28 Feb 2011


Derek Wall looks at the outcomes of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancún
The reality of climate change becomes more evident every day with devastating floods in countries as far apart as Pakistan and Australia, forest fires in Russia, and another severe drought affecting the Amazon. Yet the process whereby the world’s nations come together to tackle climate change seems to be stalling. In Cancún, Mexico, the latest international climate conference occurred during December. Whereas the previous meeting, in Copenhagen in December 2009, was widely regarded as a disaster, reactions to Cancún have been mixed.

One country, Bolivia, rejected the agreement reached at the Cancún conference claiming that the programme was so weak it guaranteed that millions of people, especially those in Latin American and African countries, would die. The Bolivians also believe that unless radical action is taken, low-lying islands, such as the Maldives, will be submerged totally.

The Bolivians argue that not only do we need to move beyond carbon trading but also that the current economic system, based on infinite economic growth, is ecologically unsustainable. They want an explicit carbon justice element acknowledging the carbon debt of richer countries like the UK and US which have produced far more carbon dioxide than poorer countries. Most radically, the Bolivian President, Evo Morales, argues that we should respect what he calls Pachamama, the indigenous Bolivian term for Mother Earth.

Dr Simon Lewis, a climate change scientist from Leeds University, who took part in the negotiations as a science advisor for the government of Gabon in central Africa, argues that the whole process of international agreements can appear to have failed “because the obvious solution to climate change, keeping most fossil carbon out of the atmosphere by keeping fossil fuels in the ground, was not solved or even much discussed”.

Yet he points to the fact that, while progress was modest, the process which could have collapsed totally, with some countries like Russia exiting, is at least continuing; “many were arguing whether the UN or multilateralism had any future if 193 countries can’t agree on anything, so I think Cancún was important because countries generally were willing to compromise to keep the chance of a multilateral, UN-brokered deal, alive. This in my view is preferable to letting a small club of powerful countries lay claim to the governance of the global climate.”


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