'At Least the Weather Will Be Better' Managing Expectations for a Climate Deal in Cancun
Copenhagen was a disaster, and now the next United Nations climate change conference is beginning in sunny Cancun. Despite generally low expectations and setbacks of his own, German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen sees sunny prospects and even a bit of progress at the summit in Mexico.
Once again, Norbert Röttgen is brimming with confidence. He describes the situation as positive and predicts a successful summit. Just one year ago, in the run-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, the still-optimistic German environment minister sang a similar tune. "There are no indications, based on negotiations to date, that we will fail," he said at the time.
The successor conference to Copenhagen, Cancun 2010, began on Monday. And Röttgen, who is scheduled to fly to Mexico next week to attend the meeting, is in good spirits, just as he was before the last year's political disaster in Denmark. At the time, world leaders came together in the Danish capital to secure a commitment from all nations to a maximum rise in the average global temperature of no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). But that summit was a failure.
The United States and China thwarted a successful outcome, each for its own reasons. Copenhagen was not the beginning of a new era in climate policy, but the start of a new era for the international power structure. The West fell apart and the emerging nations triumphed. Röttgen became China's and the US's sharpest critic. And this summit is expected to be an improvement?
"At least the weather will be better," says Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The average temperature in Cancun is now about 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit). But that isn't the most important climate statistic at this conference. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) disclosed that the CO2 concentration in the air has risen from a pre-industrialization level of 280 parts per million (ppm) to 386.8 ppm today. The level increased by 1.6 ppm within the last year alone. If this trend continues, the 450-ppm threshold scientists define for dangerous climate change will be reached by 2050.
World Has Lost Interest in Climate Change
But the world hardly seems interested anymore. Ahead of Copenhagen, climate protection was a huge issue. It was on every politician's lips, and the media were reporting on the situation and outlook for weeks before the conference. US President Barack Obama attended the summit, and so did Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A year ago, Copenhagen was the most important city in the world. And now? Cancun? A beach resort in Mexico. Obama won't be there, and neither will Wen Jiabao or Merkel. The German leader is sending Röttgen, her optimistic environment minister, instead.
Aside from his optimism, everything is different this time. No one paid attention to climate policy in the weeks leading up to the conference. The world had other problems, like the euro crisis and North Korea, and yet the situation ahead of Cancun was more difficult than it was before Copenhagen.
If Cancun failed, the world would be without a plan starting in 2012, the year in which the climate targets set by industrialized nations under the Kyoto Protocol are set to expire. Even environmentalists, who tend to make the most exacting demands, are setting the bar low for Cancun. Many say that they will be happy if the UN process moves forward at all. An agreement on how to reward countries for protecting rainforests or who decides on the distribution of climate protection funds in the future is already seen as a big step forward.
The great misunderstanding of the Cancun climate conference is that it emerges from a more dramatic circumstance: The very survival of global climate protection is at stake. But the political dynamic amounts to downplaying, writing off and ridiculing Cancun.
'We Were Placing our Bets on a Big Bang'
Except in Röttgen's case, that is. Sitting in his office, he says that he is satisfied with the year between Copenhagen and Cancun. Copenhagen wasn't so bad, after all, he says, adding that we should be happy "that the process is moving forward, one step at a time." He has even turned this philosophy into a new strategy: "Before Copenhagen, we were placing our bets on a Big Bang, but now it's all about drilling through thick boards."
Röttgen says that talking about the 2-degree target isn't that important to him anymore. Although it wasn't approved, it was accepted. According to Röttgen, measures are currently being taken that will limit temperature increases. It is now a matter of protecting forests and other concrete things, says Röttgen, and in this sense Cancun will likely yield further advances.
With Christmas around the corner, the minister is in a friendly mood, partly because he has had such a good year. He was elected chairman of his party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and, with a vote of 88 percent, was also made the party's deputy national chairman. Apparently the world can't be all that bad if it's being so good to Norbert Röttgen.
He still takes climate change seriously. He believes the scientists who see the earth heading into a new warm period, with significantly higher temperatures, melting polar ice caps, acidifying oceans and a precarious food situation. According to climatologists writing in the journal Nature, the earth is on its way to becoming hotter by 3 to 3.5 degrees Celsius. In addition, the sea level is already rising much faster than predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Röttgen is convinced that steps must be taken to avert this temperature increase, and that these efforts present an opportunity for Germany, because environmental change will create new opportunities for economic growth. And he may be right. China, for example, emphasizes renewable energy sources, environmental protection and efficiency in its latest five-year plan.
But those steps only apply domestically and are still a far cry from the contribution China, now the world's largest CO2 emitter, ought to be making. China continues to reject an international commitment to limit its emissions, both out of national pride and for historical reasons. Beijing argues that because the classic industrialized countries triggered climate change, they should be the first to take substantial corrective measures. Another argument is that a considerable share of Chinese CO2 emissions are created to produce low-cost goods that are sold to American and European consumers.
- Part 1: Managing Expectations for a Climate Deal in Cancun
- Part 2: German Government Split on Scope of Emissions Reductions