The German environment minister, it would seem, is tired of issuing dark warnings of impending climate change disaster. "In Germany, we have begun to see things in a different light in recent years," Norbert Röttgen said on Wednesday during his first appearance at the UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico. "People in business, in politics and in the society at large no longer see climate change as a threat, but as an opportunity and a challenge."
Several delegates -- those from island nations in the Pacific, for example, or those from coastal countries in Asia -- were no doubt not particularly impressed by Röttgen's efforts to play down the global warming catastrophe. Indeed, the dangers posed by climate change serve as their central argument in favor of a new agreement which would require industrialized nations to assist poor countries and those at acute risk.
But in contrast to the climate summit in Copenhagen at the end of 2009, a businesslike atmosphere has dominated the talks so far this year. Climate change itself is changing -- from an existential danger to civilization into an opportunity for profit.
The delegate from Mexico, who spoke immediately prior to Röttgen, spoke of the "ethical responsibility to future generations" and of "mutual understanding" among the world's nations. But moral arguments of this kind have become a rarity following the calamitous failure of the Copenhagen talks.
Pragmatism has become the name of the game -- at least among industrialized countries. Indeed, Röttgen's Cancun speech could just as easily have been held in front of the annual meeting of the German Chambers of Industry and Commerce. "Our strategy of investing in renewable energies and energy efficiency proved itself successful in times of economic and financial crisis," Röttgen, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, said. Germany, he said, would sink its greenhouse gas emissions by 85 to 90 percent by 2050 relative to 1990. "If we approach our target in an efficient manner, we will have created 500,000 additional jobs by 2020 and will spend over €20 billion ($27 billion) less on energy imports," he continued.
Fifty Billion Annually
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg struck a similar note. On Wednesday in Cancun, he spoke of how lucrative emissions trading and CO2 taxes could be. Sales of emission certificates, he said, could generate $30 billion in annual revenues. Emissions-intensive industries such as air travel and shipping could generate a further $10 billion, he said. An additional $10 billion could be scraped together if subsidies for the exploitation of fossil fuels were cut, he said. That money, he went on, could be sent as aid to developing countries.
In total, Stoltenberg calculated, such measures could generate $50 billion annually -- fully half of what industrialized countries pledged for the developing world during the Copenhagen talks a year ago. The $100 billion in annual aid for the developing world foreseen by the Copenhagen Accord is earmarked for the introduction of green technologies and other measures to combat the consequences of global warming.
Still, economic rationality is far from the only game in town in Cancun. The US and China, the world's top two polluters, remain at loggerheads. Any new climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012, must include binding measures for all of the world's largest economies, insists Todd Stern, the head of the US climate delegation -- a clear reference to India and China. Of central importance for the US is also the demand that all emissions-reductions pledges from major economies are both transparent and verifiable.
China, however, continues to resist concrete targets for cuts in its greenhouse gas emissions. Early in the week, there were some reports from the talks in Cancun that China may be prepared to compromise. Deputy Chinese climate negotiator Liu Zhenmin said on Monday, however, that such reports resulted from a "misunderstanding." Pledges from Beijing, he said, are "voluntary" and "non-negotiable."
Vehement in Its Demands
Liu threatened that a "crisis of confidence" would ensue if the Kyoto Protocol were not extended at the Cancun summit. An extension of the protocol with few changes is clearly in the interest of the developing world, as Kyoto does not mandate climate protection targets for such countries. Japan, Russia and Canada, on the other hand, are demanding an agreement with compulsory targets for the US and the larger developing economies such as China and India. Japan has been particularly vehement in its demands, making it difficult for the country to compromise on this point without losing face.
The US is behaving as though such demands, crucial as they are to the talks, are of little consequence. Stern is fond of pointing out that his country is not party to the Kyoto Protocol and refuses to take a position in the ongoing debate, which has thus far overshadowed the talks in Mexico.
Such disputes threaten to torpedo the sober approach many have adopted at this year's UN climate summit. Some developing countries, for example, have accused the US of having tried to lure small island nations to sign a treaty by offering them financial rewards in return. In Cancun, the US has been accused of blocking important climate protection measures in an effort to get a treaty of their liking. Complicating the issue is the fact that the US has not even been able to pass climate targets at home.
"We cannot allow ourselves to be held hostage to the political backwardness of an industrialized nation," said Enele Sosene Sopoaga, deputy prime minister of the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu. Given the risk of a rise in ocean levels, he says the climate talks are "a matter of life and death" for his country.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa is, as usual, even more radical. The world's poor countries, he says, must get the industrialized nations to admit their responsibility for global warming thus far. Were developing nations to blame, he says, the rich countries would have long since forced them to pay compensation -- "by way of violence and invasion."
The summit's Mexican hosts have been doing their best to remain optimistic. "I believe that an ambitious, broad and balanced package is within reach," Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, who is also serving as the head of this year's climate conference, told delegates on Wednesday. "That does not mean that we already have it in our grasp."
European Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard is already warning of the consequences should the summit fail. "I think that what is at stake here is multilateralism," she said. "It's absolutely crucial that this process, which is the only one we have, can prove that it can deliver results."