This year, 194 nations are sending representatives to Cancun for negotiations, but expectations for any binding agreements are low. Heads of state and high-level leaders are generally not attending. The ultimate goal at Cancun is to come to an agreement about extension of or successor to the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 treaty that mandated reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions, primarily for wealthy countries. Kyoto expires on December 31, 2012, and without an extension or a new treaty, the world will be left without any significant, binding climate-change agreements. The United States never ratified Kyoto.
Other major goals at Cancun include a system for transparent monitoring of international emissions; action to slow the rate of deforestation; the development and dissemination of green technology; and the official creation of a so-called “green fund” to help poorer countries adjust to the effects of climate change.
The dismal results from last year’s conference aren’t the only reason that expectations are low for Cancun. The global economic and political climate is another reason to worry. Economic woes worldwide make it unlikely for major countries to adopt environmental policies that could threaten financial stability or growth. And political conflicts between the U.S. and China, two of the biggest world powers and biggest polluters, threaten the chance of any binding agreement.
Moreover, the recent Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives will make it difficult, if not impossible, for Obama to introduce any serious treaty, let alone ratify one. Of course, this does not necessarily have bearing on whether other countries will be able to ratify treaties. But as the second-largest emitter of CO2 in the world, the U.S. will severely weaken any treaty by refusing to ratify it—as the circumstances surrounding Kyoto have shown. A few days ago, the New York Times published a discouraging article about how little U.S. lawmakers seem to care about COP16. Some in Congress didn’t even know it was happening.
As for the environmental impact that COP16 itself will have, Mexican authorities and organizers are trying to make the conference as sustainable as possible. The Mexican government says that it is offsetting 100% of the greenhouse gas emissions at Cancun, through participation in Mexico’s carbon market. They are also attempting to reduce emissions overall by generating energy from photovoltaic cells and wind power; providing delegates with hybrid cars for transportation; and instituting a “hotel assessment project,” which is expected to “avoid the consumption of approximately 200,000 m³ of water and the release of 4,000 tons of CO₂ into the atmosphere”. In addition, ten thousand trees and bushes will be planted in Cancun during the conference for carbon sequestration and beautification.
Although negotiations have, of course, been taking place for a week, we won’t have any definitive news about agreements—or lack thereof—until the conference ends on Friday. So check back early next week for a follow-up post! In the meantime, you can follow the negotiations on Facebook and Twitter.