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Cancun De-Brief: Reflections on COP-16 in Cancun and Implications for U.S. Businesses

Promoted in Energy Efficiency section: 
In December 2010, the 16th Conference of Parties assembled in Cancun to revisit the Kyoto Protocol and seek to develop a worldwide consensus on regulating greenhouse gas emissions in developed and developing countries. Continuing on the overwhelming energy seen in the previous year's conference in Copenhagen, there were significant successes and failures realized through this annual, which saw thousands of delegates worldwide descend upon Cancun to participate in the official UN events as well as related business conferences.

The webinar was presented by ACCO and included discussions on the successes and failures of COP-16, and the impacts this event will have on the US policymaking process at Federal and sub-national levels.
Webinar participants include:
  • Dr Jonathan Pershing, Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change, US Department of State
  • Elliot Diringer, Vice President, International Strategies, Pew Center for Global Climate Change
  • Denise Sheehan, Executive Director, The Climate Registry

Click here to listen to the full webinar

Click here to download the presentations

Food & Climate Risks: Potential Consequences of Disruptions in Agricultural Productivity

Last week the British Government published a report on The Future of Food and Farming in which the role of a changing climate is appropriately highlighted as a major impediment to maintaining consistent and predictable food supplies for the world’s growing population. The timing of this report is excellent; food prices have been rising recently (see chart) and have caused significant hardship for some of the most globally vulnerable populations. These vulnerable populations live in some of the most politically unstable regions, and continued food inflation could exacerbate existing social and economic issues with potentially unpredictable consequences.

Source: UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Unfortunately as the global climate changes and agricultural productivity shifts, these sort of price rises in basic foods are likely to become more commonplace for the economically sensitive populations in these politically unstable regions – like Southeast Asia, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. This is not to imply that recent increases in food prices were caused by climate change; it is not possible to attribute a single event such as this latest spike in food prices to the long-term trends we expect to experience from our changing climate. It is, however, instructive to identify that the sort of impacts that we expect from climate change can have serious social and political implications.

Recent work shows that several of the world's most important crops could be near climactic thresholds that will seriously impair agricultural yields.Several of these crops (like corn, rice, soybeans and wheat - the source of 75% of global calorie consumption) appear to be sensitive to increases in temperature variation, especially to the occurrence of a particularly hot day in the middle of the growing season. Increases in temperature variation and the prevalence of what are historically unusually hot days is exactly what our best models of the future climate predict. Even if global yields are able to remain fairly constant due to human adaptation to the shifting regions of agricultural productivity (e.g., northward from the U.S. Plains to Canada and Siberia), the temporary economic dislocation will certainly be difficult for today's farmers and for the people who are dependent on the food that they produce.

Other research suggests that increasing temperatures could cause major difficulties for farmers in Southeast Asia who produce a large fraction of global rice output, an important staple in the region. This research recognizes that the human body simply cannot perform the hard manual labor (like that needed to tend to rice paddies) at the temperatures climate models predict. By 2050, these temperatures are expected to be commonplace for the region – potentially resulting in a huge loss of agricultural output.

While agricultural contributions to overall GDP in the rich world may seem relatively minor, it is important to remember that GDP is only a measure of economic activity and not a measure of well-being. The well-being that food provides is not necessarily proportionate to its market price. A common example used to illustrate this point is a comparison of the price of diamonds to the price of water. Water is much less expensive but is an absolute necessity. Staple foods are similar. If the price of diamonds increases, people (in aggregate) can choose to purchase less. If the price of water or food increases however, there is little flexibility (elasticity, in economic terms) in terms of how much less people can choose to buy.  

If food prices rise in the rich world, consumers will spend more of their income on food and forgo other consumption options. In developing nations this trade-off may not be possible – creating a situation where political unrest could become more likely. According to World Bank data, over 50% of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. Obviously for these populations, even small increases in the prices of staples can cause real difficulties since a large fraction of their income is already spent on food. Some of the regions that have the highest concentrations of the global poor are also the regions that tend to be among the most politically volatile. Though it is unlikely that food prices would directly cause conflict or instability in these regions, it is more likely that the stress caused by higher (or more volatile) food prices will worsen existing socio-economic pressures. 

The resulting consequences will be difficult to predict; and by their nature will create difficulties in creating an effective adaptive response. Though it will likely never be clear which future conflicts could have been avoided in the absence of climate change, we do know that proactive policy effort taken now can reduce the eventual impact of future food price pressures.

Russell Meyer is the Senior Fellow for Economics and Policy

Climate Change 101: International Action

Download the full brief (PDF)


Climate change is a global challenge and requires a global solution. Greenhouse gas emissions have the same impact on the atmosphere whether they originate in Washington, London or Beijing. To avoid dangerous climate change, emissions ultimately must be reduced worldwide. An effective global strategy requires leadership by the United States, and commitments and action by all the world’s major economies.





Cancun and Beyond - Elliot Diringer Q&A with Argus Media

Promoted in Energy Efficiency section: 

January 2011

Click here for the interview (PDF)

Elliot Diringer, Vice President for International Strategies, shares his views of the Cancun Agreements, the roles played by the United States and other countries in achieving a positive outcome at COP 16, and the challenges ahead for the global climate negotiations.

"What Cancun accomplished was importing the Copenhagen Accord into the convention process and taking initial steps to actualize some of its key elements. This presents the opportunity to now put in place the multilateral mechanisms we need to strengthen action and confidence, and over time lead us toward more binding agreements," said Diringer. "The two most important areas are strengthening the support system for developing countries and strengthening the transparency system so everyone can see how everyone else is doing in fulfilling their pledges."


Read the full Q&A.

Solutions in Steps, Not Leaps: The Year in Review and a Look Ahead

By Eileen Claussen
December 20, 2010

2010 was a year of highs and lows.

On the high side were global temperatures; 2010 will mark the hottest year in recorded history. At the start of the year, there was also the short-lived high of thinking we might be on the precipice of meaningful action in the U.S. Congress to protect the climate. Finally, at year’s end the climate talks in Cancún delivered (surprise!) tangible results in the form of agreement on key elements of a global climate framework.

But alas, the lows won out for most of 2010 as a trumped-up email controversy, continuing economic unease, and growing anti-government sentiment in the United States undermined the effort to forge lasting climate solutions at all levels. 

Congress. Until quite recently, the Pew Center and many others were actively supporting cap and trade as the number-one climate policy solution. After the House passed a fairly comprehensive energy and climate bill in June 2009 that had a cap-and-trade system at its core, we actually thought that it might become the law of the land.

Before long, however, it became eminently clear that the Senate would not be able to pass a similar bill. The 2010 U.S. elections, which brought more doubters of climate change into the halls of Congress, only made it clearer that comprehensive climate action is off the table for now.

EPA. With Congress unable to pass comprehensive climate legislation in 2010, attention turned to what EPA might be able to do under existing authorities. And it turns out that EPA can do quite a lot by taking reasonable steps that have garnered critical support from the business and environmental communities. In late October, for example, the agency announced a sensible proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve fuel efficiency for medium and heavy-duty vehicles. This was followed by a November announcement that will go a long way to making sure that new industrial facilities use state-of-the-art technologies to boost efficiency and reduce emissions.

Of course, opponents of these and other EPA regulations will surely raise a ruckus, and there will be loud cries in Congress to delay the regulations and even cut funding for the EPA. But the possibility remains that the agency could conceivably begin to chip away at U.S. emissions in the months and years ahead.

State Actions. Looking beyond Washington, state capitals were the focus of creative thinking and leadership on the issue of clean energy in 2010. Massachusetts, for example, set a statewide energy efficiency standard in 2010 supported by $1.6 billion in incentives. Meanwhile, California voters upheld the state’s greenhouse gas reduction law by defeating Proposition 23. This marked the first direct vote on addressing climate change in the United States, and it won in an overwhelming fashion.

But the overall story regarding climate action in the states was more mixed. While several regional climate initiatives continued to push forward, the November elections brought to the nation’s statehouses a group of new leaders who adopted strong stands against climate action in their campaigns. We will stay tuned to see how their campaign rhetoric translates into governing.

International. The agreement reached by international negotiators in Cancún in December closed out 2010 on a positive note. The Cancún Agreements import the essential elements of the 2009 Copenhagen Accord into the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, including a stronger system of support for developing countries and a stronger transparency regime to better assess whether countries are keeping their promises. The Cancún Agreements also mark the first time that all of the world’s major economies have made explicit mitigation pledges under the Convention.

Of course, the ultimate goal of the continuing international talks should be a legally-binding climate treaty, but in Cancún we saw countries agreeing on incremental steps that will deliver stronger action in the near term and lay the foundation for binding commitments down the road.

Looking Ahead. Looking ahead, I believe 2011 holds promise only if those of us who support climate action can learn from what happened in 2010. In recent years, domestic and international efforts largely centered on a “big bang” theory of trying to achieve everything at once. Instead, it’s instructive now to take a cue from Cancún and accept that a step-by-step approach to building support for climate solutions offers our best shot at progress. 

Calling on the new Congress to pass cap and trade or similarly comprehensive solutions will be a nonstarter, for example.  But there may be an opportunity on Capitol Hill for less sweeping steps to reduce U.S. emissions.  

Supporters would do well to spend the next several months laying the groundwork for incremental solutions by strengthening communications with the public. We need to do a better job of helping people understand both the risks and the opportunities presented by climate change. In the same way we buy fire insurance to protect against an event that has a statistically small chance of happening but would result in severe damage, acting now to cut emissions reduces our vulnerability to severe events that are likely to become more common in a warming world. And the success of the “No on Prop 23” campaign in California suggests that there remains a healthy appetite among the general public and in the business community (which provided substantial support for the effort) to back well-framed climate solutions. 

After a year of highs and lows, we still must aim high in our efforts to address one of the greatest challenges of our time. But we should also heed the lessons of the past year and work for more modest victories now that can keep us on the path to longer-term solutions. 

by Eileen Claussen, President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change-- December 2010
Eileen Claussen

Summary: Cancun Climate Change Conference

Download the summary (pdf)


Sixteenth Session of the Conference of the Parties to the
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
Sixth Session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol

November 29-December 10, 2010
Cancún, Mexico

Agreeing to put aside for now issues that have stalemated international climate talks for years, governments meeting at the U.N. Climate Conference in Cancún, Mexico, approved a set of decisions anchoring national mitigation pledges, and taking initial steps to strengthen finance, transparency, and other elements of the multilateral climate framework.

In large measure, the Cancún Agreements import the essential elements of the Copenhagen Accord into the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), including mitigation pledges and operational elements such as a new Green Climate Fund for developing countries and a system of “international consultations and analysis” to help verify countries’ actions. Agreement hinged on finding a way to finesse the more difficult questions of if, when, and in what form countries will take binding commitments. The final outcome leaves all options on the table and sets no clear path toward a binding agreement.

Click here for a complete summary of the Cancún Agreements.

The summary was written by Elliot Diringer, Vice President for International Strategies, with contributions from International Fellows Kate Cecys and Namrata Patodia Rastogi.

Additional International Reports and Policy Briefs related to COP 16.

Cancún Can

This post orginally appeared in the Opinio Juris blog.

Oh, how much difference a year — and lower expectations — make!

The BBC report on the Cancún meeting declared that “if Copenhagen was the Great Dane that whimpered, Cancún has been the Chihuahua that roared.” Never mind that the Great Dane’s whimper was about the same decibel level as the Chihuahua’s roar. Last year, expectations were sky high for a new legal agreement that would extend, complement or replace the Kyoto Protocol, so the non-binding Copenhagen Accord was a major disappointment. This year expectations for the Cancún Conference were extremely low, so an outcome that essentially incorporates the Copenhagen Accord into the UNFCCC process is seen as a big win.

Statement: Cancún Climate Talks Take Steps to Strengthen Climate Action

Statement of Elliot Diringer
Vice President, International Strategies, Pew Center on Global Climate Change

December 11, 2010

The Cancún agreement demonstrates that the multilateral climate process can produce tangible results. For too long, parties have acted as if it’s binding or nothing and we’ve gotten nothing. Finally we’re seeing some modest but real steps to strengthen climate action.
Ultimately we need a comprehensive binding climate treaty, but there are fundamental differences among countries over how and when we get there. Thankfully they were willing to put those differences aside for now and agree on incremental steps that will deliver stronger action in the near term and lay the foundation for binding commitments down the road.

The Cancún agreement formalizes the fundamental elements of the Copenhagen Accord and starts to implement them. Key among these are a stronger support system for developing countries, including a new climate fund, and a stronger transparency system to better assess whether countries are keeping their promises. Both will build trust and confidence, which will help produce stronger action and agreements in the future.

The agreement also incorporates the targets and actions pledged earlier under the Copenhagen Accord. This marks the first time all of the world’s major economies have made explicit mitigation pledges under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change since its negotiation nearly two decades ago.

Much work remains ahead to strengthen countries’ efforts and fully implement these new mechanisms. But a year after the crisis of confidence in Copenhagen, the Mexican government deserves real credit for resuscitating the multilateral climate effort. Cancún has restored trust and, hopefully, represents the start of a new, more productive phase in the global effort.

Cancún Climate Conference Resources

Pew Center Contact: Tom Steinfeldt, 703-516-4146

Why Cancún Delivered

This post also appears in National Journal's Cancún Insider blog.

CANCUN – So what accounts for Cancún’s success?  I can see a number of factors that thankfully conspired to produce the most tangible progress in the U.N. climate talks in years.

The first, without doubt, is the savvy and skill of the Mexican diplomatic corps. The Mexicans have been widely praised for doing their utmost to keep the negotiations inclusive and above-board. Less noted, but equally important, was the firm hand they maintained in the crucial closing hours. Taking the very practical view that consensus does not mean strict unanimity, they refused to allow a vocal minority to impede the will of the vast majority. In short, they ensured that everyone had their say, even if all didn’t get their way.

The Challenge to Change: COP16 Survey on Climate and Communications

Download the fact sheet (pdf)

Download the presentation of the survey findings (pdf)

A survey released by the government of Mexico and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change reveals COP16 attendees’ attitudes on key issues when it comes to climate change, including the biggest barriers to action, the most trusted and effective sources for information on the issue, and the need for activating the general public. Nearly all those gathered for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun believe that real international action on climate change will not happen without strong public support, yet most also believe that the general public doesn’t understand the meaning of “climate change.”

Running out of time

When it comes to the human impact on climate change, COP16 attendees say that we are already suffering some irreversible impacts.

  • The majority (56%) believe that irreversible harm has already been done to the planet.
  • Over half (54%) say that we are currently at a standstill in our efforts to limit human influences on climate change.
  • Eight in ten conference participants (83%) believe that countries will only undertake ambitious efforts to address climate change once they are actually suffering from the real consequences.
  • Nearly nine in ten (88%) agree that if we do not address climate change now, it will eventually become a trigger for global conflict and possibly war.

Perceived economic impact viewed as top barrier to increased engagement

  • Nine in ten conference participants (90%) agree that the global recession has made nations less willing to invest in addressing climate change, with over half (54%) saying that they strongly agree.
  • COP16 attendees report that the biggest barriers to governments taking effective joint action on climate change are the unwillingness to jeopardize industrial growth (64%) and take political risks at home (63%).
  • This sentiment is more prominent in developed countries than in developing countries.

More involvement needed from all stakeholders

When asked what constituencies need to be more involved, respondents ranked the general public number one, ahead of heads of state, business, NGOs and UN organizations.

  • The overwhelming majority of conference participants (94%) agree that climate change initiatives can only be effective with broad support from governments, business, NGOs, scientists and the public, with a full seven in ten (70%) strongly agreeing with this statement.
  • Conference participants report that there needs to be considerably more involvement by all parties, particularly the general public (84%), local community leaders (83%), and country leaders (83%).
  • Participants from developing countries are significantly more likely than those from developed countries to believe environmental NGOs and global organizations (UN, World Bank, WHO) should be more involved in climate change initiatives.

Engaging the public viewed as essential to effective action on climate change

Although many COP16 attendees deem the activation of the general public as important to elevating the issue of climate change, attendees agree that the public currently has a limited understanding of climate change and needs more education on the issue.

  • Nearly all conference participants (94%) agree that real action on climate change will never be made at the international governmental level without strong public support, with nearly two-thirds (64%) strongly agreeing with this statement.
  • However, six in ten conference participants (58%) believe that the general public does not understand the meaning of “climate change.” Only 5% said the public understands it “very well.”

Media play a crucial role in activating the general public

The survey revealed mixed views on the role of the mainstream media.

  • Over three-quarters of COP16 attendees (76%) report that the most effective means of reaching the general public to communicate about the need for global action to reduce the human impact on climate change is through mainstream media like television, newspapers, and magazines. Social media is also viewed as an effective means of reaching the public by nearly half of survey respondents (46%).
  • Yet, when asked to identify “the most trusted voices on the scale and impact of climate change globally,” only 24% named the media. A strong majority (87%) blamed unskillful media and opinion leaders for a lack of public understanding of climate change science.
  • Despite recent controversies over climate science, most respondents (66%) identified scientists as among the most trusted voices, well ahead of global organizations like the UN (42%), NGOs (41%), governments (24%) and business leaders (13%).

Key to effective change

  • The majority of conference participants believe that the most compelling cases for the need to address climate change are stories of human suffering due to extreme weather such as drought or floods (65%) and evidence that climate change will negatively affect the economy (54%).

About the Survey

The government of Mexico and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change commissioned a survey that gathered insights from COP16 attendees from around the world on their attitudes toward climate change. The study of 503 COP16 participants who completed the survey was conducted via iPad and paper surveys between November 27-30, 2010. Survey respondents included NGO representatives, government delegates, business leaders, bloggers, climate change experts, and think tank representatives who attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico. Only credentialed COP16 participants were included in the survey.

Back to Cancún - COP 16 page

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