Broken Umbrella in Cancun

by Kyle Ash

December 1, 2010

Lesotho representative wears anti-Canada shirt


This blog was co-authored by Virginie Lambert-Ferry from Greenpeace Canada.

In Cancun a dominant theme seems to be cautious flexibility. True, signaling flexibility shows a good faith effort toward achieving agreement. Even Saudia Arabia has been less direct about their opposition to any policies that would reduce their petroleum exports, although no one believes Sauda 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 the pollution targets we call the ‘gigaton gap.’ A recent report of 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 targets will result in between 49 and 53 gigatons. UNEP actually is overly polite as 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 is the one containing the United States and Canada, the countries with worst record on climate emissions and one of the highest increased rates of emissions from wealthy countries in recent years, respectively. 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 during the so-called Cartagena Dialogue, 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 and Iceland 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 Alliance of Small Island States (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 who has no intention to respect its 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. And one of the reasons why Canada tries to undermine an ambitious, fair and legally binding agreement on climate is because the tar sands production is planned to be multiplied by 3 to 5 times by 2020 to fuel the US market (among others). Even worse, Canada wants to kill any ambitious climate policy in the US as revealed recently.

Although flexibility is important to achieving agreement, it 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 in the Umbrella Group. Some of these countries have already been reducing emissions since 1990, while the US would have reduced nothing if it weren’t for the recessions. 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.

Photo: Lesotho Representative wears anti-Canada shirt

Kyle Ash

By Kyle Ash

Kyle Ash formerly served as Greenpeace's Legislative Policy Expert, responsible for domestic and international climate change policy analysis and campaign strategy. He has been quoted in Politico, Greenwire, the New York Times, and CNN, and was one of the most frequently quoted sources during the Copenhagen Climate Conference.

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