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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 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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This was my third, final, and favorite piece that I wrote at CGI.

Earlier this week at the Clinton Global Initiative, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres offered her assessment of what was preventing progress in the international negotiations. Yesterday, a few high-profile American business leaders shared their perspectives. They offered a first-hand view of government shortcomings, the powers and limitations of private sector action, and the role US citizens have played in stymieing the global climate talks.

Free the market?

Regulations are important, but can sometimes get in the way. Moderator Mindy Lubber, the president of the sustainable investor network Ceres and a former regulator, defended environmental rules, in particular the one that now allows the EPA to restrict carbon emissions. “Given that the congress didn’t act [to reduce greenhouse gases], it is all the more important for the EPA to have that authority.” However, in the next breath she lamented the legal delays that have held up the permitting of Cape Wind, the controversial windfarm project off the scenic coast of Cape Cod. “It should not have taken ten and a half years,” Lubber said.

Government environmental policy is plagued by a lack of accountability and direction. Jeffrey Swartz, the CEO of sustainable footwear manufacturer Timberland, seized on the Cape Wind fiasco to illustrate the difference between how the public and private sectors operate. “If it took me ten and a half weeks to deliver against a promise I made, [the board of directors] would fire me. And I’m the majority shareholder of our company,” said Swartz, whose family has run Timberland for three generations. “The absence of leadership is the crisis” in climate protection, he continued.

Big business, small changes

So who should take the lead in reducing carbon emissions and preventing catastrophic climate change? Describing business and government as dancing partners with each waiting for the other to take the first step, the the UNFCCC’s Figueres suggested on Tuesday that it was time for business to make a move. Although Swartz used the same metaphor, he also gave a great illustration of why business can’t take the lead on an issue as big and complex as climate change.

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

Photo credit: Clean Wal-Mart (via Flickr)

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This was my write up of the first of a handful of great panel discussions I saw at CGI.

In a candid session on energy and the environment at the Clinton Global Initiative yesterday, the world’s lead climate negotiator Christiana Figueres explained why her organization, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), had made so little progress in establishing international climate protection regulations. She suggested that there were two main reasons for the climate negotiations stalemate: Tensions between developed and developing countries and-surprisingly, given that she was sharing the stage with green entrepreneur Richard Branson-businesses.

According to the Costa Rican executive director of UNFCC, business is not taking bold enough steps to reduce its carbon footprint because it’s waiting for government to move onto creating a comprehensive regulatory framework. And the governments are nervously staring at their feet because “business is not pushing us,” Figueres explained. “We have a nice little dance of you first, you first, you first…” So which partner does the head of the intergovernmental climate negotiations believe should make the next move? “Very conveniently, I think business should be taking the lead here,” she confided to the audience of corporate and nonprofit leaders. And what would private sector leadership in climate protection look like? Figures suggested the example of the mobile phone revolution, which has spread and decentralized modern communication. The first cellphone was invented in 1973 and weighed 2.5 pounds. By the end of 2010, there will be 5 billion mobile phones on the market, all of which will weigh less than 4 ounces according to her figures.

But letting business twirl governments around the dance floor has its risks.

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

Photo credit: Lorenia (via Flickr)

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While the embattled Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may have been the leading climate-related news the past couple weeks, of more importance to the international negotiations were two meetings at opposite ends of the globe. A week ago Saturday, China and Japan held a one-day ministerial level meeting in Beijing to discuss economic matters, among them their approaches to climate change. Then at the end of last week, experts and environmental ministers from some 45 nations concluded a two-day meeting in Geneva on climate finance, a contentious issue that developing nations consider instrumental for crafting a binding international climate agreement.

Even though the climate summit in Cancun is unlikely to produce a treaty, internationalists hope these side meetings–and the final formal talks in Tianjin, China scheduled for November–will produce the understanding needed to move closer to an international agreement in Mexico at the end of the year. Will the recent gatherings in China and Switzerland foster the teamwork necessary to construct a consensus approach to combating climate change? It is too soon to judge the outcome of the financial talks (more on those later), but the news from China suggests that it is sticking to its unilateral game plan.

The Japanese connection

Although China and Japan are deeply connected trading partners, the Asian giants sit on opposite sides of the climate debate. While China is the world’s undisputed king of carbon emissions and an emerging superpower, it is also a poor, developing nation eager to protect the right to continue its fossil-fueled growth. Rich Japan’s smaller economy may now produce fewer greenhouse gases than China’s, but the Japanese–like the Americans and Europeans and the rest of the rich world–bear a greater historic responsibility for the current level of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere.

In spite of their differences, the two countries have a history of climate cooperation. During a state visit to Tokyo in May 2008, Chinese President Hu Jintao and his Japanese counterpart Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda signed a Joint Statement on Climate Change. The document, which the recent Beijing meetings reaffirmed, essentially endorses the Chinese negotiation position at last year’s Copenhagen summit with a few Japanese caveats and clarifications.

In its most sweeping and controversial section, the agreement says that “the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [UNFCCC] and its Kyoto Protocol are the appropriate and effective framework for international cooperation to address climate change.” It then goes on to enshrine “the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.” These innocuous sounding sentences have emerged as two of the biggest points of contention between rich and poor countries since the disappointing outcome in Copenhagen.

Another venue

First, some countries have begun to question whether the UN is even the right venue for addressing climate change…

Click here to read the rest of this UN Dispatch blog post on the Huffington Post.

Photo credit: Edú (via Flickr)

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