Saturday, 11 December 2010

So, What's Up with COP 16?

Almost a year ago, I kicked off this blog by offering my reading of what were the underlying mechanisms at play at the COP 15 meeting on global climate change policy in Copenhagen. The overwhelming consensus at the time was that this meeting had been a fiasco beyond comparison, and I tried to offer some simple pointers as to the roots of that outcome. Today, headlines in the news are flowing over with jubilant cheers over the final agreement reached at the just finished COP 16 meeting in Cancún, Mexico. So, simply put, what's the difference? Has any of those hard-to-release knots I tried to sketch in my initial post on the subject been at least slackened?

From scanning the news reports (there are loads, as you may imagine – here's a selection from different parts of the world: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i), it is easy to get the impression that the result of COP 16 is a major step forward. To top it up, this image has been accompanying most reports all over the globe, underlining the the initial feel one gets (why is it that I can't get that fake footage of a supposedly Albanian young woman carrying a kitten while trying to escape an alleged - but non-existent - gruesome war from the movie Wag the Dog out of my head?):

The dramaturgy of the news-reports helps also – I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out that the Mexican hosts had hired a major public relations firm to handle the reporting. For several days, we have been fed with story after story about this or that country wanting out of the talks, not wanting to sign, making impossible demands, et cetera. But, as the reports triumphantly tell us today, in the end only Bolivia declined to sign! Fantastic!! There was no consensus!!! But wait a minute.... In Copenhagen a year ago, there actually was a consensus..... So, exactly what is the major step forward??

Looking at the actual content of the deal made, I find no actual or substantial difference compared to COP 16. There's no concrete agreement on emission levels (besides continuing to keep the 2° C average global temperature increase limit in sight), on a schedule to decrease them, or on how the burden of decreasing the levels - and of managing the effects of already inescapable climate change - is to be distributed. There is now a deal on the creation of a fund, the purpose of which is to help poorer countries to carry some of the just mentioned burdens. However, there is no deal on how much different parties are to be contributing to it, or the conditions for benefiting from it. This is no difference from COP 15. In fact, what was described as a huge fiasco in Copenhagen was exactly this: the impossibility of reaching an agreement on how a schedule for emission level decrease was to be matched to a distributive pattern for the costs thus created for different countries. So the deal in Copenhagen had to be mostly about agreeing to keep talking, and this actually seems to be what the deal in Cancún is about as well. With one difference: this time one country actually refused to agree even to this! So how come that what was a fiasco in Copenhagen has become a triumph in Cancún, although the pure political outcome in the latter case actually seems to be poorer (no consensus)?

The answer, besides admirable PR footwork of the organisers, seems to be: it's all in our heads! A year ago, we expected so much and were disappointed. This time, because of what happened a year ago, we expected failure and are therefore happy to welcome the absence of catastrophe as progress. Well, nothing surprising in that, I guess. But meanwhile, the same callous chicken race with hundreds of million lives in the pot that I described in my post on COP 15 continues. This time, the organizers and the parties had surrendered in the face of this fact already before the meeting began, and, as a result, a number of other parties have presented bids to join that madness by refusing to extend the Kyoto agreement (Japan and Russia, for instance). 

Meanwhile, the natural forces have their course and even the 2°C average global temperature limit will very soon be a tasteless joke. Hundreds of millions will then quickly become billions.....