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Cancun Climate Summit: The Shape of Things to Come?

RP Siegel | Tuesday December 14th, 2010 | 1 Comment

The Cancun Climate Summit (aka UNFCCC COP16) wrapped up this past weekend. Expectations were sufficiently low that the fact that they managed to reach an agreement could be considered a success, especially in the light of last year’s meltdown in Copenhagen. The process managed to eke out enough progress to justify its own future existence and perhaps a tad more while falling far short of creating the kind of consensus that is desperately needed if we are to fully engage this problem at all levels.

A summary of opinions put together by Caitlin Dickson at the Atlantic included the following list, linked to their sources, which probably captures the overall reaction pretty well:

As a matter of international governmental policy, the summit is a hollow victory, which keeps the process alive, while allowing the Kyoto protocol to expire in 2012, unless rescued before then, and it asks very little of anyone, except perhaps, that they continue coming to the meetings. Some agreements were reached on forest protection and aid to developing countries,  though it remains to be seen if these will be fully implemented.  Indeed as Ron Bailey said, the parties essentially kicked the can down the road. I agree except that I would substitute the word “runway” for “road” because unlike a road, this is something that has an end coming up quickly and if we have not gained sufficient altitude by the time we get there, we are going to be in trouble.

There is another perspective, however. Fortunately for all of us, this conference has begun to develop a business track that runs parallel to government track, and this track might be succeeding where the government efforts are failing.

Andrew Winston, an occasional contributor to 3P, was down there following the business track and what he saw sounds a lot more like good news. New this year at the summit were the Gigaton Awards, a kind of mini-Oscars for green businesses that was put together by Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room and the World Climate Summit and organized by Sunil Paul. The awards are meant to recognize gigaton (one billion ton) scale contributions to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Considering that the entire planet currently emits a total of 48 gigatons, a reduction of one gigaton would truly be a significant contribution. And yet scientists say that we need to cut at least 14 gigatons of greenhouse gas to stand at least a 50/50 chance of suffering relatively small scale disruptions due to climate change. The winners were Nike, 3M, Suzlon, Vodafone, Reckitt Benckiser Group, and GDF Suez, with 3M taking the Best In Class award.

While this was great to see, none of these companies are yet at the gigaton level. However an announcement by Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent, who, speaking on behalf of the Consumer Goods Forum and its board of 50 CEOs, seemed to raise the ante to something approaching that level when he announced some ambitious goals for the sector. These included:

  1. no net deforestation around the world
  2. a phase out of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants

The combined effect of meeting these two goals would be in the gigaton scale range.

So, as government efforts stall out in an ideological quagmire in which far too many politicians are too hell-bent to do whatever that have to do to support the business interests that are paying for their election campaigns for them to support meaningful climate legislation, other segments of the business community have to a large extent picked up the ball and are carrying it forward. Perhaps this will be the shape of things to come for a while.

People talk about raising awareness, but I don’t think awareness is the problem. I think getting people sufficiently motivated so that they will take meaningful action is the problem. Do we need the government to make this happen? In many cases, no, but in some cases yes.

Unfortunately, there will always be those that require a threat of punishment to motivate them, but there is a lot that can be done until the lawmakers finally come around, including moving as many people as we can out of that category. It seems to be happening every day, a few souls at a time.

RP Siegel is the co-author of the critically acclaimed eco-thriller Vapor Trails. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • http://www.easyepc.org EPC

    Tragically it seems that we are not going to get anywhere close to achieving the kinds of cuts that the science says are needed to mitigate against runaway climate change. The trouble is that parties with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo have no problem convincing the public that their rampantly consumerist ways are not to blame. People love you to tell them what they want to hear.

    It is great that many businesses are taking the lead in reducing carbon emissions, but without enforcement from governments these will always be in the minority, and I fear this will be to little to late.