Cancún path to climate compensation culture

No, alas, this won’t do. By all means cheer the resuscitation of the UN process in the Cancún climate change agreements. But the only measurable advance in the fight against global warming is the unusually high count of new committees and workshops.

There is no realistic prospect of securing the necessary legally binding deal in Durban next year.

This is not on account of failure to close the so-called gigatonne gap in pledges of emissions reductions, nor the lack of substance in promises of long term financial support to developing countries. Important as they are, such matters were beyond the political mandate of most of the ministers who showed up in Cancún.

This thumbs-down verdict on the package lies in the inability of the parties to resolve a single issue that had economic ramifications. The most significant compromise – on procedures for monitoring emissions – engaged with national pride and sovereignty rather than budgets.

Anything that might impact the national bottom line was simply jettisoned. In particular we saw no concessions on intellectual property rights relevant to the use of green technologies by poor countries, no sign of inclusion of aviation and shipping in a mitigation regime, no response to the high-level UN report on sources of long term finance, and no mechanism for paying developing countries to protect their forests.

To ensure this economic embargo on action against global warming is watertight, the richer countries put the overarching legal process smartly into reverse gear. The near death experience of the Kyoto Protocol threatens to dismantle the vision of a long term framework in the 2007 Bali Action Plan.

The inference must be that, until the countries with “historical responsibility” for climate change drag themselves out of economic recession, the multilateral roadmap will mark time.

Even if is this unhappy state of affairs were remedied tomorrow, there is still too much unfinished business. As we learnt so painfully in Copenhagen last year, a bundle of difficult negotiations on this scale is beyond the capacity of heads of state to address. Cancún has failed to put the skittles in a row.

My reluctant conclusion is that events are going to overtake the plodding business of a new UN protocol. Watching many of the briefings transmitted from Cancún, I was struck by a new confidence amongst delegations and activists from the poorest countries.

The characteristic of senior officials from these countries to express anger through dignified understatement was much in evidence. The briefing by the head of the Ghana delegation, Dr Edward Kofi Omane Boamah, was typical.

He began with an account of a disastrous flood in the north of the country before warming to his theme. “We can no longer wait for foot-dragging negotiations to decide where we are going….the big question is – “where is the money?”.”

This was the standard approach, the causal relationship between contemporary extreme weather and climate change either made explicit or, often more effectively, left unsaid.

It’s therefore pertinent to observe that, for the first time, the Cancún agreement includes language which specifically acknowledges this relationship. It refers to “loss and damage associated with climate change impacts in developing countries.” The compensation genie is out of the bottle.

A separate Cancún agreement in support of Article 6 of the original UN Framework Convention may fuel this particular fire. It calls for more efforts to raise awareness about climate change in developing countries.

Fresh support will be offered to “groups with a key role in climate change communication and education, including journalists, teachers, youth, children and community leaders.” The anger of African ministers may become the anger of the people, perhaps somewhat less dignified.

We may therefore begin to see a shift in the dynamic of humanitarian relief. The familiar UN “appeals” for international donor support in response to flood, drought and storms could evolve into demands for compensation from the affected countries.

It doesn’t take a climate sceptic to point out that the devastation to Ghana’s roads, schools and clinics was due as much to their poor condition as excessive fondness for sports utility vehicles in North America. But that argument will fail; even if global warming is not to blame, those roads need fixing under the heading of accelerated development, otherwise known as adaptation.

I’m not advocating this knee-jerk route to climate finance but I think this is what will happen. The slower the formal UN process, the more likely becomes its disintegration.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK