Lesotho's representative wearing an anti Canadian shirt in Cancun

Lesotho's representative wearing an anti Canadian shirt in Cancun

In Cancun a dominant theme seems to be cautious flexibility. True, signaling flexibility shows a good faith effort toward achieving agreement. Even Saudi Arabia has been less direct about their opposition to any policies that would reduce their petroleum exports, although no one believes Saudi Arabia will become a climate champion any time soon.

One certain negative indication, however, is that the bloc called the Umbrella Group refuses to acknowledge that the combined pollution reduction pledges for 2020 fall far short of avoiding runaway climate change. This inadequacy of pollution targets we call the 'gigaton gap.' A recent report from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says that with current collective targets the global target of avoiding 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature is impossible. According to UNEP, humans need to be polluting no more than 44 gigatons of greenhouse gas by 2020, but the collective target will result in between 49 and 53 gigatons. UNEP is actually being overly generous, it's more likely we should be emitting less than 40 gigatons by then and shooting for 1.5 degrees.

Of course, the Umbrella Group contains the United States and Canada, the first having the worst record on climate emissions and the latter having one of the largest increase in rates of emissions among wealthy countries in recent years. The Umbrella Group is comprised of countries that do not fall easily into groups of countries tied by geography or economic interests. Geographically-associated blocs include the European Union, the Arab States, the Africa Group, and Latin America. Groups with shared economic interests include Small Island Developing States (SIDS), the  Least Developed Countries (LDCs), and the group of 77 developing countries (G77). The Umbrella Group is a hodgepodge that includes Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Kazakhstan, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine.

The utter lack of ambition to reduce global warming pollution in the United States and Canada is old news, but ambition levels vary with other Umbrella Group members. Some have already noted the gigaton gap, but not within the context of their membership of this bloc. It is potentially disastrous if these countries continue to let their position (or silence) in Cancun on the gigaton gap be determined by the two worst climate actors. Not that Australia is a champion, but at least Norway, Iceland, and New Zealand know better.

The worrying precedent of the Umbrella Group ignoring the gigaton gap will be compounded if none of the other blocs begin harping on the 2020 targets. Grenada, on the part of AOSIS, mentioned only a 'long term global goal' as vital to be agreed in Cancun. The reference by Grenada to a 'robust scientific review' of targets only implies that the 2020 target is weak. This forebodes a compromise we have seen in the United States on climate legislation, which is where we are expected to accept a weak 2020 target in exchange for being able to strengthen it, in theory, if the scientific review process finds the goal insufficient. 

The now dead US legislation – as with the US target announced in Copenhagen – became locked in at an abysmal 3% below 1990 levels. This is lower than the target on which the US reneged with their historic and  illegal 'unsigning' of the Kyoto Protocol. Even if the US had achieved climate legislation with the ability to strengthen the target based on scientific review, and knowing already about the gigaton gap whether or not they acknowledged it, the same political process would have to work to strengthen it later.

Canada is the only country who signed the Kyoto Protocol and has no intention to respect those commitments, and is also the only one who, after Copenhagen, decided to pledge a weaker GHG target than before. The Canadian government came to Cancun with no plan to achieve its even weaker target and has no intention to take more ambitious measures domestically to tackle climate change.

Two weeks ago, the Climate Change Accountability Act which aimed at reducing GHG by 25% below 1990 levels by 2020 was killed by unelected Conservative Senators, despite that it had been passed twice in the House of Commons. One of the reasons why Canada tries to undermine an ambitious, fair and legally binding agreement on climate is because of the tar sands whose production is planned to be multiplied by 3 to 5 times by 2020 to fuel the US market (among others). Even worse, it was recently revealed Canada wants to kill any ambitious climate policy in the US as revealed recently.

Although flexibility is important to achieving agreement, any agreement will be useless if it doesn't include pollution targets that avoid runaway global warming. While Canada will not reduce GHGs at all compared to 1990 levels, the US position means it will reduce a little over one gigaton of CO2 emissions by 2020, and that the other 5 to 9 gigatons must be dealt with by developing countries or by the EU and other countries, perhaps even those in the Umbrella Group. Some of these countries have already been reducing emissions since 1990.

Countries in the Umbrella Group who accept this reality must peel away from the disastrous US and Canadian positions. Other blocs like AOSIS must start asking for clarity on how 2020 targets will be shored up to close the gigaton gap. Otherwise, the North American countries not hosting this year's climate talks will succeed in dragging everyone else down – and the planet with them.

This blog was co-written by Kyle Ash, Senior Legislative Representative at Greenpeace USA.