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.
German Government Split on Scope of Emissions Reductions
China is pointing its finger at the United States, where President Obama has neglected climate protection. Ironically, his climate protection bill failed at the height of the oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. Starting in January, the US House of Representatives will be controlled by Republican politicians who believe that manmade climate change is hogwash, because there is no mention of it in the creation account in the Bible. The new Republican majority equates the American way of life with unchecked oil and coal consumption. "The US's global political and economic leadership role will diminish if this continues," says Röttgen, although he is not about to repeat the direct criticism of the governments in the United States and China that he voiced after Copenhagen. He seems truly determined not to allow anything to cloud his optimism.
But the German government isn't exactly an enthusiastic champion of climate protection, either. The blame rests mainly with Merkel who, once known as the climate chancellor, is no longer providing her environment minister with the kind of support he would like. The two politicians are at odds when it comes to funding and the new climate targets for the European Union.
One of the few results that were achieved in Copenhagen is the industrialized nations' commitment to come up with a total of $30 billion (€22.9 billion) in "immediate funds" for international climate protection between 2010 and 2012. Merkel pledged €1.26 billion "in new and additional" funds on behalf of Germany, or about €420 million a year. These commitments are crucial to such efforts as preserving rainforests and building wind turbines instead of coal power plants in poor countries. Moreover, the West's credibility hinges on such commitments.
In the first year, however, Germany has provided only €70 million in new funding for climate protection, and Merkel has allowed the funding for 2011 and 2012 to be eliminated from budgets altogether. Although more than a billion euros will be spent on paper, that amount was in fact scraped together from existing projects in a feat of shrewd recycling. "They're all coming up with tricks to make sure the right numbers are there on paper, while fresh funding is actually nonexistent," says a close associate of Röttgen. The minister is deeply disappointed by this deception, as he conceded some time ago when he said tersely: "The money is there."
Merkel Fails to Provide Backing
The second conflict between Merkel and Röttgen revolves around the question of whether the EU should increase its climate protection target unilaterally. The current plan calls for a 20-percent emissions reduction by 2020. Early next year, the EU plans to discuss whether to increase that target to a 30-percent reduction. Röttgen favors the increase, even if this means that Germany will have to make an even greater contribution than it does today.
The German government has committed itself to a 40-percent target. If countries like Poland and Spain do not back a 30-percent target, as they have indicated, Germany would have to reduce its emissions by 42 or even as much as 50 percent. Röttgen is still in favor of the EU agreeing to the ambitious goal in the spring, but Merkel hasn't given him a mandate to support it.
The chancellor is reportedly open to 30 percent for Europe but feels that she has to take the wishes of her economics minister into account. Rainer Brüderle, a member of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), fears that the higher target would impose new burdens on the economy, especially in energy-intensive industries. The issue brings up the classic duel between the economics and environment ministers, a fight in which Röttgen cannot necessarily depend on Merkel's support. Copenhagen has complicated Röttgen's position in German environmental policy. He cannot argue that other countries are moving boldly forward. Instead, he must make the risky argument that Germany is incurring short-term costs to reap gains in the long term, when it will be in a far better position than most countries -- technologically, economically and culturally -- for the world of tomorrow.
Röttgen deserves some credit for having convinced the CDU/FDP coalition government to make a commitment that Germany will get 80 percent of its electricity and 60 percent of its fuels and heating materials from renewable sources by the middle of the century. This level of commitment is a first for an industrialized nation. Another far-reaching decision, which is making Germany a driver of environmental policy among nations worldwide, is that the billions in revenues from emissions trading will soon be funneled directly into the environment and into research and development.
Röttgen has suffered defeat, however, in areas that affect citizens directly and in the short term, such as requirements for homeowners to make buildings more energy-efficient, subsidies and CO2 emissions limits for commercial vehicles. Although the government wants to see houses and buildings heated with energy from renewable sources, it has already slashed, for 2011, the extremely successful subsidy program designed to achieve this very goal.
Röttgen is flying to Cancun with a mixed hand. He will have something to show for himself, but not enough to make him a hero of environmental policy.
Hardened Conflicts Remain in Place
The fact that this conference is so much smaller than Copenhagen could in fact prove to be an opportunity, because it reduces the overall pressure and takes away the focus on the vanity of international leaders. The UN Biodiversity Summit in Nagoya in October is a case in point for the effectiveness of the scaled-down format. Contrary to pessimistic expectations, the negotiators managed to assign an economic value to biodiversity and approve a global conservation strategy for the next 10 years. But it wasn't a success for Röttgen, who made only a brief appearance in Nagoya because the debate over nuclear policy in the German parliament was more important to him.
Röttgen will play a bigger role in Cancun, where he will have a list of goals he wants to see met: that all 193 contracting states officially accept the goal of limiting global warming to 2-degrees Celsius compared to the pre-industrial age and confirm earlier commitments to limits; that an agreement be reached on how to compensate tropical countries for protecting their forests as carbon stores; that guidelines be established for adjustment to climate change; and that initial agreements be reached on who is to administer the billions that industrialized countries are to spend on climate protection in the future. "This is a package," says the minister, who insists that a hodge-podge of individual resolutions is not good enough.
But the hardened conflicts remain. For example, the United States insists that the World Bank, where developing nations have hardly any say, administer the billions in climate protection funds. The Third World sees this as an affront. Röttgen, of course, is confident that the attendees will actually come to terms in sunny Cancun.