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This was my third and final dispatch from the climate conference. It follows up on a piece written the day before for TNR. A colleague forwarded along evidence that supported my central thesis: businesses have mixed motives about climate change and, as such, should be kept a safe distance from the climate negotiations. Unfortunately, that distance is being increasingly diminished.


CANCUN, Mexico — Most observers agree that the Cancun deal is a tremendous achievement for UN climate process and a testament to the dogged diplomacy of the tireless Mexican hosts. After reaching what was a seemingly impassable divide over the future of the Kyoto Protocol, negotiators worked into the early hours this morning to produce two compromise texts that were agreed upon by all but the Bolivian delegation.

All that has been widely reported. What has been less discussed in the growing influence of large multinational corporations over the UN climate process. This is, as I wrote yesterday for The New Republic, “cause for concern.” Because businesses are quarterly-driven entities beholden primarily to their investors – not the long-term public interest – it isdangerous to allow them a prominent role in the climate negotiations. This risk was made evident by a letter Greenpeace uncovered shortly after the story was published.

While the government of Mexico worked hard to include corporations in the climate protection discussion that occurred here over the past two weeks, some big businesses used the platform they provided to push their narrow self interests. Shell was a particularly dishonest actor. On Wednesday its executive vice-president Graeme Sweeney joined Mexican Secretary of Economy Bruno Ferrari at a panel sponsored by the national development agency to discuss the role the private sector can play in preventing catastrophic climate change.

“Sweeney used every opportunity to emphasize the importance of funding R&D for carbon capture and sequestration—a promising but completely unproven technology to reduce emissions from coal plants,” I wrote of the event. “While Shell’s commitment to climate action is nice, it also seems to be a glorified form of lobbying.”

But, as I learned later, pushing for dubious solutions to the climate crisis wasn’t the only thing the oil company was doing to undermine the negotiations. Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch post or to make a comment.

Photo credit: Lee Jordan (via Flickr)

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This piece, my first to lead TNR.com, was given three different titles by the editors there — none of which I particularly liked. They were: In Cancún, Corporations Are Taking Over The U.N. Climate Talks; Corporations Fight The U.N. Climate Talks In Cancún; and on the front page, Can Wal-Mart Stop Global Warming? The title above is probably the best representation of the post below.

One historical note: I hopped a plane to Mexico without a plan or press passes because an editor from the Guardian newspaper contacted me about doing some guest blogging for them. He rejected a pitch for this story due to the timing and another pitch about Evo Morales because his corespondent was already planning a piece on the Bolivian president. Although I was disappointed to not make onto the Guardian’s site, leading TNR.com is a new accomplishment (and one that paid me nearly as much). Pretty good for flying south on a hope and a prayer, I think.

Cancún, Mexico—Another year, another round of U.N. climate talks. This year’s discussions in Cancún are likely to end much as last year’s haggling in Copenhagen did—without a firm global treaty to stop drastic climate change. But the stalemate has led to an intriguing side development: Large, multinational corporations are starting to play an outsized role in the negotiations. If world leaders can’t agree on how best to cut carbon emissions (and, so far, it’s not clear they can), then the world’s CEOs may start taking the lead. But is that really a positive development?

Consider some examples: On the very first day of the Cancún talks, the Consumer Goods Forum, a coalition of more than 400 of the world’s largest manufacturers and retailers, pledged to use its market might to help stop deforestation by 2020. The forum also pledged to phase out the use of hydrofluorocarbons—refrigeration gases that are thousands of times more potent than CO2—by 2015. This week, Wal-Mart came out in support of a major global forest-preservation initiative, REDD, and has announced plans to expand its sustainable palm oil policy.

Mexican Secretary of the Economy Bruno Ferrari

To top it all off, the Mexican government announced that it had secured $55 million in private low-carbon investments since the beginning of the talk—all this while wealthy nations struggle to come up with funds to finance carbon reductions in the developing world.

It’s clear that private companies are stepping in to do what the public sector hasn’t been able to do—take concrete steps and shell out money to reduce greenhouse gases. Indeed, many officials are starting to treat these firms as major actors akin to governments. “I’m sure in the future [the Cancun conference] is going to be remembered as the moment when you have an additional part of the COP that is related with business,” predicted Bruno Ferrari, Mexico’s secretary of the economy. Last week, hundreds of businesses leaders staged their own climate summit. The message seemed clear: NGOs and non-profits haven’t been able to fix the climate problem, so let’s see if the private sector can.

Can they? It’s clear that private companies can act much more nimbly than governments. The measures taken by the Consumer Goods Forum and Wal-Mart will start taking have real effects on global greenhouse gases immediately, whereas a formal climate treaty won’t materialize until at least next year in Durban, South Africa—if that.

But there’s also cause for concern. Click here to read the rest of this post on The Vine.

 

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This short, colorful dispatch — my first filed from Mexico — is copied in full below along with a photo I took from the plane that illustrates Cancun’s challenge. Click here to see the original UN Dispatch posting.

Cancun's hotel strip

CANCUN, Mexico — Yesterday, top diplomats from around the world flew into Cancun to make a final push for progress on in waning days of the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 16) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). What they saw as their planes prepared to land at Aeropuerto Internacional de Cancún may help sharpen their resolve and encourage countries to make a deal.

Cancun is not only picturesque, it is also at tremendous risk if climate change continues unabated. The resorts hang down from the central city like a string of pearls dangling in the teal waters of the Atlantic. Separating the city from the resorts is Laguna Nichupté. Much of the area around Cancun is also filled with the same mangrove thickets that line the shores of the lagoon.

Rising, acidifying oceans and stronger storms could ruin all that beauty. The shiny, aquamarine waters off its coast would become tarnished if the coral providing their beautiful hue is bleached by ocean acidification. Without these coral reefs, its world famous hotels would also be at risk. A sea level rise of only a few inches, coupled with the loss of protective coral and more vicious storms, could devastate Cancun’s fragile coastline.

There’s already evidence of climate change’s impact on the city. The sandy beach in front of many of the hotels are receding due to increasingly stronger storm surges. The biggest of all came with Hurricane Wilma, which battered the city in 2005. It cost Mexico $7.5 billion and it was only a category three storm.

Now on the ground, ensconced in the luxurious Moon Palace hotel, diplomats would do well to remember the view from the air. If the COP 16 talks in Cancun fail, it may spell not only the end of the UNFCCC process, but also perhaps the city itself.

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This, my first post on COP16, is also probably the first hopeful piece I’ve written about the climate negotiations. The next two weeks will tell if that optimism is well founded.

US Envoy Jonathan Pershing is looking to work with the Chinese

Yesterday some 15,000 delegates, business leaders, activists and journalists gathered in Cancun to kick off the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 16). And already the UNFCCC has some good news to report: 400 major companies including Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Unilever and Walmart have promised to not use hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas used as a refrigerant, in new equipment after 2015. Although this is only a small first step, it is significant. Phasing out HFCs would provide 8 percent of the GHG reductions needed by midcentury to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

This is a promising opening to COP 16, especially in light of recent history. International negotiators have struggled to make progress in protecting the climate since the disappointing conclusion of the Copenhagen conference. Yet, as the progress on HFC reductions indicate, there are a few good reasons to hope that this year’s summit may produce a more tangible, positive outcome than the last.

Mexican leadership

COP 16 will benefit from the strong leadership of a developing country that is committed and engaged in the battle against climate change. In the run up to the conference, Mexican diplomats have been shuttling around the globe in search of issues where detailed progress can be made in Cancun. These efforts helped the UNFCCC craft a plan for the conference focused on securing agreement in financing for adaptation, sharing information on agriculture and technology, and setting rules for the reduced deforestation program, commonly referred to as REDD+.

Only weeks ago, it seemed likely that little more than an agreement on REDD+ was possible in Cancun. Now President Felipe Calderon of Mexico, who Washington Post’s William Booth refers to as “a climate wonk,” has announced that he will advocate for a “third way” in the climate negotiations. His developing country will make, as Booth describes it, “commitments to serious, verifiable reductions in greenhouse gases in exchange for billions in aid and technology transfers from big polluters such as the United States and European Union.” This could effectively defuse the superpower standoff between the US, which has demanded better monitoring of developing country commitments, and China, which wants more money, technology and emission reductions from rich nations.

“We would like to prove that a developing country can mitigate and adapt to climate change without hurting the economy,” Fernando Tudela, Calderon’s deputy secretary of planning and environmental policy explained. “We want to prove that in Mexico.”

The China challenge

Another encouraging trend is the reported increase in China’s climate cooperation. Meetings of the countries’ negotiators over the past months seem to have reduced the tensions between China, the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter, and the US, which is the world’s richest nation and second biggest carbon polluter. “My sense is we have made progress,” said Jonathan Pershing, the leader of the US delegation in Cancun.

Statements by his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua about the country’s new-found support for international emissions monitoring suggest Pershing may be right.

Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch piece or to make a comment at the Huffington Post.

Photo credit: US Department of State (via Flickr)

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This second of two posts about the Tianjin climate talks gets into the dismal politics responsible for the stalled policies.

The climate talks in Tianjin last week did very little to improve the prospects for a binding international treaty, which would reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are warming the globe. In the wake of the disappointing meeting, Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), made her first official visit to China. During the trip, which began Saturday as Tianjin talks came to a close and ended yesterday, Jackson and her Chinese counterpart, Environmental Protection Minister Zhou Shengxian, renewed a bilateral environmental “memorandum of understanding” that had expired in 2008. Will this pact help defuse the superpowers’ climate standoff?

Tensions in Tianjin

The frustrating UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting again made clear the gulf of understanding between the US and China. Like painful repeat of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, the Tianjin talks stalled when China refused to consider America’s call for all pledges made by developing countries to be independently monitored and verified. Claiming this would violate the Kyoto Protocol’s principle of differentiated responsibilities for rich and poor countries, Chinese negotiator Huang Huikang said, “I want to emphasize on our side no compromise on the two track process and no compromise on the interests of developing countries.”

The Times of India offered further insight into why developing giants like China are so opposed to independent monitoring: “The US stance of demanding equal level of scrutiny of mitigation actions of emerging economies is considered a backdoor route of converting the voluntary actions of countries like China, India, Brazil and South Africa into international commitments.”

US climate change envoy Todd Stern, who was not even at Tianjin, further entrenched Chinese resistance to the American proposal. In a speech at the University of Michigan Law School, he alleged that China was acting as if the Copenhagen Accord “never happened.” Su Wei, a senior Chinese climate change delegate at the talks, responded in a press conference by comparing the US to a vain pig. “[The US] has no measures or actions to show for itself, and instead it criticizes China, which is actively taking measures and actions,” Su huffed. “The developed countries are trying every means possible to avoid discussion of the essential issue–that is, emission reductions.”

Other nations watched helplessly as the political posturing of the world’s two largest climate polluters prevented movement on the other policies the negotiators had hoped to address in Tianjin.

Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch piece on the Huffington Post or to make a comment.

Photo credit: chesbayprogram (via Flickr)

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This post was picked up by The Multilateralist blog on Foreign Policy, a great magazine I have unsuccessfully interviewed with for a job.

Since the outcome of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change summit in Copenhagen failed to meet the sky high hopes environmentalists had placed in it, international negotiators have been working hard ever since to lower expectations. Gone is talk of quickly crafting an binding successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, which effectively expires in 2012. Diplomats have given up on a firm agreement until the 2011 summit in South Africa and are instead trying to do what is “politically possible.”

Yet even with those diminished goals, the six-day Tianjin climate talks, which concluded this weekend, made so little progress that some diplomats openly wondered whether continuing the UNFCCC process was even politically worthwhile.

The Tianjin talks were a big deal. An estimated 3,100 delegates from 177 countries attended the talks from October 4-9. Thousands of other representatives from business and industry, environmental organizations and research institutions also attended the event.

UNFCCC meetings like this exist because world leaders believe a global commitment to reducing emissions and cooperating on clean energy and carbon storage is necessary to address global warming. The problem has been getting nations with very different interests to find policy solutions that every country can agree on. While no country will benefit from uncontrolled climate change, some have more to gain–or lose–from preventing it.

Problematic policies

Negotiators came to Tianjin with four items on their agenda: Codifying the voluntary pledges made after Copenhagen (as inadequate as they are), setting up the rules for forest conservation and clean tech cooperation, creating a process for transferring and verifying climate aid, and–most vexing–determining the structure of an eventual climate treaty. The hope was that diplomats could start working on the broad outlines in China and then sign a pact combining the areas of agreement in Mexico next month.

“The agreements that can be reached in Cancun may not be exhaustive in their details,” UNFCCC chief negotiator Christiana Figueres explained in a statement. “But as a balanced package they must be comprehensive in their scope and they can deliver strong results in the short term as well as set the stage for long term commitments to address climate change in an effective and fair manner.”

Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch piece on the Huffington Post or to make a comment.

Photo credit: adopt a negotiator (via Flickr)

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This post was linked to in a Washington Post column on the Cancun climate summit.

With only days remaining until diplomats are due to arrive in Tianjin for the final round of climate negotiations before the Cancun summit, scientists have provided a grim reminder of how little progress governments have made in addressing the threat of climate change and the consequences of continued inaction. Yet the statements being made by some world leaders suggest that governments are still unwilling to acknowledge the scope of the problem.

Stern Warning

Research now suggests that the fifteenth Conference of the Parties (COP 15) in Copenhagen was an even bigger failure than originally thought. A study published yesterday in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that the national emissions reduction commitments countries made under the non-binding Copenhagen Accord will still result in a dangerous increase in the global average temperature. The cuts would only limit warming over the next century to 4.2º C (7.6º F), according to the analysis of scientists from seven European research centers. The increase baked into the Copenhagen Accord is only slightly off the “catastrophic” 5 – 7º C rise the UK’s Met Office warned would result if the world continued to burn fossil fuels at the present rate.

Global warming in excess of 2º C could produce disastrous changes to the earth’s ecosystems. The study’s authors warn that the present cuts will not be enough to save heat-sensitive coral reefs, the “rainforests of the sea.” Already, scientist are predicting a widespread coral die off in the Caribbean, which will decimate the wide range of marine life that thrives in this fragile habitat. As ScienceDaily notes, “coral reefs provide services estimated to be worth as much as $375 billion globally each year,” the loss of which would benefit no one at the negotiating table.

At this point, it is not even clear that the best efforts of negotiators could prevent dangerous warming from occurring. According to the Environmental Research Letters study, with an emissions reduction of 50% by 2050, there is still a less than 50% chance of keeping the global temperature rise under 2º C. “It is clear from this analysis that higher ambitions for 2020 are necessary” to limit increases to below 2º C “without relying on potentially infeasible reduction rates after 2020,” the scientists concluded.

Ignoring the Problem

Meanwhile, world leaders are heading to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change talks in Tianjin with ambitions too small to address the looming crisis.

Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch piece or to make a comment on the Huffington Post.

Photo credit: London Permaculture (via Flickr)

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