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December 02, 2010

Day 4 From Cancun: Playing Poker with the Planet

The first week of the two-week UN climate conference involves mostly posturing by nations as they take measure of each other in private "bi-lateral" talks while they jockey for advantage in their messaging to the media and attempt to score political points in their domestic press.  In other words there is not too much to report regarding progress in the talks.  In all likelihood, the final outcome will not be known before December 10 when the climate talks are to adjourn.

Still, the key areas for possible progress (or failure) are clear.

Financing -- will the wealthy nations like the U.S. proceed with financing commitments to poorer and less developed nations to assist with adaptation (dealing with the consequences of climate-change adapting) and mitigation (growing their economies and lifting more of their citizens out of poverty while limiting the growth of their carbon foot prints)?

Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) –- how do the wealthy nations incentivize less developed countries to protect the vast carbon sinks that are their forests, rather than cutting them down (like all the Western countries did years ago)? How do we insure that once a forest is protected that it stays protected? 

Kyoto Protocol -- A second commitment period for countries that are parties to the Kyoto Protocol.  The U.S. never ratified Kyoto, so we are not a party, but after 2012 the original commitments for CO2 reductions should have been met and what new reductions should the parties commit to?  Japan has been drawing major heat for opposing a second commitment period, and Canada and others are happy to let Japan draw the heat although they, too, want to slow things down.   Canada is an interesting case with Steven Harper, the leader of Conservative Government in power, taking on the mantle of George Bush-lite.  With so much money to be made selling oil from tar sands to the USA, Harper is simply ignoring the commitments Canada made when it ratified Kyoto. 

Like most international negotiations, it is a giant poker game. The U.S. insists that any agreement be comprehensive, that incremental progress be made across the board on all issues. Other countries want to lock in partial agreements that can be made on less controversial issues.  Obviously, if the less controversial matters are off the table, then they can no longer be used as bargaining clips on more controversial matters, and this position by U.S. engenders resentments from other countries fearful that the nations of the world could walk away from Cancun with no real accomplishments.  

Many believe that the very future of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is the agreement that is the foundation of these ongoing negotiations, could be threatened by a failure to claim some success in Cancun. If, for example, the U.S. and China -- two countries that alone account for almost 50% of the world's total emissions -- reach a bi-lateral deal outside the UNFCCC, then other countries will do the same and a opportunity for comprehensive unifying agreement will be lost. For small island nations that could disappear in less than 100 years, being at the table is a key to their survival and the future of their people.

It is the enormous carbon and diplomatic footprint of the U.S. that makes the Sierra Club so important to these negotiations even if we never set foot in Cancun or any of the UN climate conferences. As the most influential grassroots environmental group in the US, we have played and will play a big role in the United States’ position and actions on climate change.  It’s a big job, so keep working.

-- Glen Besa is one of forty Sierra Club representatives serving as official observers to the UN climate talks in Cancun.

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