“Step in the right direction”

Harmony marked the end of the climate summit in Cancún in December. UN members affirmed that average temperatures on Earth must not rise by more than two degrees. They also decided to establish a new Green Climate Fund and called for a timely follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol, which will expire in 2012. In an interview with Hans Dembowski, Barbara Unmüssig, board member of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, assessed the results.

last contributed to D+C/E+Z in winter 2017/2018 as president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

In Copenhagen a year ago, the international community was supposed to finalise a world climate treaty. Now the Cancún summit has postponed doing so by yet another year. Even if such a treaty should be agreed at the next summit in Durban, South Africa, in December, aren’t we losing too much time?
Yes, we have lost too much time, and we are still losing time. Science tells us that humanity’s carbon emissions must peak in the next ten to twelve years. Otherwise temperatures will rise by more than two degrees. Fast and determined action is necessary, no doubt. All over the world, we must move on to a carbon-free economy, but the Cancún summit did not pass any tangible measures that would lead us there. The most important and most controversial issues were not even discussed. The most pressing one is: What is everybody’s fair share? Who has to reduce emissions by what amount in what time? Had these matters been on the agenda, Cancún would have failed. This is a core issue, however, and it will flare up again in the run-up to Durban.

Can we take the two degrees pledge made in Cancún seriously against this backdrop?
Well, I consider it an appreciation of science. It was a way for countries like China and the USA, who have a track record of slowing down climate talks, to acknowledge that they understand how desperate matters are. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, global temperatures have risen by 0,8 degrees, and we already know the damage done by extreme weather events like storms and draughts. Temperatures will rise even more. That is a fact. The sad truth is that it is becoming less and less probable that the two degrees limit will be held. Realists understand that temperatures will most likely rise by more than that.

So Cancún was a failure after all.
No, it was not. It matters that the multilateral process is still moving. Without it, the two degrees goal will never be achieved. The big forces – first of all the USA and China, but also countries like Canada, Japan or India – are still keeping one another in check, but they will have to move if international negotiations are not to fail altogether. China has already indicated a willingness to allow international experts to check its voluntary commitments. It is also good news that there was agreement on a Green Climate Fund with a board on which rich nations and developing countries will have equal say.

This fund is supposed to disburse 100 billion dollars per year from 2020 on, but there was no decision on how to generate that money. Doesn’t the promise ring hollow?
Well, we’ve certainly seen a step in the right direction. This agreement is an important component of building a more reliable and sustainable climate-finance architecture. Some developing countries, however, will be irritated by the fact that the World Bank, which is dominated by the rich nations, will initially run the Climate Fund. And yes, it is depressing that the climate-finance debate so far has been marked by misleading numbers. In Copenhagen, the rich nations pledged to spend 30 billion dollars in three years to help poor countries adapt to climate change. The first year is over, but none of the promised money was disbursed.

What does that imply?
There will be a fierce argument about who will pay how much. It remains unclear, moreover, what the Fund will use its money for. Money is needed to reduce emissions as well as for adaptation purposes. It looks like most of the financing will serve to reduce carbon emissions, in particular by investing in the efficiency of the energy sectors in emerging-market nations. They can absorb a lot of funding fast. Specific schemes will reduce carbon emissions, drive growth and serve the interests of technology providers in rich nations.

That looks like a perfect win-win-win situation.
Perhaps, but the snag is that the poor and poorest countries, the ones that will be hit hardest by global warming, do not benefit from this approach. They need money now to adapt to what has become inevitable change. They have to be ready when that change happens. The interests of these countries are in danger of being neglected.

But the international community already has an Adaptation Fund for these matters.
Yes, but the Adaptation Fund’s financing is drying up. The World Bank has set up a host of competing funds. All summed up, the proliferation of new bilateral and multilateral funds is confusing – which is precisely why setting up a new central fund was so important. Unless the new Green Climate Fund is given a strong role, coordination problems and a frustrating lack of coherence is what will result from most donor action. There is a trend away from funding adaptation, and it worries the poorest countries as well as the small island states. They struggle to be heard and access funds. Cancún made a decisive step towards REDD – reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation – but there still are no clear rules. We still do not know how emission trading will contribute to funding all these important issues.

In the final session, Bolivia raised objections and considered that a veto. Patricia Espinosa, Mexico’s foreign minister who chaired the summit, took note of the objections and then went on to declare that the United Nations were in consensus. Was that acceptable?
Absolutely, I think Ms. Espinosa acted wisely. A single country must not be allowed to obstruct the international community if the consensus to keep banking on cooperation is so obvious as it was in Cancún. The UN’s capacity to act is precious in itself. In Cancún, the UN reaffirmed its predominance on climate matters. Even before Copenhagen, the debate on whether the UN was overburdened with this complex issue had begun. The poorest countries, however, won’t benefit from decisions being taken by small groups of countries like the G20, for instance.

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