The United Nations-led Climate Conference at Cancun was not a diplomatic disaster, but for climate activists and grassroots groups, it wasn’t a success either. Representatives sent from around the globe to hammer out an agreement on climate change were unresponsive to grassroots concerns about how to lower carbon emissions quickly, and how to ensure fairness in the process.
“Some grassroots groups are losing their faith in the U.N.’s capacity to produce meaningful results,” Madeline Ostrader reported for Yes! Magazine. “After the United Nations expelled Native American leader Tom Goldtooth from the meeting last week, the Indigenous Environmental Network called the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change ‘the WTO of the sky.’”
While gloomy reports before the conference worried that international negotiations could veer entirely off course, the representatives at the conference did come up with an agreement that fleshed out last year’s Copenhagen Accord. It became clearer, though, that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process will not ultimately guard the interests of less powerful players.
Climbing over a low bar
Although diplomats congratulated themselves for their accomplishments, not everyone was so pleased, Stephen Leahy reported at Inter Press Service.
“It’s pathetic the world community struggles so much just to climb over such a low bar,” commented [Kumi] Naidoo, [executive director of Greenpeace.] “Our only real hope is to mobilise a broad-based climate movement involving all sectors of the public and civil society before Durban.”
Indeed, this year’s conference saw a greater mobilization of outside forces than Copenhagen did. But by the end of the conference, activists were frustrated with the UN-led process, Democracy Now! reported, and began protesting in the area near the conference, under the close watch of UN guards:
When the demonstrators continued their vigil past the time allotted to them, U.N. guards moved in and dragged them towards a waiting bus. The protesters linked arms, and the scene quickly became chaotic. As they wrestled activists onto buses, U.N. guards also seized press credentials from the necks of journalists, and detained a photographer while seizing his camera.
There was one issue in particular, Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, or REDD, a financial tool that allows countries to offset their emissions, that caused concern among climate activists. As Michelle Chen explained at ColorLines, “From a climate justice standpoint, the deal lost credibility once it was tainted with REDD, a supposed anti-deforestation initiative that indigenous communities have long decried as an assault on native people’s sovereignty and way of life.”
The program would seek to set aside forests, through financial incentives that would make it more profitable to preserve forests than to harvest them. The problem, in essence, is that the program would take away resources in developing countries, particularly in indigenous communities, in order to mitigate negative actions in developed countries.
At IPS, Stephen Leahy reported, “REDD remains very controversial. It is widely touted as a way to mobilise $10 to $30 billion annually to protect forests by selling carbon credits to industries in lieu of reductions in emissions. … Many indigenous and civil society groups reject REDD outright if it allows developed countries to avoid real emission reductions by offsetting their emissions.”
Developed vs. Developing
Balancing the interests of developing and developed countries has always been the thorny tangle at the center of climate negotiations, and the Cancun Agreement, critics say, favors developed countries.
As Tom Athanasiou writes at Earth Island Journal, “There’s an even deeper concern, that, in the words of the South Centre’s Martin Khor, ‘Cancun may be remembered in future as the place where the UNFCCC’s climate regime was changed significantly, with developed countries being treated more and more leniently, reaching a level like that of developing countries, while the developing countries are asked to increase their obligations to be more and more like developed countries.’”
REDD is an example of that sort of bargain: Developing countries have to sacrifice, too. But developed countries have, in this conference and at its predecessors, refused to make any real sacrifices. This round, it became clear that, in addition to the United States, other key countries, like Japan, would not be willing to commit to binding legal targets for carbon emissions.
What’s worse, developed countries benefit, indirectly, from the financial mechanism proposed to regulate carbon, Madeline Ostrader writes.
“Many of the proposals for financing and regulating climate are designed to earn profits for the same banks that brought the global economy to its knees,” she explains. “Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase have been vying for a stake in the global carbon offset trade—a proposed economic model for cutting emissions around the world.”
The movement of non-governmental groups and activists fighting to hold rich countries accountable has gained momentum in the past year. If international leaders are ever to move away from these imbalanced agreements, that movement will have to grow and convince a vocal majority of people around the world to support its calls to action. Only then will leaders feel pressure to write stronger, fairer agreements.