Postcard Outcomes from Cancun

COP 15 in Denmark. Come and gone. COP 16 in Cancun, Mexico, come and now gone as of December 10th. Mexico was marked by sunny beaches on the outside and delegates negotiating in windowless chambers on the inside of the conference center. What to make of the outcomes amidst the sheer volume of proceedings and dissidence in reporting on them?

From Democracy and Transparency Under Siege and Chompskian views of Normalized Catastrophe, to reports of Meaningful Progress and a Major Step in the right direction, to more balanced reviews of the proceedings, what are the main concrete outcomes of COP 16 that we can pin down and hold onto? (Not withstanding that the actual outcomes that pack the hardest punches may go on behind the scenes and be much more elusive and hard to transcribe in a pithy blog post.)

Glasswing Butterfly

Glasswing Butterfly, elegant transparency

Main Issues

As mentioned previously symmetry is a major issue in the COP process that will have to be resolved for COP 17 to come to any binding agreements. Another related issue is transparency. Transparency refers to ensuring that commitments and actions are backed up by transparent monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV). These are two words liked by countries like the US, Canada and countries in the EU. These are words not appreciated by counties like China, Brazil and South Africa. MRV can be done many ways, and many of those ways were seen as interfering with notions like national sovereignty.

Summary of Agreements

In spite of such issues, here is a summary of some of the agreements achieved in Cancun:


COP Sierra Club Protesters

COP Sierra Club Protesters (Guardian photo)

Luke warm, modest and weak are the words tossed around to describe the non-binding agreement out of Cancun to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. The future of the Kyoto Protocol and a binding agreement will be stalled, once again, for next year’s COP in Durban, South Africa.

As mentioned symmetry is a fundamental hurdle coming out of COP 16 that needs to be overcome by COP 17 to achieve binding targets and GHG reduction commitments. Proper allocation of historic, current and future responsibilities need to be ironed out, and how those commitments will be measured, reported and verified need will also need to be agreed on for targets not to be hollow lip service.


Cancun Resort

Cancun Resort

What we are seeing with payments for Ecosystem Services like with climate regulation, money can work to preserve systems, exploit and degrade them or enhance them. From mitigation to adaptation, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s time to put the money where the mouth is.

So two main financial commitments have come out of Cancun:

  • The much discussed $30 billion fast-start financing continues to be on the agenda for 2012 for nations needing help adapting to the impacts of climate change. A summary of the pledges made towards this financing can be found on WRI’s site here.
  • To top that off, $100 million annual financing as part of the Global Climate Fund will be allocated for developing countries’ adaptation/mitigation needs. The source of these funds is less clear, though slated to be managed by the World Bank. Further to that it is not a direct outcome of the UN process, but an aspiration of several developed nations.

Launch of REDD+:

Deforestation and forest degradation, through agricultural expansion, conversion to pastureland, infrastructure development, destructive logging, fires etc., account for nearly 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire global transportation sector and second only to the energy sector…It is predicted that financial flows for greenhouse gas emission reductions from REDD+ could reach up to US$30 billion a year. This significant North-South flow of funds could reward a meaningful reduction of carbon emissions and could also support new, pro-poor development, help conserve biodiversity and secure vital ecosystem services. UN-REDD

Rainforest tree with butresses

Rainforest tree with butresses

The UN-REDD Programme, is a collaborative initiative of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). While the development of REDD has been in the making for years, and the UN-REDD program was launched in 2008, and has projects registered to is under the Voluntary Carbon Standard, Cancun made new progress towards incorporating REDD into the official UNFCCC process with REDD+. REDD+ is a version of REDD with more emphasis on conservation, sustainable management of forests, enhancement of carbon stocks, and issues such as social justice for local communities. The negotiations in Cancun have laid out the groundwork for the development of standards and guidelines for REDD+ activities and projects, and for measuring, verifying and reporting on reductions.

REDD+ is an important development not only because of the alarming loss rates of forest in developing nations, but because of the local sociopolitical and economic elements involved. According to the WWF, “An estimated 60 million indigenous people worldwide depend on forests for their livelihoods, and forest resources directly support the livelihoods of 90 percent of the 1.2 billion living in extreme poverty,” so provisions for the protection of this rainforest which compensate local communities for the loss of their livelihood is a necessity to prevent the destruction of these carbon sequestering forest systems. The new Cancun agreement on REDD+ is expected to “revitalize and increase funding flows to support REDD+ readiness and invigorate donor pledges for REDD+ that now amount to close to US$5 billion for early actions until 2012.” (Source)


Talk of Balance and Symmetry in COP – Watch out for nice sounding words

Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres (Patrick Smith Photo)

A term from the recent COP 15 and 16 process to be aware of is symmetry, or balance. When used in official press releases these terms sound great, but what they really refer to in the context of the COP negotiations is not necessarily the clear and reasonable outcome it sounds like at first pass.

Symmetry in the COP context refers to the notion that several developed countries (primarily the US) want developing countries to have “symmetrical” legal responsibilities and reduction targets as developed ones. The sticky not-so-little issue with symmetry, is that though sounding great (who doesn’t want more balance?), many negotiators, especially on the developing nations side, consider this term to be unfair. Here’s their reasoning. Developing nations were not the main cause the problem of high greenhouse gas emissions leading to anthropogenic climate change. Developed, industrialized nations were. (A key word to note here is were.) Furthermore, developing nations, especially Africa, will more than likely bear the most negative impacts of climate change, partially due to their higher vulnerability. So, they reason, why should developing countries equally/symmetrically share in the legal responsibility of fixing the problem–of paying for mitigating GHGs and adaptation measures to climate change?

Instead, they want to maintain the asymmetric (or ‘differentiated’) principles of the Kyoto Protocol–which they maintain is the fairest means of allocating responsibility. Indeed the split between Annex II countries and developing nations under the Kyoto Protocol revolves around the concept that Annex II countries are slated to pay for the costs of developing nations. This notion was central to the development of the Clean Development Mechanism as well. Developing nations are not required in this framework to reduce their emissions unless developed countries provide the funding and technology to do so.

So,on a basic level, asymmetry implies that if the causal factors of an issue/situation are not equal, then the degree of responsibility to fix that issue should correspond to the degree of cause of the problem. This is linked to the Polluter Pays Principle in certain respects. Applied to anthropogenic climate change and its impacts, this means that developed nations, having contributed the most to the problem (aka being the biggest polluters) should have asymmetric (more) responsibility in fixing it. While this is a simplified explanation, it goes to the heart of the standoff between developed and developing nations.

Fan Jai Zhuang in Anyang City, Henan province, China

Fan Jai Zhuang: Anyang City, Henan province, China

The problem is that this issue is not simple. ‘Developing’ countries are not all the same. This is partially because a lot of time has passed, and a lot of development has occurred between the Kyoto Protocol in the early 90’s and now, twenty years later.  Africa is not like China. India is not like Bolivia. So why should they be grouped together and treated the same? So part of the current fuss is that countries like the US are saying that countries like India and China have to get off the free ride ‘developing’ train. While India recently revealed a surprise change of heart on this matter, announcing that it would consider making legally binding emissions commitments at COP 16 in Cancun, China has staunchly held its ground.

So, the devil is in the details. Yes, newly developed and industrialized nations have a lower responsibility to make reparations for current levels of greenhouse gases based on their history of emitting less than developed nations. BUT, they do have a responsibility to do something about better mitigating their recent, current and future emissions. Do they not?

The task ahead is to sort out the Gordian knot how these different responsibilities should pan out. My guess is that unless the US can strong arm other countries into submitting to their notions of symmetry by COP 17, we will still be left without any binding agreements, or only weak ones, and will continue to have to rely on unilateral initiatives to mitigate and adapt to climate change at the national and sub national level.

The Looking Glass World of PES

The Walrus and the Carpenter

The Walrus and the Carpenter, Through the Looking Glass

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?”
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

-Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Land on Earth is finite. The homeostatic mechanisms of the Earth’s systems have functional limits. We’ve come to the point in our population and industrial systems where companies and governments are carving up the last of Earth’s wild spaces. We’ve also come to the point where we are overwhelming some of the Earth’s biogeochemical systems. Long term global government initiatives to mitigate and sequester greenhouse gases, protect biodiversity, and conserve water are not meeting their targets. So what’s a girl to do?

Red Queen, White Queen, and Alice and All

Red Queen, White Queen, and Alice and All

International organizations and governments are usually well intentioned, but they move slowly. They need to take the time to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s with utmost scientific and ethical process. If they do not they would be taken to the wringer. In comparison, market forces are very efficient at growth and development. Furthermore, lobby groups (often funded by market actors) can stall government initiatives, and politics can become mired in national and international debate.  But in this case that debate is stalling taking action on a process that is going on regardless. Market forces will carve up the remainder of the resources on this planet as efficiently as they can. They have money behind them, and money makes things happen. But what if those market forces could be turned in a new direction?

“That’s the effect of living backwards,” the Queen said kindly: “it always makes one a little giddy at first…”

– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Payments for Ecosystem (or Environmental) Services, or PES, refer to the payments to land owners or users for preserving the ecosystem function/integrity of their land rather than engaging in other forms of ecologically degrading economic activity. The brilliance of putting a price on nature, as well a cost on its degradation, is that those efficient market forces mentioned above are then turned up on their head towards protective, rather than exploitative behaviours on natural systems.

So, for example, if there is more profit in protecting a forest for carbon, then market forces will tend to protect more forests.  If there is a competitive edge in restoring mangroves, then mangroves will be restored.

The issue arises in that business men are not ecologists. Sometimes, the rush for the economic incentive overrides the initial intent of ES protection. There have been cases where virgin forests are clear cut in order to plant “carbon forests”, or situations where land users say they will not cut down a forest in one place–thereby obtaining carbon offsets for them–only to go and cut down forest elsewhere. This is termed “leakage” in the industry.  For these, and other reasons, ecologists and conservation managers often mistrust those from business and industry, but these barriers can be overcome through transparent dialogue and setting up of robust standards. The work being done on REDD and REDD+ is a prime example.

In the last several years people from public, private and NGO circles are starting to realize they have shared goals in the ES arena, forge partnerships and engage in collaborative projects. Although their backgrounds, perspectives and language may be different, I firmly believe that through such multidisciplinary efforts the theory behind ecosystems services can effectively be translated into action.  Putting a value on ecosystem services that are attached to these resources, is a way in which market forces can still happen, research budgets can be met, profits can still be shared, quarterly reports to shareholders still look good, AND Earth systems can be protected, and even replenished, in the process.


John Muir: Inner and Outer Connectivity

The outside within

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.

~John Muir,  in John of the Mountains:  The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, 1938


ES for Future Generations

child and tiger

Child with a tiger's fearless heart. From 100,000 tigers in the wild a century ago, to 3,200 today, how many will remain for our grandchildren? (Photographer: Katja Original: DeviantArt)


There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of
the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover,
And the song of the phoebe-bird…

– Walt Whitman

As the International Year of the Tiger winds to a close, tigers in the wild are still on the brink with only 3200 left in the wild. Leonardo di Caprio is now helping spearhead a WWF campaign to save them.

The case of the tiger is one of many instances of a loss in biodiversity in biodiversity that could be prevented through PES.