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Dwindling Hopes for Climate Accord

Heat waves and deadly floods notwithstanding, an effective global climate change treaty is not on the horizon.

Delegates from 190 countries gathered in Bonn last week for the UN Climate Change Confererence in preparation for the sixth meeting of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which will take place in Cancun, Mexico this November. In Cancun, world leaders are expected to craft a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, due to expire in 2012.

Yet already four months prior to the Cancun Summit, hopes for reaching a binding global climate accord are dwindling rapidly among negotiation insiders.

Clearly, the (perhaps overblown) global optimism prior to last year’s Copenhagen Summit, reinforced by hopes that newly elected US President Barack Obama would finally lead the world into a new, environmentally more responsible era, has all but vanished.

Despite Obama's support in principle for US action on climate change, the US Senate, trapped in the grip of special-interest groups and public campaigns against climate science led by powerful corporate interests, has so far dwarfed any attempts to pass climate legislation. The latest signal in this direction came on 22 July, when the US Senate abandoned efforts to pass a comprehensive climate change and energy bill. And if the Republicans gain new seats in the mid-term elections later this year, as widely predicted, the prospects for climate legislation in 2011 or 2012 continue to look dim.

Although climate change is a global problem, US policy on the issue will be crucial to move things forward. As long as the historically largest emitter of greenhouse gases fails to make a clear commitment to cut emissions, big developing countries like China and India are unlikely to move on this front.

Developing and developed nations again clashed in Bonn, this time on the issue of forest offsets - ie, the use of carbon markets to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD).

Last year's Copenhagen Accord endorsed the idea of creating market incentives through REDD and forest carbon trading, and developed nations have remained keen on implementing such a system. If a multilateral cap-and-trade agreement, modeled on the Kyoto Protocol but this time including developing nations, came into place, it would allow wealthy countries like the US to ‘cut’ their emissions not by actually reducing their own CO2 consumption but by buying carbon credits from other countries.

A July visit to South America by US Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern, has raised suspicions that the US is eying its forest-rich southern neighbors to do just that.

When visiting Peru this summer, Stern reportedly sought to secure collaboration between the US and Amazon Basin countries to create an ‘Amazon REDD’ program, which would eventually allow the US to purchase carbon credits from Amazon Basin countries to offset US greenhouse gas emissions at home.

However, carbon offsets are extremely difficult to both verify and quantify. Also, they can provide convenient loopholes for polluting nations to hide their actual increases in greenhouse gas emissions behind a veil of mathematical complexity. 

Furthermore, REDD would only compensate a country for those forested areas it was already planning to clear. It is a system that is ultimately based on hypotheticals that are impossible to adequately quantify.

Looking for easy solutions in other countries' backyards seems to be the current tactic adopted by wealthy nations. Yet although the idea that wealthy nations monetarily support forest conservation efforts in poor countries is commendable, it should not become a way for developed states to avoid cutting their domestic emissions.

Understandably, making radical transformations in one's own energy backyard is not a convenient thing to do in economically trying times. The problem is that Mother Nature doesn’t care about convenience.

By. Sara Kuepfer

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