12 December, 2010
Hope is back.
That's the main outcome from the Cancun Climate Change Conference here in Mexico.
Expectations couldn't have been lower. After last year’s failure at the climate talks in Copenhagen no-one expected a miracle at this year’s meeting under the UNFCCC. However early this morning the near-impossible happened. 191 countries signed off on texts relating to the Kyoto Protocol and Long-Term Co-operative Action. It doesn’t save the Planet, but it does save the process.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been around for over a decade at this stage, and there’s now renewed hope that next year’s meeting in South Africa will produce a legally binding international agreement. In essence it’s an incremental but significant step forward.
Last year many countries said no to a deal because the deal went too far. This year one country, Bolivia opted out of the consensus saying that the proposals weren’t strong enough. I agree with the essence of what Bolivia was saying – we need to go further and faster to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, but a failure to achieve something in Cancun would have been disastrous, as many countries might simply have walked away from the negotiations process. The texts refer to keeping global temperature increases to less than 2 degrees Celsius, and to consider moving the goal to a more ambitious limit of less than 1.5 degrees. That may not sound like much, but these are global average temperatures, and may lead to more dramatic rises in certain countries, and in increased likelihood of more extreme weather events. Even minor climate changes can wipe out the crops and livelihood of some countries. A small rise in ocean levels could swamp much of the territory and many coastal and island States.
The European Union’s (EU) Climate Change Commissioner Connie Hedegaard from Denmark along with the current Flemish Chair of the EU Environment Council Joke Schauvliege led the co-ordination meetings for the Union that took place at crucial points in the negotiations. All countries addressed the floor and I was privileged to speak for Ireland. Even within the European camp there are divergences of opinion, but Europe is taking a lead in proposing 20% reductions in emissions by 2020, and a 30% target if other countries are willing to move.
There’s a key fault-line between developed and developing countries. Put simply, the less developed countries rightly point out that the richer countries caused the bulk of the problem, and the poorer countries are suffering the consequences. For this reason a Green Climate Fund is being set up to provide assistance to the more vulnerable countries. Framing the institutional architecture of this fund is quite a challenge. The World Bank will serve as trustee to the fund for the first three years, and the composition of the Fund’s committee is carefully balanced across the continents, and ensures that small island states are represented. The Fund will assist countries in adaptation to climate change and will have access significant funding over the next decade. However Irish delegate Pat Finnegan from the environmental Non-Governmental Organisation Grian points out that increasing capacity building in the countries that receive this funding is a crucial issue that hasn’t been resolved.
In the short term, Ireland along with other European countries is providing fast-start financing for the most vulnerable developing countries, and we’ve announced a commitment of €23 million as Ireland’s contribution for 2010. Some might argue that such money shouldn’t go abroad at a time of economic austerity at home, but the funding will help some of the most impoverished nations to adapt to a crisis for which we share responsibility.
Tensions ran high in the hall last night, and there were standing ovations for the Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa who chaired the conference for her role in both leading and listening as part of the delicate diplomacy that unfolded. It was a successful conference for girl-power as well. Former Irish President Mary Robinson addressed Climate Justice side-event earlier in the week, and I have no doubt that the listening skills of European Commissioner Hedegaard, Minister Schauvliege and others contributed to the progress that was made.
Late on Friday evening Mohamed Aslam, the environment minister of low-lying Maldives addressed the floor: “I speak for a country whose survival depends on the decisions we take. No one can doubt my interest in this matter. The text is the best we can do right now and there is room to improve things next year."
I couldn’t have put it better myself.