How to get high on ambition in Cancún

There is a way to unblock the stalemate of the Cancún climate change conference. It involves partnership between indigenous group protesters and the kitchen staff of the Moon Palace Hotel.

The germ of this inspiration lies in the unpromising territory of the 2003 ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation, also held in Cancún. I was reminded of the venue coincidence in a blog posting by Barry Coates, now Executive Director of Oxfam New Zealand.

Then Director of the World Development Movement, Barry was at the WTO event, as were Martin Khor, Maude Barlow and other powerful voices for global justice on aid, trade and debt. The Cancún WTO ended in collapse after African countries walked out in protest at the hyprocrisy of demands to open their markets without adequate compromise on bloated farm subsidies in the north.

The reappearance of these battle-scarred campaigners at Cancún is a telling reminder that climate change has become a crisis of global justice as well as environmental stability.

I fear that these experts who have taken climate change into their stride will tell us that the dynamic of UN climate negotiations has disarmingly familiar characteristics. Barry has already written about the lopsided strength of negotiating delegations between north and south, which catches up in those vital late night sessions towards the end.

Reports from 2010 Cancún also suggest that the business lobby is no less active in climate change corridors. I feel sure that developing countries and their NGO supporters would become more at ease with the principle of market mechanisms if the commercial carbon trading interests were less pervasive.

The same sensitivity rears its head in the battle zone of intellectual property, known to the old trade campaigners by the acronym TRIPS – trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights. Then the prime concern of developing countries was the right to produce generic drugs, especially for AIDS treatment. Now it’s the affordability of environmentally-friendly technologies essential for low carbon trajectories.

As in 2003, the outcome is likely to negative. We haven’t even got as far as an acronym. In the words of Chee Yoke Ling of the Third World Network, “the rich countries have shown a consistent reluctance over the years to talk about it at all.” The topic has been shelved for another year.

The omission of climate change from the agenda of world trade rules leaves a heavy footprint on today’s negotiations. Shipping emissions from dirty bunker fuel have risen exponentially, contributing about 3% of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions.

Conference attempts to find a formula to mitigate this trajectory seem doomed to fail once again. And there won’t even be an attempt to tackle the complex issue of outsourced carbon consumption, the concentrated manufacture of global consumer products in a single country, China.

The rapid rise of China has affected the dynamics of international deal-making. The 2003 WTO collapsed because the developing countries remained united. Now it’s more complicated, with the island states and the poorest countries reluctant to allow the likes of China, India and Brazil too much freedom to pollute. These new divisions will be exploited by the hardline rich countries.

I think there’s a more fundamental difference between the two Cancún events. We all have a fascination for the gap between what negotiators say on behalf of their government masters and what they actually believe as ordinary individuals.

In the WTO my guess is that most negotiators for the rich countries had few qualms about the deal they were pursuing, ultimately unsuccessfully. They saw trade as fair game for winners and losers.

I’m not so sure about climate change negotiations. Even the most diehard representatives of US, Japan and Canada understand the science perfectly well and know the implications for their children.

If we could pin down each minister off the record, I suspect that the 2 degree temperature threshold would swiftly fade to 1 degree, 450 ppm to 350, and climate finance rocket to 1% of GDP.

The higher level of ambition so desperately exhorted by the UN Secretary-General and NGO leaders is there, if only we could unlock it.

For this final day of the conference, the hotel’s coffee machines will be operating at full capacity. An infusion of a rare forest plant, known for its qualities of extreme relaxation and truthfulness, might perform a useful service for our futures.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK