Cancun Crunch Time

Third dispatch from the United Nations Climate Change conference in Cancun

Cancun—Anxious anticipation was the dominant emotion in the hallways at the Moon Palace on Wednesday where climate change negotiations are ongoing. “It’s crunch time,” said Jake Schmidt from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Only two more days left to go.

Apparent State of Play

From the point of view of most developing countries and environmentalists the Cancun conference will be a success if negotiators reach an agreement by Friday that achieves three things. First, developed countries agree to continue the Kyoto Protocol after 2012. Second, a legally binding process is launched that ends up with rich countries agreeing to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions somewhere in the realm of 40 percent by 2020. And third, a global climate change fund is established under the auspices of the U.N. to distribute $100 billion annually in climate change aid to poor countries.

But will it happen? Kyoto Protocol signatories Japan, Canada, and Russia appear to want to scuttle the treaty. At the beginning of the meeting, Japan flatly said that it will not accept a second round of commitments under that treaty. Canada’s Liberal government signed onto the Kyoto Protocol back in 1997 promising to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 6 percent below their level in 1990. Today Canada emits about 25 percent more than it did in 1990. These three countries have to agree if it’s go forward.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Todd Stern, the head of the U.S. delegation, reiterated that the carbon dioxide reduction commitments made by all countries, developed and developing, under the Copenhagen Accord need to become official and legally binding. Stern said the U.S. position is “very clear” that whatever binds the U.S. must also similarly apply to all major countries including India, China, and Brazil. And instead of establishing some process that ratchets up carbon dioxide reduction commitments in the near term, Stern says that the U.S. favors reviewing the scientific adequacy of the commitments sometime later in this decade. Stern also said that the U.S. backs the creation of a global climate change fund, but insists on setting up standards for monitoring, reporting, and verifying how funds are spent before pouring money into it.

Rumors and Reports

The Guardian is reporting that Europe, Mexico, and some Pacific island nations have drafted a new negotiating text that would commit both developing and developed countries to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Apparently, the new text could lead to the scrapping of the Kyoto Protocol in favor of the emissions reductions goals set out in the Copenhagen Accord. China, India, and Brazil have all along insisted that they would not accept such a deal. If true, the Cancun climate change conference could be a sequel to the collapse in Copenhagen last year. Stay tuned.

China Syndrome

When the Copenhagen climate change conference abruptly collapsed last year, I happened to be sitting beside a reporter from Guangdong. As usual, the assembled journos were eager to place the blame on the U.S. for the failure of the conference. I sighed, “The United States is still the bad guy.” The Chinese reporter smiled and said, “Now there are two bad guys.”

What a difference a year makes. Everybody loves China here in Cancun. At least they do right now. At the morning Natural Resources Defense Council press conference, NRDC's China Program Director Barbara Finamore summed up the love, “China has done a remarkable job in setting a positive and constructive tone in these negotiations.” Recall that the Copenhagen conference largely collapsed over the fact that the Chinese refused to allow outsiders to monitor its voluntary pledge to increase its carbon intensity, i.e., cut the amount of carbon dioxide it emits per unit of GDP by 40 to 45 percent below its 2005 level by 2020. The world would just have to take the Chinese government’s word for it. President Barack Obama balked, insisting that the Chinese make a firm commitment and allow outside auditing.

So why is China again a good guy? The situation is actually a bit confused. Under the hastily negotiated Copenhagen Accord, China submitted its carbon intensity goal while maintaining that it was entirely voluntary. Earlier in the week various media reported that a Chinese negotiator had said that China would be willing to make its carbon intensity goal firm and submit to a process of international consultation and analysis as a way to monitor its compliance. However, China still regards its carbon intensity goal as internationally voluntary while it is domestically mandatory. In later media reports, Chinese negotiators denied that they had changed their positions on international monitoring or on firming up China's commitments.

Perhaps more important, however, is that the Chinese have mastered the art of European climate bluster. Regularly in climate change negotiations, representatives from the European Union announce big plans about what their region is going do. Examining the fine print one often finds that the plans are contingent on actions being taken by another country (usually the U.S.) and are quietly shelved when the contingency fails to materialize. This is a cheap way to earn brownie points from gullible members of the international environmentalist community. A current example is that the E.U. is promising to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent below its 1990 level by 2020 even if no new climate change treaty is forthcoming. We’ll see.

Post-Copenhagen I’ve noticed a considerable reluctance on the part of environmentalist groups to openly criticize China. This could be for many reasons. One is that the Chinese government is following the European lead of seducing environmentalists by announcing big green initiatives. Now it is true that China has erected a lot of wind mills and solar photovoltaic installations lately. This provoked one environmentalist at the conference to gush, “China is installing one new windmill per hour.” And let’s not forget China’s network of high speed trains, so beloved by green advocates.

Dazzled by the glamour of these uneconomic prestige green projects, many environmentalists seem at least temporarily to be blinded to the fact that China is massively increasing its use of coal-fired electricity and building tens of thousands of miles of new highways. The Chinese Academy of Sciences recently issued a report suggesting that high-speed railways are economically unsustainable.

Of course, the Chinese government does not let petty issues like property rights and democratic decision-making get in the way of environmental megaprojects such as reforesting 40 million hectares. Environmentalists are technocratic planners at heart—and they recognize in China a kindred spirit. China is also adept at playing the equity card, pitting the deserving poor against the greedy rich. And environmentalists know that the authoritarians who run the Chinese government will fight back against their critics.

If the Guardian is right, Thursday should prove to be a pretty interesting day here at the Cancun climate change conference. Check back in tomorrow for another update.

Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey will be filing daily dispatches from the Cancun climate change conference for the rest of this week. This column first appeared at

Ronald Bailey is Science Correspondent