Sunday, December 12, 2010

At COP-16: Some Progress, Further to Go

Last year in Copenhagen, our team's message was "we've made some progress and have further to go."

Whenever we were interviewed by the press or had a chance to brief a policy-maker about our analysis of the pledges for emissions reductions, we stressed that if the pledges were implemented, future generations would experience somewhat less warming than under "business as usual" but that current pledges were not sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change within the century.

Now, one year later, back home after the conclusion of the Cancun round of UNFCCC negotiations, the message of our analysis is still the same.

No countries increased the ambition of their pledges, and the body as a whole did not set forth targets for emissions reductions beyond 2020. The end of the conference had some steps that most observers consider progress, and the Mexican hosts are widely recognized for their skilled diplomacy and consensus-building. The negotiators agreed to keep on talking, and to take up, in 2011, the challenges of increasing the strength of 2020 pledges and making commitments for longer-term reductions. They reaffirmed the goal of limiting global temperature increase to 2°C and agreed to revist the goal in a few years to decide if an even lower target might be appropriate.

With many speculating that the whole process might become deadlocked in tensions between rich an poor nations, the fact that the Cancun Agreements  emerged at all signifies that commitment to global cooperation on climate change is still strong. The rounds of standing ovation for the Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs during the final sessions were more about celebrating the ability and willingness of countries to keep on talking rather than any decisive actions on behalf of the climate.

One oft quoted Greenpeace campaigner summed up the results well when he said that the talks represent "a victory for the process more than a victory for the climate".

And so, as in the days after Copenhagen, the message still seems to be:  "We've made some progress, and have further to go."

The glass is half empty, and also half full.

It's not so surprising that this is the case, much as we may wish things were different.

We are living through some of first moments in human history when people are trying to come together as inhabitants of a single planet to anticipate a problem that has not yet occurred, trying to work out a solution together. There are moments especially in the plenary with hundreds of delegates and observers speaking many languages, wearing many traditional dresses, that I marvel that we are, as a species, doing this at all. With our agriculture revolution only 10,000 years behind us, with an ugly past 500 years of colonization and injustice, it is a marvel that we can even imagine stewarding our shared planet together. It is a wonder that, from satellite imaging to sophisticated monitoring we can see and understand our planet as a whole, and that our wired world is connecting us together in new and powerful ways. The glass is half full.

And yet, the process is flawed, unfair, short-sighted, bogged down by local politics and narrow interests. It hasn't managed yet to even agree to the magnitude of effort that the climate demands, let alone achieve the massive mobilization that will be needed to implement any agreement. The glass seems, at times, to be almost totally empty.

With time so short, with emissions needing to peak in under 10 years, progress seems painfully, worryingly, heart-breakingly slow. The halls of the conference were filled with talk of other solutions, outside of a global treaty. Everyone seemed to have hopes for cities, or businesses, or local initiatives leading the way. But a global problem calls out for global solutions. The businesses and cities and initiatives need the lift of a global cap on emissions or a global price on carbon.

Only time will tell, I guess, whether our species is up to the challenge of bringing itself below the limits of the planet, whether we can come together fast enough, and whether we can recognize our common interests and act on them in time.  I do know that thousands of passionate, intelligent, creative folks, and millions more behind them at home around the world, were, over the past two weeks, giving it their best shot. I have no doubt that most of them are now headed home to regroup, reflect, and re-engage, marking the progress that has been made and getting organized to build upon it.

We've made some progress.

We have further to go.

Time to get to work.

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