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The Cancun Accord: A Manufacturing Of Disaster

December 14, 2010

Some have hailed the Cancun Accord as a leap in the right direction. I do not subscribe to such position. The outcome of the UN Climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, November 29 to December 10, is completely disheartening. 

Some have hailed the Cancun Accord as a leap in the right direction. I do not subscribe to such position. The outcome of the UN Climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, November 29 to December 10, is completely disheartening. 

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We expected an agreement that will be ambitious, binding and far reaching for emission reductions but what did we get? - Another extension of the Copenhagen loose talks on voluntary emissions with no penalty.  The Cancun Accord to my mind is nothing short of a disaster in the making; it is the height of political immorality on the part of world governments.  First, the fact the Accord did not lay a foundation for the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol or other new binding treaty for emission reduction foretells danger especially for countries like Tuvalu on the front lines of the climate crisis. The existing legally binding climate change treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, set mandatory targets which industrialized countries are supposed meet by 2012. But, many of these countries including Canada, US, Australia, and New Zealand, are yet to meet their respective targets while continuing to undermine processes that could ensure the continuity of Kyoto.

Compared to the desired cap of global temperature at 1.5 to 2 degree Celsius, the voluntary emission regime proposed in Cancun could potentially lead to a rise in temperature rates beyond 3 to 4 degree of warming since most of the biggest polluters like the US, Japan, Canada, Russia, and Australia and are not likely to substantially reduce their emissions, neither will emerging economies like China, India and Brazil. The prevalence of distrust amongst countries and the manic drive for economic growth means that the voluntary emission regime is an imminent failure. The Bolivian delegate was right in calling the Cancun Accord – big step backwards.  I do not even want to think about the flight emissions and other resources expended on a yearly basis on this so-called UNFCCC talks, yet very little result. If all we will get from UNFCCC high level plenary are wishy-washy documents perhaps the meetings should be done via teleconferencing. Why burn extra fuels just to agree on nothing!

Secondly, pushing market-based solution as the only way out of this quagmire equates abrogation of responsibility on the part of industrialized nations. It is true, the market can be a part of the solution but it will not salvage the day if governments do not take on binding verifiable commitments. Moreover, market-based solutions such as emissions trading and aviation taxes, and green technology options are still in their infancy, the fierce urgency of the climate change requires greater political will and robust action now from all - both developed and developing nations on the basis of common but differentiated responsibilities.

I was completely alarmed and almost lost consciousness when I gathered that the majority of countries agreed to the weak and ineffective Cancun Accord.  Thanks to Wikileaks, which helped to put the ‘agreement’ in context. The report suggests that the US arm-twisted many countries, especially Latin American countries, to agree to this suicidal pact. Many were threatened with withdrawal of foreign aid, while others were promised additional development assistance if they consent to the Accord. It is no news that the US hegemony extends far and wide and on all manners of issues but to allow one country (and its allies) to jeopardize the lives of billions of poor people on the planet is morally indefensible. The offer of 100 billion dollars for adaptation will mean nothing once we got past the tipping point, that is, if that point has not been crossed already.

Another concern is the fact the adaptation fund is now meant to be disbursed by the World Bank. We all know the distasteful history of the World Bank’s relationship with Southern countries. Three obvious questions that come to mind in this case include: 1) Are these funds going to be grants or loans? If loan, should we still regard them as adaptation funds or simply another rip-off by Western governments since borrowers will have to payback with high interests? 2) What conditionality will the Bank impose on developing nations before they can access the climate funds? 3) What happens if a country like Zimbabwe or Maldives refuses any predetermined conditionality, will such country be condemned to suffer in spite of its insignificant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions? Giving the World Bank control over climate funds essentially wield more power back to the biggest emitter who, of course, has the largest votes within the Bank. It will be unsurprising if climate funds are used as a steering wand to control the economic and political agenda of the global south and most vulnerable countries especially those with resources such as the Congo. Furthermore, just recently, the World Bank sponsored one of the biggest coal-fired plants in South Africa. This leaves much to be desired of an organization that is meant to herald us into an era of climate security.

The most blatant expression of impropriety during the Cancun talks was the silencing of the voices of indigenous peoples and civil society groups. The North American indigenous activist, Tom Goldtooth, for example was denied entry to the summit, one day after he publicly criticized the UN process. Such denial extended to other civil society members as the talks continued till Friday December 10. Also, many climate protesters, journalists and reporters were physically assaulted by the UN guards (see video clip on: This repression of freedom of speech and suppression of the right to participation is particularly worrisome coming from an institution like the U.N. This could translate to the U.N having no moral clout to caution authoritarian regimes around the world from violating human rights as the UN itself is seen to have done likewise.

The blame for the gridlock on climate talks cannot be placed at the doorsteps of governments alone. The problem is also related to the manner in which scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have ignored the importance of the social sciences and humanities. They have not been effective in communicating the human costs of climate change; their lack of engagement with the social sciences (other than Economics), the hubris and their inability or unwillingness to bridge “ objective” science with every day experiences in places which are already witnessing climate change points to an unwillingness to engage with the political/ social/ cultural spheres.  The Harvard Science and Technology studies scholar Sheila Jasanoff has rightly termed this lack of attention to the importance of cultural and social context (in which climate science is received and analyzed) as a serious crisis for climate science. In earlier times, it was considered enough to test the validity of one's claims by the peer review process. But we live in times when interest in the validity of scientific claims extends to wider audiences. The IPCC needs to think very seriously on this issue.

As academics, activists, lawyers, doctors, geographers, journalists, environmentalists, writers, fathers, mothers, children, sisters, brothers, grandparents, whatever position or title we choose to bear, we have a responsibility to prevent this climate crisis from becoming a disaster. We need to think carefully but strategically and coordinate with one another with the aim of coming up with alternative means of getting our governments and leaders to take up binding commitment on emission reduction. We can either admit that the UNFCCC process is failing, or as Noam Chomsky would say- ‘if we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion’. Selfish agenda has been the dominant paradigm in the UNFCCC process. The process is turning out to be another crisis, and I wonder which the toughest crisis is the politics of climate change or climate change itself? Perhaps we have two crises on our hands.

We need an alternative social contract built from bottom-up, to avert the both political quagmire and the climate crisis. What the details of the contract should entail I do not know, but I know if we work together towards designing new alternatives to the current top-down UNFCCC process we may well be on our way to preventing a major catastrophe. Posterity will judge us as being brave and responsible or as being weak and fainthearted depending on the path we choose today.

As we think of alternatives, let us never be faint in our campaign for a safer, just and sustainable world.  We have only one earth and that is the reality, so we need to be vigilant; we need to take the climate bull by its horns. Admittedly, the UN process is the only global process we have for now, so let us also get letters, articles and petitions rolling to governments, policy-makers or whoever we think needs to be convinced in helping us achieve an ambitious, binding and just climate deal as we approach 2011 Durban, South Africa meeting.

From A concerned earth citizen.
-Idowu Ajibade is a PhD Candidate at the University of Western, Ontario. Canada.

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