Article by Guest Contributor: Ren Hui Yoong

Activist sign in front of President's office in Finland (Image by: Greenpeace Finland)

One of the most significant issues that world leaders will attempt to deal with at Cancun is the agreement on specific carbon emission reduction targets, particularly for Annex I developed countries, as part of a legally binding climate change treaty. This is of particular importance as the current set of emission targets set forth in the Kyoto Protocol is due to expire in 2012.

Thus far, progress in this area has been filled with much disappointment, primarily due to a clash between developed countries and developing countries, and also a lack of US engagement in the issue. Developing countries led by China argue that they have diminished responsibility due to the developed countries’ ongoing hypocrisy and historic responsibility in contributing to carbon emissions. The developing countries push for greater emission cuts for the developed nations, while the developed nations are generally reluctant to give in without similar action from other nations.

This problem of a deficient equilibrium – where an outcome renders everyone better off but, at the same time, there is no incentive to change behaviour – is at the root of the problem. The fact of the matter is that climate change is intrinsically linked with politics and economics, and it usually makes more economic sense to disregard the environment than to respect it. As such, states will not agree to emissions reductions that are not mutual or at least perceived as “fair”, as that will give competitors an inherent economic advantage. This tension was most acutely seen between the US and China, but is also seen by the EU’s bargaining and refusal to cut more emissions unless other countries do so as well. The COP15 meeting in Copenhagen a year ago was plagued by these issues, and only managed a vague agreement that was reached at the eleventh hour. And despite Copenhagen having emission pledges by countries that chose to do so, it still lacked “real” emission reduction targets, and perhaps even more importantly, was not legally binding.

Since Copenhagen and in the prelude to Cancun, there have been several preparatory talks in Bonn in Germany, and Tianjin in China. However, their outcomes have been similarly disappointing, marred by continued US-China tensions and distrust. As such, the expectations for a legally binding treaty that lists specific carbon emission reduction targets to come out of Cancun are not high. Especially with the hype and subsequent failure of Copenhagen still fresh on their minds, many observers are understandably cautious about the possibility of such a treaty, arguing that at best, a limited treaty will be possible, and instead referring to Cancun as a stepping-stone and a first step to better prospects at COP17 in South Africa next year.

On the surface, this issue of emission reduction targets seems to simply be a case of trying to renew the Kyoto Protocol ahead of its expiration in 2012, but things are far from being that simple. Perhaps even more importantly, Cancun’s success or failure at resolving this issue will have serious repercussions on other aspects of successful climate change mitigation such as agreements on technology transfer and sources of funding for developing countries. The ability, or perhaps inability, to agree on carbon emission reduction targets in the form of a legally binding treaty definitely reflects on the political will of the developed countries to voluntarily take up a responsible role in leading the global effort. At the moment, time is of the essence, and unless the developed country obstacle does not at least begin to show signs of being overcome, Copenhagen will only repeat itself in Cancun.

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