lead to further progress.”  She went on the record as saying that “I believe we can complete the package, or at least make significant advances, before the opening of the high level segment on Tuesday afternoon.”

I think the Indian environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, captured the current mood of the Conference when he said that, “there is more camaraderie here (Cancun), more dialogue, more intense engagement and less shadow boxing than in Copenhagen, because China has moved on the transparency issue.”[1]

In fact, he has put forward a plan to bridge the gap between the United States and China on verification by establishing a voluntary programme known as international consultation and analysis. Under the plan, called I.C.A., countries would declare their emissions reduction targets and provide regular reports on how they were meeting them and gauging their own progress.[2]

In this report, I have tried to avoid, as much as possible, acronyms such as – AWGLCA – Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action –, or  GEG – Least Developed Countries Expert Group –, or LULUCF – Land-use, Land-use change and Forestry –, or Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation –  REDD –, because I know it would turn my readers off and send them back to their coffees. I am heading for the coffee bar myself where I hope to pick up some news about what is happening today.

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Climigrants – Climate Refugees

December 7, 2010 Leave a comment

This post has been contributed by Seán McDonagh SSC.


Even though the displacement of people, often on a permanent basis, always appears on any list of the consequences of climate change, little has been done to address their plight.  The first assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC AR1) stated that the single greatest impact of climate change may well be the mass migration of humans, a phenomenon which is now being called –“climigration.” That Report went on to suggest that by 2050, 150 million people would be displaced by climate change phenomena such as desertification, droughts and water scarcity, rising sea-levels, disappearance of arable land and severe weather events.  In other words, people will be forced to leave environments which are no long hospitable for human beings. The iconic examples, which have received media attention, are those people living on low lying islands in the Southern Pacific and Indian Ocean. However, the devastation to New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is a reminder that climate-induced migration may not be confined to poorer countries. Of course rich countries, such as the U.S., have the ability to protect such areas unless the severe weather event, which usually only appeared once in a hundred years, now happens every few years.


Numbers involved?

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, published in 2006,  estimates that the figure could be as high as 250 million people.[1] Despite these enormous numbers (and others would even project a figure of 500 million climate-induced migrants), these people have yet to receive significant attention at any of the COPs to date. Even if one accepts the 200 million figure, this is ten times the entire population of documented refugees and internally displaced people today.


No adequate legal or policy framework

And as yet, there are no policy measures to address “climigration”. In fact, there isn’t an agreed term for these displaced people. Many object to the term environmental or climate change “refugees,” because the meaning of the term “refugee” is enshrined in international agreements such as the 1951 Refugee Covenant. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IMO) have advised against using terms such “climate refugees” or “environmental refugees” because they have no legal basis in international refugee law. They advise that the terms be avoided so as not to undermine the international legal regime for the protection of refugees.[2] Under the present rules for climate-induced migrants to be considered as refugees there would have to be evidence that their governments were intentionally destroying the environment and livelihoods of these people, which is very seldom the case.

One thing that must be kept in mind in all this discussion is that the people, who are forced to migrate because of the massive changes, which climate change has brought about in their traditional habitat, did little to cause these problem in the first instance. Rather, the impact has occurred because of the actions of other people in other parts of the globe, who have burned and continue to burn fossil fuel. These people, whether from the coastline of Bangladesh or the Maldives, have a right to be resettled somewhere. In view of the causes of mass climate-induced migration, the potential numbers involved and the fact that the possibilities of returning to their original homes are virtually nil, these issues need to be drawn into migration management policies and practices debate.


Disappearing States

One real lacuna is that in international law there is no legal framework for dealing with states or territories which simply disappear as a consequence of a rise in sea-levels. This means that there is no legal framework at the moment for dealing with the status and rights of people whose state disappeared. Some precedence, such as the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, which was signed in Kampala in October 2009, might be helpful. The Economist stated that the “most significant bit of the convention is the recognition accorded to climate change migrants.”[3]

Any legal terminology to cover climate-induced migration must incorporate a sense of global responsibility and accountability for what has happened to these people.  In particular, the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change must include obligations and responsibilities to respond to climate-induce migration for Annex 1 countries (rich countries). This would lay out the obligations rich countries, which have benefited greatly from the use of fossil fuels over the past 100 years, have towards poor countries, which are now experiencing the negative impacts of climate change and do not have the resources to tackle the problem effectively.

The historical records show that the United States is responsible for 29% of GHG emissions, the countries comprising the EU for 26% and Russia for 8%. Developing countries and emerging economies are responsible for 24%, though, of course, that percentage is rising as their economies expand.

In the light of these statistics, the responsibility of developed countries for the current problems, which are forcing people to leave their homes permanently because of climate change, needs to be acknowledged and acted upon. At first glance, there would seem to be the possibility of applying the “polluter pays principle” which is enshrined as Internationalization of Environmental Costs in Principle 16 of the Rio Declaration (UNCED 1992). This environmental principle is derived for the moral demand that a person must make restitution to another human being for the damages which one’s behaviour has caused.  In the case of climate change, the damage is not merely to an individual but to groups of people who must leave their homes because they have disappeared, in the case of small low-lying islands, or can now longer be farmed because of prolonged climate-induced drought.


Need for new institutions and structures

There is also an urgent need to recognize in international law the unique situation of climate-induced migrants, seeing that none of the traditional categories or legal frameworks appears to be of much help to them.  It is time to develop a new category before the problem becomes overwhelming. The Stern Review constantly states that the cost of inaction on climate change will be far higher the longer we put off doing something concrete about it. The same logic applied directly to the situation of climate-induced migration.

There have been a number of efforts to date.  In the run up to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was considering including climate-induced migration and displacement in a post-Kyoto agreement. It was envisaged as part of the Action Plan on Adaptation. This seems to be no longer on the table.

Furthermore, the UNFCCC should include strong human rights language as a guiding principle in any post Kyoto agreement, because a rights-based approach establishes procedural standards for government policies and international agencies. There would seem to be a need for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UNFCCC to cooperate more closely in developing guidelines for designing appropriate adaptation polices.

Since climate-induced migration, will often involve groups of people, rather than individuals, there is also a need for an international dedicated agency to deal effectively with what will be a recurring problem. Otherwise the ad hoc response to each disaster as it occurs will probably be chaotic.

I have written this article, not because I have any great expertise in working with migrants, but because I am aware that many Regions and Mission Units in the Columban Society are addressing the current needs of migrants and refugees. As is obvious from this article, this is a new area and there are many more questions than answers. But, I believe a start must be made because there is no doubt in my mind but that this will become a major issue in the not too distant future.

In writing this article I found two publications helpful:

“Climate Change Induced Forced Migrants: in need of dignified recognition under a new Protocol.” Equity and Justice Working Group Bangladesh, (December 2009). www.equitydg.org.

“Climate Refugees” beyond Copenhagen: legal concept, political implications, normative considerations, published by Diakonisches Werk der EKD e.V, for “Brot fur die Welt, D-70184 Stuttgart. www.brot-fuer-die-welt.de.

[1] Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change 2006, www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/sternreview_index.htm.

[2] Biermann, Frank and Ingrid Boas, Protecting Climate Refugees: The Case for a Global Protocol.

[3] Economist 2009, 52.

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The Acidification of the Oceans

December 7, 2010 Leave a comment

This post has been contributed by Seán McDonagh SSC.

The wonder of the oceans

The oceans have a very special place in the story of the Universe. To many of us, they are just there and seem ordinary and common place. But we can truly appreciate their significance when we view them as a special aspect of the unfolding of the universe itself. As far as we know, liquid water is found nowhere else in the Universe. Water vapor and ice has been found on other planets, but only on planet Earth have the oceans been created and maintained in their liquid form for four billion years. Oceans were probably on the Red planet (Mars), but they have long since vanished.

Furthermore, the oceans are the womb of life. For almost 2 billion years, bacteria were the only forms of life on earth. During the first billion years, the blue-green algae learned how to take hydrogen from the oceans and to release oxygen into Earth’s carbon-dominated atmosphere. This was the beginning of photosynthesis.


More serious disruption than sea-level rising

Many people are now aware that the increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, is contributing to the rise in the ocean levels through thermal expansion and through melting glaciers in the Antarctic and Greenland.

But something else is also happening about which few people are aware. About one quarter to one third of the CO2 ends up in the oceans, where it dissolves to form carbonic acid, and then dissociates into bicarbonate and hydrogen ions. The more hydrogen ions there are in the water, the lower its pH is. In other words, it is more acidic. Furthermore, the excess of hydrogen ions react with, and eliminate carbonate ions, which are necessary for the formation of calcium carbonate skeletons and shell production in many species of marine organisms. Scientists have found that there are less carbonate ions in the ocean now than at any other time in the past 800,000 years.

Normally the surface waters of the oceans are slightly alkaline with a pH greater than 7. However, because they are absorbing more CO2, the oceans are about 30% less alkaline today than they were before the industrial revolution. The consequences of this are very significant and worrying on a number of fronts. Less alkaline water reduces the availability in seawater of carbonate minerals such as calcite and aragonite. These minerals are important in the formation of corals, shellfish, marine plankton and fish skeletons. The physiology, development and even survival of these creatures are thereby threatened.

During my years in the Philippines, I enjoyed regularly snorkeling in coral reefs. I also became aware of the importance of corals for marine life and the people who fished the reefs. Over the years, I began to learn something about the extraordinary biological diversity in coral reefs. Studies have shown that that at least one quarter of the biodiversity of the oceans are found in coral reefs. Because of their wealth in species, coral reefs they are often referred to as the rainforests of the ocean.

They are very important for humans also. It is estimated that world-wide, 500 million people depend on corals reefs for coastal protection, food, tourism and other forms of income. Economists estimate that reefs and their products are worth between US$30 and $172 billion per annum. In Hawaii alone, for example, the tourism generated by the coral reefs brings in US $364 million per annum.

This is all under threat from ocean acidification. Since 1990, skeletal growth on the Great Barrier Reef off the east coast of Australia, was down by 14%. This is the largest stunted growth level in the past 400 years. In an increasingly acidic ocean, coral reefs will decline and may even become extinct. It is estimated that 4,000 species of fish depend on coral reefs. Reefs are marine nurseries, providing food, shelter and a safe haven from predators. The dwindling corals are already impacting on a number of species of fish, leading to the extinction of some species.



Pteropods are tiny swimming sea snails which are abundant in the oceans. There are often thousands of individual snails per cubic metre. They are an important element in the marine food chain as they form the diet of zooplankton, salmon, herring, and baleen whales. The question is, will they thrive in increasingly acidic oceans, because their calcium carbonate shells may not develop properly. Some predict that as early as 2050, pteropods may be unable to form shells which would threaten their own survival and the species which depend on them.

Other species will benefit from higher levels of carbon dioxide in the oceans. The problem is that these species are currently seen as nuisance or weedy species. Top of the list are jellyfish. Scientists are not clear yet whether the increased prevalence of jellyfish is as a direct result of ocean acidification. Jellyfish blooms could have a disastrous impact on other species and on the oceans in general. They also will impact on tourism, as no one likes to be stung by a jellyfish while swimming in the ocean.

If the oceans become more acidic there will be a serious decline in biodiversity, and thereby affecting a whole raft of species, including humankind as the oceans are less able to supply us with food. Reducing GHG gas emissions, especially CO2 is not just important in tackling climate change, it is also necessary if we want to protect the fruitfulness of our oceans on which we all depend.



Hoegh-Gudberg, O., et al. (2007), “Coral reefs under rapid climate change and ocean acidification”, Science, 318 (5857); 1737-1742.

Doney, S., Fabry, V. Feely, R., Kleypas, J. (2009), “Ocean Acidification: The Other CO2 Problem”, Annual Review of Marine Science, 1:169-92.

Orr, J.C., et al. (2005), “Anthropogenic ocean acidification over the twenty-first century and the impact on calcifying organisms”, Nature, 437:681-686.

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The U.S. and Climate Change, 2009-2010

December 5, 2010 1 comment

This post has been contributed by Seán McDonagh SSC, who writes from Cancún.

During most of the Presidency of George W Bush, the administration was either promoting climate skeptics or hindering global consensus and action on climate change. The election of Barack Obama, appeared to introduce a new era in the U.S.  approach to climate  change, because the president himself both knew what was involved scientifically and seemed willing to do something about it.  By mid 2009, the U.S. appeared to be moving towards ambitious climate change policies with the passage of a comprehensive climate change bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

From Hope to Despair

Then, in December 2009, expectations were high that Copenhagen would complete the Bali Road Map and develop an ambitious, legally binding treaty to reduce green house gas emissions (GHG) and thus tackle climate change. Trust between the Parties to both the UN Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol broke down in Copenhagen when the Danish Presidency seemed to abandon the multi-lateral negotiation process in favour of cobbling together an Accord which was negotiated by a select handful of countries. The Copenhagen Accord did at least acknowledge that climate change is the greatest challenge facing humankind, and that steps must be taken so that the mean global temperature will not rise above 2 degrees Celsius. But there were no binding emission targets, timelines or sanctions. All that was asked of the Parties is that they make voluntary pledges to limit greenhouse emissions. A recent study by The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) entitled The Emissions Gap Report makes it very clear that current pledges would not reach the target of 2 degrees Celsius set by the Accord.[1]

By mid-2010, the momentum to enact climate legislation in the U.S. Congress had passed, partly because of the economic crisis, the intransigence of the Republican Party, some wavering Democrats from coal mining states, scientific disinformation and a well funded opposition. Though the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill had passed through the House in June 2009, the chances of a similar bill passing the Senate was thwarted by the death of two key Democratic Senators, a major oil spill in the Gulf and implacable opposition from Republicans. In July 2010, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he was not bringing his the bill to the Senate floor.

The emergence of the “Tea Party” complicated things further. Many of the “Tea Party” candidates, who were climate deniers, were well funded by right wing libertarians associated with the Republican Party. Some claimed that climate change was a conspiracy dreamed up to promote industry in China and India at the expense of U.S. companies. This group took votes not just from Democrats but also from moderate-leaning Republicans, several of whom lost their seat in the election.

Mid Term Elections and Climate Sceptics

The mid-term election in the United States on November 2, 2010, was not just a bad day for the Democratic Party, it also saw the election of a host of climate sceptics. This will make it much more difficult for President Obama to get an energy or climate bill through the US Congress during the next two years.

The following are some of the comments made by newly elected members of the U.S. Congress according to Kevin Kobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

  • “With the possible exception of Tiger Woods, nothing has had a worse year than global warming. We have discovered that a good portion of the science used to justify “climate change” was a hoax perpetrated by leftist ideologues with an agenda.” (Todd Young, new congressperson from Indiana).
  • “I absolutely do not believe that the science of man-caused climate change is proven. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I think it’s far more likely that it’s just sunspot activity or something just in the geologic eons of time where we have changes in the climate.” (Ron Johnson, new senator from Wisconsin).
  • “I think we ought to take a look at whatever the group is that measures all this, the IPCC, they don’t even believe the crap.” (Steve Pearce, new congressperson from New Mexico).
  • “It’s a bigger issue, we need to watch ’em.  Not only because it may or may not be true, but they’re making up their facts to fit their conclusions. They’ve already caught ’em doing this.” (Rand Paul, new senator from Kentucky).
  • “There isn’t any real science to say we are altering the climate path of the earth.” (Roy Blunt, new senator from Missouri). [2]

It is important to recognize that these sceptics had formidable backing from big oil companies, the coal industry, and electric utilities. In Merchants of Death, published earlier this year by Bloomsbury, two well known U.S. academics, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, exposed how corporations and conservative foundations have funded a number of campaigns during the past 40 years. In the 1970s, despite overwhelming medical evidence linking smoking and cancer, they managed to delay anti-smoking legislation. They have also helped to block legislation curbing acid rain, ozone-layer depletion and, in the past two decades, global warming and climate change.

Robust Science

What about the science of climate change which many of these new members of Congress are dismissing? In 1999, Peter Stott, who was then head of climate modeling at the British Met Office, Myles Allen from Oxford University and a number of meteorologists published an article in the journal Nature. They based their predictions on the range of temperature change for the period between 2000 and 2040 on temperature data which had been collected in the period between 1946 and 1996.  They then drew a graph representing the range of predicted outcomes for that period with a dotted line indicating the most likely outcome. The graph predicted that there would be a 0.8 degrees rise in temperature in 2010, when compared with 1946. This is exactly what has happened. So, in that stringent test, the science has been vindicated.[3]

Nature does not heed climate skeptics

All the denial in the world will not stop the processes of Nature. The US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the first eight months of 2010 were as hot as the first eight months of 1998 – the warmest ever recorded. But there is a crucial difference. In 1998, there was a record El Niño – the warm phase of the natural Pacific temperature oscillation. The 2010 El Niño was smaller (an anomaly peaking at roughly 1.8C, rather than 2.5C), and brief by comparison to those of recent years. Since May the oscillation has been in its cool phase (La Niña). Even so, June, July and August this year were the second warmest on record. Unfortunately, even with such strong warnings, there are still many doubters and effective action is postponed. This, of course, is grossly immoral, because those who did least to cause the present crisis will suffer most and, furthermore, delaying action on climate change will have a deleterious impact of all future generations of humans and other creatures.

Signs of Hope

On the positive side the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that GHG emission declined during the period 2008 – 2010.  This was a result of the economic downturn and the conversion of some coal-powered utilities to natural gas. Another positive factor was the Obama economic stimulus package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). This directed 18% of the total US $787 billion to climate change and energy projects. The five largest green allocations, in descending order are renewable forms of energy, energy efficiency, transit and high-speed rail, and the modernization of the power grid. This injection of capital was very important as ‘green’ energy companies were beginning to row back financially because of the recession.

On another front, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is preparing to regulate CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act and the Supreme Court decision of 2007.  If the rules to further restrict NOx, SO2,  Mercury and acid gas come into force this will reduce an estimated 25-59 GW of highly polluting coal-powered utilities. Many fear that the Republicans, with support from the coal lobby, will do everything in their power to thwart this course of action.

States are more active

While serious movement at the Federal level is being hampered by politicians in Washington promoting corporate vested interests, there has been quite a bit of movement at State and local level. Forty one States have established greenhouse gas registers. In addition, nearly two-thirds of the states are involved in one of three regional initiatives for capping emissions. The three are the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), The Western Climate Initiative (WCI) and the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord (MGGRA). While all of the three have relative modest targets, the combined scale is significant.

As often happens, for good or ill in the U. S., where California goes the nation follows. California adopted the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) in 2006.  This is a large scale demonstration project designed to combat climate change by combining emissions limits with huge investment in green energy.  Rules to limit GHG emissions will become operative on January 1, 2012.

Despite the dubbing which the Democrats received in the mid-term elections, Californians voted down Proposition 23, which was designed to suspend AB 32’s provisions until unemployment fell below 5.5%. The Republican candidate for the Governorship, Meg Whitman promised to impose a one-year moratorium on AB 32 if elected.  She was defeated by Democrat Jerry Brown, a longtime supporter of environmental initiatives, even though she spent a fortune on her election campaign. Furthermore, Proposition 32 was defeated by a large majority, despite a well-funded campaign backed by out-of-state fossil fuel interests and the “Tea Party.”

How will the U.S. behave in Cancun?

Participants, particular from the CSOs, are hoping that the U.S. doesn’t throw its weight around this week. Any effort by the Obama Administration to withhold funding from countries, which have been critical of the Copenhagen Accord will backfire. It will only annoy countries of the South and possibly derail any substantive negotiations. The main media focus on WikiLeaks documents last week was on the embarrassment felt by U.S. politicians and diplomats because of comments they had made on fellow politicians and diplomats right across the world on what they thought were secure confidential cables. But WikiLeaks cables also show the extent to which the U.S. was willing to exercise pressure on those nations which were critical of the Copenhagen Accord.[4]

Some countries feel that the U.S. will attempt to block progress at setting up a Global Climate Fund if its demands on mitigation (reducing GHG emissions) and transparency from emerging economies such as China are not met. Todd Stern issued such ultimatum at the Geneva Dialogue of Climate Funding in September.  He is on record as saying:  “We are not going to move on the Green Fund (A UNFCC controlled Climate Fund to help developing countries adapt to and mitigate climate change) and the $100 billion  (in long-term financing that the U.S. had previously promised to help mobilize ) if the issues that were central to the Copenhagen Accord, that were part of the balance of the Copenhagen Accord, including mitigation and transparency, don’t also move.”[5]

This is some of the background to the U.S. presence here at Cancun.  Like the Chinese, thus far they have not raised their voice too loudly.  A lot will be revealed this week.

In the intensity of the debate and the various dimensions of what is a complex  process, one  can easily forget the importance of what is happening here in Cancun. In a sense the world media has forgotten. Only a fraction of the media, which were at Copenhagen, is here in Cancun. In my daily internet checks of media outlets in Ireland, Britain and the U.S., I find that the Cancun Conference is getting very little coverage. But the issue hasn’t changed. Unless the international community can frame an ambitious, legally binding treaty within a year or so, the consequences for humankind, the planet and all future generations will be dire. In the past two years countries such as Ireland, Britain and the U.S. used taxpayers money to save doggy bank in the belief that they were too big to fail. But it seems that the welfare of the planet cannot garner the same kind of attention. Is there any clearer indication that our values are totally skewed in the wrong direction?

Some of the above technical data is from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Policy Brief distributed here at Cancun. The rest is my own gleaned from a variety of sources.

[1] The Emissions Gap Report: Are the Copenhagen Accord Pledges Sufficient to Limit Global Warming to 2 degree Celsius or 1.5 degree Celsius? November 12, 2010.

[3] Robin McKie, “A dark ideology is driving those who deny climate change,” The Observer, August 1, 2010, page 28.

[4] Damian Carrington, The Guardian, December 3, 2010. See: www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/dec/03/is-basics-copenhagen-accord-tactics/print .

[5] Fact Sheet prepared by a number of Civil Society Organisations, The Third World Network, November 2010.

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Has Anyone Seen the USA or China?

December 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Follows a contribution by Seán McDonagh SSC at the closing of COP16’s first week.

As we reach the end of the first week on the UN Conference on Climate Change (C0P 16) in Cancun, many people are asking, why have the U.S. and China been so quiet? Of course, in the Daily Programme you will find representatives from both China and the U.S. attending various negotiation sessions, and a glance at the Earth Negotiations Bulletin shows that each day a Chinese representative has made some intervention, some of which are quite important. In the December 2, 2010, edition of the Negotiation Bulletin, China reaffirmed its “commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, a legally-binding outcome to strengthen the Convention’s implementation.”

But, thus far, there has been very little noise from either the U.S. or China. During the Presidency of George W. Bush, even though the U.S negotiators were either supporting climate skeptics or obstructing progress in every way possible, they always made themselves heard. Things have changed a little with the election of President Barack Obama. While the President is convinced of the importance of tackling climate change at a global level, getting an energy bill through the U.S. Senate has so far proved impossible. Getting Climate legislation passed will be even more difficult over the next two years with the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives.

Even though Copenhagen took place at the end of the first year of the Obama administration, shrill voices were still emanating from the U.S. camp. Todd Stern, the U.S. chief negotiator told the Copenhagen meeting that he had no time for the notion of the “historic carbon debt,” which had underpinned U.S. and European affluence for the past 100 years at least. On arrival in Copenhagen he said, “Emissions are emissions. You’ve just got to do the math. If you care about the science, and we do, there is no way to solve the problem by giving the major developing countries a pass.”

This remark is aimed at China and India, since both countries have increased their emissions in recent years. China is now the largest emitter of CO2, but its per capita emissions are only one-third that of the U.S. Furthermore, historically Chinese emissions have been very low, and even now a substantial proportion of their population still lives in poverty.

Many Northern countries were critical of the role played by China, India, South Africa and Brazil in the Copenhagen debacle. Ed Miliband, the UK’s climate secretary at the time, in an article in The Guardian, accused China of hijacking the Copenhagen summit and “holding the world to ransom” in order to prevent a deal.

Whether Todd Stern understands what the notion of “common but differentiated responsibilities” means, China has unique problems combating climate change. First, as critics are quick to point out, China is now the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Secondly, China has surpassed Japan as the second largest economy in the world. Thirdly, China’s foreign exchange reserves, which in 2010 stand at a staggering US$2 trillion, are the highest in the world. Fourthly, China has seen rapid economic growth since the early 1980s, which lifted over 300 million people out of poverty.

In response to the above, the Chinese point out that their population is more than four times the population of the U.S. First of all, it is important to state that China’s per capita GHG emissions are a third of the U.S. Secondly, for all the economic gains of the past three decades, China is still a relatively poor country. It may come as a surprise to many that China’s per capita GDP ranks below the top 100 countries in the world. In terms of social development as judged by the 2009 Human Development Index compiled by the UN Development Programme, China is 92nd on the list. China argues that it must keep moving along the path of economic growth in order to improve the livelihoods for a further 600 million people, some of whom in 2010, live on less than a dollar a day. China claims that there is no similar level of poverty in the U.S., Europe or Japan, and that, therefore, expecting the Chinese to take the same steps today as countries, who have built their wealth on fossil fuel, is patently unfair.

Speaking during the Tianjin Climate meeting, Xie Zhenhua, China’s top negotiator said that for a county that was still developing, it was unreasonable to expect it to set limits for GHG emissions while rich nations failed to cut their emissions. He believed that it was unfair for countries with a per capita GDP of $40,000 a year to demand that a country with a mere $3,000 per annum GDP submit to a common GHG reduction regime. (1)

Furthermore, as the workshop of the world, China is subsidizing other countries’ carbon budget. Zhao Zhogxiu, head of the International School of Business and Economics, claims that that when a “Made in China” Barbie doll is shipped out, it leaves only one-tenth of its monetary value in China, but three-quarters of its carbon emission budget is picked up by China. So, in fact, the Chinese workshop is now subsidizing other countries which have allowed the manufacturing sector in their own countries to dwindle, because goods are available cheaply from China. (2)

In terms of its energy sources, China is also at a disadvantage when compared to richer countries. The energy supplies of these rich countries come from very different sources. China, on the other hand, is still very much dependent on coal. In 2008, electricity generated from coal accounted for a massive 75% of China’s power generation capacity. (3) Even though China is investing heavily in clean energy, it still expects coal to provide a significant amount of energy in the next few years. This is why it is keen to develop carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. This process could be speeded up if wealthy countries were willing to share new technologies with China.

Still, China has quite a record in alternative energy systems. 1n 2009, China had the largest hydro-electric capacity in the world, 197 million kW. China produces 40% of the world’s photovoltaic cells totaling four million kW. 60% of the world’s solar water heating panels, totally 145 million square meters, can be found in China. Wind farms are also springing up in many places. In July 2010, 34 wind farms began operating at Shanghai East Sea Bridge Wind Farm. The facility will generate 267 million kW a year, which is the equivalent of 100,000 tonnes of coal. It supplied power to the Shanghai Expo in 2010. (4)

According to a recent report from the WorldWatch Institute, a Washington, DC-based environmental NGO, entitled, Worldwatch Report: Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency in China: Current Status and Prospects for 2020, China has become a leader in renewable energy. At a time when many countries still struggle with the aftermath of a devastating financial crisis, the Chinese government has used its strong financial position to direct tens of billions of dollars into clean energy— increasing the lead that Chinese companies have in many sectors. (5)

Since 2005, the Chinese government has elevated its energy conservation and energy efficiency efforts to basic state policy. The 11th Five-Year Plan (2006–10), set an energy-savings target of 20 percent, and the country has adopted administrative, legal, and economic measures to achieve this goal. During the first three years of the plan, China’s energy intensity— its energy consumption per unit of GDP—fell by just over 10 percent, saving 290 million tons of coal equivalent (tce) and reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 750 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent. This pace of energy conservation has rarely been achieved by the rest of the world. (6)

Unlike powerful vested interests in the U.S., who are either in denial or opposed to addressing climate change, China knows how vulnerable it is to severe weather events. In June 2010, floods in China killed over 175 people, displaced 800,000 people and destroyed homes and businesses in Guangdong and Fujian provinces. The damage was estimated at $1.6 billion. In the previous year, much of that area had experienced the worst drought in living memory. (7) Spreading desertification is also a major climate-related issue for China. China, furthermore, is aware that if the glaciers diminish significantly on the Himalayas or the Tibetan plateau, this will have a direct negative impact on the Yangtze and Yellow rivers which are so important to the agricultural and other needs of tens of millions of Chinese.

It will be interesting to see how the U.S. and China interact with each other and the other Parties during the second week of COP 16.



(1) Clifford Coonan, “Climate change talks in China generate more heat than light,” The Irish Times, October 7, 2010.

(2) Zhao Zhongxiu, “Four Obstacles to a Low-Carbon Economy,” China Today: Our Hope for Cancun, page 50.

(3) Jiao Feng, “Chinese Companies Battle Emissions,” China Today: Our Hope For Cancun, page 37.

(4) Ibid., page 38.

(5) See: http://www.worldwatch.org/renewables-and-efficiency-in-china.

(6) Ibid.

(7) “China’s floods kill 175 and displace 800,000,” The Irish Times, June 22, 2010, page 29.


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Cancún, Europe and WikiLeaks

December 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Today, the Flemish minister for the environment, Mss Joke Schauvliege left for Cancún and COP16. As, at this moment, Belgium assumes the presidency of the EU, she will also play an important role in representing the European perspective. At the airport of Brussels, a delegation of the Climate Coalition, an umbrella for around 70 organisations, invited the minister to push forward the negotiations for a follow-up agreement on the Kyoto Protocol. Of course, in the meantime we know that precisely these negotiations seem to be blocked. The core difficulty, at political level, is probably the difficulty of multilateral agreements. In this context, it is interesting to note that already immediately after the Copenhagen COP16, at which he was not present, Herman Van Rompuy expressed in a conversation, leaked by WikiLeaks, with US ambassador in Belgium Howard Gutman that he did not expect real results from a multilateral meeting as Cancún. A summary of that conversation is available in the Euobserver. Of course, the president of the European Council is convinced of the urgency of climate change and the planetary environmental challenges, but at the same time, when looking for a political approach, he emphasizes to clarify and solidify the European position and commitment, and then to engage in bilateral negotiations, first with the USA and then with the USA and China.

After it has become clear that Japan is unwilling to pursue a re-negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol and in view of this conversation between Van Rompuy and Gutman, one may wonder whether it will be possible to design a political strategy that will lead to an urgently needed agreements on mitigation, adaptation, financial support and technological transfers.

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Close to ten million climate deaths by 2030, study warns

December 4, 2010 Leave a comment

A comprehensive report about the climate-induced vulnerability of societies, released yesterday at COP 16 by the humanitarian research organisation DARA, throws more light on the economic and humanitarian consequences of global warming. According to the “Climate Vulnerabilty Monitor”, rising temperatures and its after effects (storm-tides, droughts, wildfires etc.) already cause up to 350,000 deaths per year. If action is not taken, this number might climb to 1 million deaths per year from 2030. Not all regions of the world would suffer in the same way: according to the study no less than 99 per cent of all mortality occurs in developing countries, and most of those affected will be children and women.

The report describes the estimated effects and chain reactions of global warming in 184 countries of the world, distinguishing health-related consequences, weather disasters, human habitat-loss and economic stresses. Every country is vulnerable, the authors say, and every region of the world will face climate insecurities and ecosystem damages of one kind or another. However, climate stresses on the economy (including lost value in the agricultural sector, forestry and fisheries) and losses to the human habitat through growing desertification and sea-level rise will be the most widespread effects. As a result, the total losses at today’s prices, to be caused by climate change, rise to 150 billion dollars.

With its 300 pages the study is not restricted to depicting negative scenarios. Corresponding to their findings and observations the authors deliver headline recommendations, and propose measures to be implemented by governments in order to avoid the worst impacts.

By Jesuit European Office, Brussels

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