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This Week in Green – Dec. 13, 2010

Zoe’s weekly roundup of news, trends and issues affecting our environment and our planet’s future

By Geoff Grant – Zoe Environmental Editor

For the past two weeks, 194 countries gathered in Cancun, Mexico for the 13th annual conference on climate change. So the least we can do is devote This Week in Green to those efforts.

The UN climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico, ended Saturday and depending on your point of view, it was either wildly successful, a crushing failure or something in between.

If you’re a sunny optimist – no climate pun intended – then you might want to read about the “Cancun climate breakthrough” on Mother Jones. Or perhaps check out “Ministers hail ‘historic’ Cancun agreement” in the businessGreen.

If you see more clouds on your horizon, then you might prefer the perspective of the story headlined “Better than nothing, but not much” in The Independent. Or “No commitments in Cancun, India’s interests ‘protected'”in Sify News.

As with most political endeavors involving nearly 200 countries, the accord reached in Cancun was more nuanced, more subtle, more about compromise and more open to debate.

Nobody expected global warming to be solved in Cancun – and few predicted any breakthrough worldwide consensus – so the close of the 13th annual climate conference was seen instead as one more step in what promises to be a long process. In fact, the “process” of keeping climate talks alive was seen by many as the real winner. But realistically, we may not know the true impact from Cancun for years to come.

“We should not see this Cancun conference as an end. We should see it rather as a beginning,” said Patricia Espinosa, the minister of foreign affairs for Mexico and president of the summit. “The text we have before us really seems to be the best we could achieve at this point in a long process.”

On the bright side for those with sunny dispositions, the Cancun Agreement, as it’s being called, did accomplish a number of things. The countries agreed to develop new ways to share green energy technology, limit deforestation, and provide $100 billion annually to a global climate fund for developing countries. Perhaps most importantly, the pact gained commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions to levels set at last year’s meeting in Copenhagen. The agreement was approved by 193 countries with only Bolivia voting against it.

On the darker side, there’s no funding in place to pay for the $100 billion annually to poorer countries that is supposed to begin in 2020. Nor are there any targets for reducing the rate of deforestation or detailed plans that would monitor that.

And perhaps most importantly, the talks fell far short of the goal of putting concrete steps in place to try and reduce global warming over the next 50 years.

“I speak from a country whose survival is dependent on any deal we get here. Nobody can doubt what sort of interest I have when I speak about the outcome of this conference,” said Mohamed Aslam, environment minister for the Maldives. “It is a negotiation. Therefore we don’t get everything we want. There are compromises.”

That’s because the Cancun Agreement lacks mandatory targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In lieu of those mandatory targets, the 193 countries made “pledges,” none of which are legally binding.

The only legally binding agreement in place is the Kyoto Protocol, and that document, which expires in 2012, may die a slow death. Whether that is a good or bad thing may be the legacy of Cancun.

“The biggest hole in the Cancun agreement is its failure to permanently resolve the Kyoto conflict. To be fair, that would have been an impossible task this year,” said Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But Kyoto will come back as a front burner issue next year in Durban (South Africa), and it will be impossible to avoid it again.”

The Kyoto Protocol, an accord reached in 1997 by 37 countries – most of the leading industrialized nations, save for the U.S., China, India and Brazil – set legally binding emission targets.

While the Cancun Agreement has lower emission targets and the more modest “pledges” from countries, those countries now include the U.S. and China, the planet’s two biggest leaders in carbon emissions whose participation is essential for significant progress.

“What we have now is text that, while not perfect, is certainly a good basis for moving forward,” said U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern.

Of course, “moving forward” means waiting until next year’s conference in Durban to try and hammer out more details, more binding agreements, and more real progress.

In the meantime, global warming waits for no one.