Cancun conference recycles old excuses

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The outcome of the UN climate talks in Cancún, Mexico, is being spun as a success. Such claims can only be made because of the chronically low expectations before the conference.

After the devastating failure to reach an agreement at Copenhagen last year, negotiators are patting themselves on the back - not for real achievements in tackling climate change but simply for keeping the talks going for another year. There has once again been no agreement by the rich countries to legally binding emissions cuts that would reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The Cancún deal acknowledges that limiting temperature rises to 2 degrees centigrade is not enough. But holding rises to even 2 degrees centigrade would mean countries agreeing to ensure their emissions peak in the next ten years before a rapid reduction. Achieving this was not even part of the discussions in Cancún.

Meanwhile in the poorest parts of the world, such as Africa, where the consequences of climate change are already being felt, even a 2 degrees centigrade rise in temperature - the greatest ambition of the UN process - would spell disaster. In these areas life already operates at extreme temperatures. Further temperature increases mean food shortages, droughts, floods and the loss of millions of lives.

It is a reflection of how little has been achieved in Cancún that the reality of climate change for developing countries, symbolised by last year's devastating floods in Pakistan, made no impact on the decisions of the leaders of the developed world at the talks.

Instead the headlines from Cancún have focused on claims that the rich world will mobilise billions of dollars to help the poorest parts of the world mitigate and adapt to climate change. Developing countries have secured an agreement that a "green climate fund" will be set up and administered by the UN rather than the World Bank, which was the original proposal. But there is no agreement about where the money will come from.

The $100 billion promised by rich countries, about which much has been made in the press, is not money that will flow into the "green climate fund". Neither is it part of the official UN agreement. Instead it is described as an "aspiration", with any money that does materialise to be doled out by the rich countries with whatever strings they want to attach. US officials indicated, without irony, that this money would come from the private sector.

The current process of UN talks, which began four years ago, was established to secure a future for the Kyoto protocol which runs out in 2012. This year the discussions on what replaces Kyoto were again postponed with little sign that anything will change in the final year before Kyoto comes to an end. As John Vidal pointed out in the Guardian, "After four years of talking, politicians are congratulating themselves for doing nothing in 20 years."

The failure again to reach agreement to protect the planet from climate change is a failure not just of the individual politicians who are willing to ignore the compelling and urgent scientific advice on what needs to be done. It is also the failure of a system that puts the interests of the rich in the wealthiest parts of the world above the interests of the majority of the world's people and the needs of the planet.

The Bolivian ambassador said "history will judge harshly" the Cancún talks. "Compromise was made at the expense of the victims of climate change rather than the culprits...there is only one way to measure the success of a climate agreement and that is whether or not it effectively reduces emissions."

On this basis Cancún failed spectacularly, and there is nothing to suggest that future talks won't make the same compromises. Both the planet and the people on it have an urgent interest in ending the system that allows climate change talks to fail.