Two dramatically conflicting headlines about the outcome of the recently concluded Cancun United Nations Framework Convention On Climate Change’s 16th Conference of the Parties (COP) are initially defensible. One might be: Nations At Cancun Tragically Fail to Make Meaningful Commitments on Climate Change for the Twentieth Year In A Row Another might be: Cancun Surprises Many By Keeping Hope Alive for A Global Climate Change Deal.
This post looks at these conflicting conclusions about Cancun through an ethical lens. This post will explain that although some hope for a global solution to climate change is still alive due to decisions adopted in Cancun, one must see Cancun in the context of a twenty-year failed attempt to prevent dangerous climate change. From that standpoint Cancun must be seen as another troubling ethical failure of those most responsible for climate change. This is a tragedy because each year when there has been a failure to commit to adequately reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions has made it more difficult in subsequent years to get on a ghg emissions reduction pathway capable of preventing serious climate change.
For some, the modest progress in Cancun toward a global approach to climate change has been seen as a positive step forward. (BBC, 2010). This is so because many thought that the UNFCCC architecture for a global solution to climate change was in jeopardy of completely unraveling before Cancun; a legal structure that had been gradually been put into place since 1990 when negotiations on a global solution to climate change began. Yet, this post will argue that Cancun must be seen in the context of what has failed to happen in the last twenty years on climate change and not only on the basis of the very limited positive steps made in Cancun.
To many others, Cancun was another tragic lost opportunity for the international community to prevent dangerous climate change, as well as, the most recent in a series of moral failures of those most responsible for climate change to commit to steps necessary to protect those who are most vulnerable to climate change’s harshest impacts. One observer of Cancun concluded, for instance, that:
The Cancun Agreements of the 2010 UN Climate Summit do not represent a success for multilateralism; neither do they put the world on a safe climate pathway that science demands, and far less to a just and equitable transition towards a sustainable model of development. They represent a victory for big polluters and Northern elites that wish to continue with business-as-usual. (IBON, 2010)
We must see climate change as an ethical problem because: (a) it is a problem caused by some people in one part of the world that puts others and the natural resources on which they depend at great risk, (b) the harms to these other people are not mere inconveniences but in some cases catastrophic losses of life or the ability to sustain life, and (c) those who are vulnerable to climate change cant petition their governments to act to protect themselves but must rely upon a hope that a sense of justice and responsibility of those causing the problem will motivate them to change their behavior. Because climate change raises civilization challenging ethical questions, any proposed climate change regime must be examined through an ethical lens.
This post reviews the Cancun outcome through an ethical lens in light of the overall responsibility of those nations that are exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions in regard to their duties: (a) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels necessary to prevent harm to others, (b) to reduce greenhouse gas emission to levels consistent with what is each nation’s fair share of total global emissions, and (c) to provide financing for adaptation measures and other necessary responses to climate change harms for those who are most vulnerable and least responsible for climate change.
To understand the significance of what happened in Cancun, it is necessary to briefly review the history of international negotiations leading up to Cancun. That is, it is not sufficient to simply examine what happened in Cancun without seeing Cancun in the context of the twenty-year negotiating history whose goal has been the prevention of dangerous climate change and the harms that each year of delay in agreeing to a global deal exacerbate.
II. The Path To The Cancun Agreement
The Cancun conference took place from November 29 to December 10, 2010. The Cancun goals were modest in light of the failure of COP-15 in Copenhagen the year before to achieve an expected global solution to climate change. Copenhagen was expected to produce a global solution to climate change pursuant to a two-year negotiating process and agenda that was agreed to in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2007.
To understand the ethical significance of the Cancun Agreements, it is necessary to review the twenty-year history of climate change negotiations that led to Bali, Copenhagen, and Cancun. This history constitutes a failed attempt over two decades to adopt a global solution to climate change.
Negotiations on a global climate change deal began in 1990 and led to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 (Bodansky,2001) The climate change negotiation process began in December 1990, when the UN General Assembly established the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change, to negotiate a convention containing “appropriate commitments” in time for signature in June 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. Because of the opposition of the United States and a few other countries, this treaty itself did not contain binding greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions limitations for countries but nevertheless included numerous other binding national obligations. Among other things, for instance, the parties to the UNFCCC agreed that:
(a) They would adopt policies and measures to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system;
(b) Developed countries should take the first steps to prevent dangerous climate change;
(c) Nations have common but differentiated responsibilities to prevent climate change;
(d) Nations may not use scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not taking action; and,
(e) Nations should reduce their ghg emissions based upon “equity.” (UN, 1992)
In the early UNFCCC negotiations, the European Union and Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) advocated establishing a target and timetable to limit emissions by developed countries in the UNFCCC, while the United States and the oil-producing states opposed this idea. (Bodanksy, 2001). Other developing states generally supported targets and timetables, as long as it was clearly understood that these targets and timetables would apply only to developed states. (Bodanksy, 2001)
The UNFCCC has 192 parties, a number that includes almost all countries in the world including the United States which ratified the UNFCCC in 1993.
The UNFCC is a “framework” convention because it has always been expected that additional requirements would be added to the initial framework in updates that are known as “protocols” or in annual decisions of the conferences of the parties (COPs).
Each year as the parties to the UNFCCC meet in COPs , decisions were made that affect the responsibilities of the parties. The UNFCCC COPs were as follows:
• 1995 – COP 1, The Berlin Mandate
• 1996 – COP 2, Geneva, Switzerland
• 1997 – COP 3, The Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change
• 1998 – COP 4, Buenos Aires, Argentina
• 1999 – COP 5, Bonn, Germany
• 2000 – COP 6, The Hague, Netherlands
• 2001 – COP 6 (Continued), Bonn, Germany
• 2001 – COP 7, Marrakech, Morocco
• 2002 – COP 8, New Delhi, India
• 2003 – COP 9, Milan, Italy
• 2004 – COP 10, Buenos Aires, Argentina
• 2005 – COP 11 Montreal, Canada
• 2006 – COP 12, Nairobi, Kenya
• 2007 – COP 13 Bali, Indonesia
• 2008 – COP 14, Poznań, Poland
• 2009 – COP 15, Copenhagen, Denmark
• 2010 – COP 16, Cancun.
Each year nations have meet in COPs to achieve a global solution to climate change and each COP for the most part continued to add small steps toward the goals of the UNFCCC. Yet in all COPs some nations have resisted calls from some of the most vulnerable nations to adopt a solution to climate change that would prevent dangerous climate change.
As the international community approached Cancun, no comprehensive global solution had been agreed to despite the fact that the original negotiations on the UNFCCC began in 1990 with a goal of achieving a global climate change solution. For this reason, Cancun must be understood as the latest attempt in a twenty-year history of mostly failed attempts to structure a global solution to climate change.
The first major addition to the UNFCCC was the Kyoto Protocol which was negotiated in 1997 because the international community had been convinced by then by the emerging climate change science that developed nations needed to be bound by numerical emissions reductions targets. The Kyoto Protocol entered into force on February 16, 2005 and currently has 190 parties. The United States is the only developed country that never ratified the Kyoto Protocol.
Going into the Kyoto negotiations, the European Union proposed a comparatively strong
target, requiring a 15 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by the year 2010, while other industrialized states such as the United States and Australia proposed weaker targets, with Japan somewhere in the middle. (Bodansky, 2001) Ultimately the issue was resolved by specifying different emission targets for each party, ranging from an 8 percent reduction from 1990 levels for the European Union, to a 10 percent increase for Iceland. (Bodansky, 2001)
Under the Kyoto Protocol, the developed countries agreed to reduce their overall emissions of six greenhouse gases by an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels between 2008-2012. The developing countries had no binding emissions reductions obligations under Kyoto.
The Copenhagen negotiations in 2009 were necessary not only to expand the modest commitments made in the Kyoto Protocol but also because the emissions reductions obligations of developed countries set out in the Kyoto Protocol expire in 2012.
Kyoto was never understood as the final solution to climate change but only as a small initial step of developed nations to begin to take responsibility for climate change. As we have seen, the developed nations had agreed in the UNFCCC that they should take the lead in reducing the threat of climate change because they were mostly responsible for the build up of ghg in the atmosphere and Kyoto was understood to be a modest initial step toward a global solution. That is, Kyoto negotiators understood that a global solution would be negotiated later in future meetings of the UNFCCC parties. From the standpoint of some the most vulnerable countries,including some of the small island developing states making up the organization AOSIS, Kyoto was not aggressive enough to prevent climate change threats to them.
At the COP-13 negotiations in Bali, Indonesia in 2007, parties to the UNFCCC agreed to replace the Kyoto Protocol with an agreement that would create a second commitment period under the UNFCCC and would include binding emissions reductions for developed countries and new programs on adaptation for developing countries, deforestation, finance, technology transfer, and capacity building. This agreement was referred to as the Bali Roadmap, which also called for articulating a “shared vision for long-term cooperative action,” including a long-term global goal for emission reductions. The original UNFCCC climate treaty had neither a quantified temperature limitation goal nor a ghg concentration atmospheric stabilization goal. In the Bali Roadmap the international community agreed to work on such a goal.
The Bali decision also recognized that developing countries could make contributions to solving the climate change through the development of Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs), meaning climate change strategies for developing countries. The NAMAs, however, would not constitute binding emissions reduction requirements for developing countries in contrast to the binding obligations of developed countries in the Kyoto Protocol that would be further developed and extended in Copenhagen.
Although some progress was made on a few issues in the two-year lead-up to Copenhagen, little progress was made on the major issues needed to define a global solution for climate change and particularly on legal commitments for GHG emissions reductions and funding for adaptation, deforestation programs, and technology transfer.
As Copenhagen approached, optimism about a Copenhagen deal faded although there was a short spurt of renewed hope several weeks before the conference started in December 2009 as the US, China, and a few other nations publicly made non-binding commitments on emissions reductions.
During the Copenhagen conference representatives from poor vulnerable nations begged developed countries to: (a) commit to reduce GHG emissions to levels necessary to prevent dangerous climate change;and (b) to fund adaptation programs in developing countries that are necessary to protect the most vulnerable from climate change impacts that could be avoided or compensate for the damages that could not be avoided.
Despite these pleas, not much happened during the Copenhagen conference to resolve the most contentious issues until US President Obama appeared on the morning of the last day, Friday, December 18, 2009. For much of that day, President Obama negotiated with Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and South African President Jacob Zuma. (Lerer, 2009) Yet, a large part of this time was focused on a dispute between the United States and China on whether China would agree to monitoring and verification of Chinese climate change commitments.
President Obama could not commit to anything in Copenhagen that he knew he could not get through the US congress. Because a climate change bill that had passed the US House of Representatives was very weak compared to what science said was necessary to protect the world’s poorest people, the United States took a position in the lead-up to Copenhagen that continued to be the weakest of all the developed countries’ commitments on emissions reductions. The US could only commit to a 13% reduction below 2005, a 4% reduction below 1990 levels. Yet most scientists were asserting that the world needed to reduce ghg emissions by 25% to 40% reductions below 1990 levels to have any confidence that the international community would limit warming to 20 C, a level which was widely believed to trigger dangerous climate change.
Because none of the developed countries were willing to make emissions reduction commitments congruent with what scientific community said was necessary to protect them, some of the most vulnerable developing countries saw the developed countries’ positions in Copenhagen as ominous, perhaps a death sentence.
President Obama personally negotiated the Copenhagen Accord during last hours of the conference. Yet, to get this deal, President Obama had to ignore many of the positions of the most vulnerable nations that were unresolved in the two negotiating documents that had been created in the lead-up to Copenhagen over two years. That is, for instance, among other things, the Copenhagen Accord failed to get commitments from the United States and some other developed countries to reduce ghg emissions at levels necessary to prevent serious climate change damage.
President Obama managed to get fairly wide spread support for the Copenhagen Accord on the last day of the Copenhagen negotiations despite the fact that the United States was not able to commit to emissions reductions at levels to prevent dangerous climate change. Politically President Obama’s hands were tied in regard to his ability to commit to issues of interest to those nations most vulnerable to climate change because of domestic political constraints. Before Copenhagen, the US House of Representatives had passed a bill requiring a 17 percent reduction below 2005 levels by 2020 and this was a practical limitation on what the United States could commit to in international negotiations.
For domestic political reasons, the US President also wanted agreement from China and other large developing countries on transparent procedures for verifying their non-binding emissions reduction commitments.
Those opposing climate change legislation in the United States often have argued that it would be unfair to the United States if it was bound to reduce GHG emissions and China was not required to do the same. In fact, a decade earlier, when the Kyoto Accord was under consideration in the United States, opponents of the Kyoto deal frequently ran TV commercials that argued that the Kyoto Protocol was unfair to the United States because China was excluded from emissions limitations. This argument was often made without e critical comment in the United States even though the United States had committed itself to take the first steps to reduce emissions along wAlthough President Obama originally negotiated the Copenhagen Accord with just four other countries, in the last few hours of the Copenhagen conference the United States successfully convinced most large emitting countries to support the Accord.