Science - December 16, 2010

Cancún: towing the line

Joris Tielens

The climate conference in Cancún ended with a treaty, but without any firm agreements among the various countries on limiting CO2 emissions. So was the conference of any use? Prof. Pier Vellinga, chair of the national research programme Knowledge for Climate.

'The good news is that the ghost of Copenhagen has been laid to rest. They managed to hold it all together and all the countries have signed the treaty. After the failure of the conference last year in Copenhagen, the whole UN process was in danger of falling apart through disagreement on the question of whether the Kyoto protocol should be continued or whether we need a new model in which the larger developing countries pay too. That difference of opinion was kept under control and Japan and Russia have abandoned their opposition to the Kyoto protocol. And an organization has been set up to manage a climate fund of 100 million dollars from the rich countries. That money is for improving forest management and adapting to climate change in developing countries, and for technology transfer.
But the 'emissions gap', as it is called, is still there: everyone wants to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, but several countries are still not prepared to commit themselves to reducing their own CO 2 emissions. The US backed off again. The idea is that concrete action will be agreed on next year at the climate conference in Durban, but the question is whether the US will really make any commitments then. Perhaps Europe and China will just make their own arrangements without the US.
Meanwhile, companies and governments invested more in sustainable energy last year than in conventional energy. So there really is some progress, but it is just not at UN level. That is a great pity, because research shows that you save money by coordinating action to combat climate change at the international level. One example is that emissions can be traded on a larger scale if the US joins in. But this is not a reason to give up pursuing the international route. Because in the end you need the UN in order to channel the progress through rules that apply to everyone.'