“Tangible” (if Minor) Progress in Cancun

Photo: Gretchen Weber

The UN climate talks in Cancun finally closed in the wee hours of Saturday morning with an agreement that doesn’t set new limits on greenhouse gases, but does move the discussion forward in key areas, such as funding to help developing nations deal with climate change and broad plans to reduce emissions by slowing deforestation in tropical areas. Continue reading

Climate Battle Takes to the Streets

In Cancun and San Francisco, a call for climate solutions from the ground up.

Photo: Gretchen Weber.

Chanting the Spanish equivalent of “The fight continues!”, hundreds of protesters made their way through the streets of downtown Cancun Tuesday, to call for dramatic action on climate change.  Located about an hour by bus away from the Moon Palace where the UN talks are being held, the procession brought together climate activists from around the world, members of Mexico’s indigenous communities, and dozens of journalists eager to report on one of the few major protests at COP16.

Coordinated by a network of climate groups who dubbed Tuesday a “Global Day of Action – 1,000 Cancuns,” the march was timed with demonstrations around the world, including one in San Francisco.  In Cancun, the marchers chanted, sang, beat drums, and danced in the streets, called for workers’ rights, protested inaction on global warming, and in some cases, denounced capitalism. Continue reading

Chu Tones it Down for Cancun

Energy Secretary takes the cautious route in Cancun; just part of the sideshow at COP16.

US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu appeared to pull some punches while speaking at the US Center in Cancun on Monday. (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

The UN climate negotiations in Cancun may be the official attraction, but in many ways, there’s just as much happening at the “side events” here at COP16.  There are dozens everyday — last week there were more than 150, and that number is increasing this week as more people arrive for the final days of the talks.  While the negotiations are limited to representatives from national governments, the side events provide a stage for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), scientists, business leaders, and local and regional government officials, many of them, it turns out, from California. Continue reading

New Google Tool Helps Monitor World’s Forests

Map of Mexico created with Google Earth Engine, by scientist Matthew Hansen and CONAFOR. Google says this is the finest-scale forest cover map produced of Mexico to date.

This week in Cancun, in a jungle-themed conference room with green lighting and an audio track of rain forest sounds, Google launched a new technology platform designed to help scientists — and ultimately developing countries — monitor deforestation. Google Earth Engine combines LandSat satellite imagery from the last 25 years (much of which was not previously available online) with analytical tools provided by scientists, which will allow users to make fine-scale maps.

Greg Asner of the Carnegie Institute at Stanford is one of Google’s partners in the project. His lab provided some of the algorithms built into the Earth Engine that will allow users to analyze the satellite data online.

“There have been two major bottlenecks in helping people to map and keep track of deforestation and degradation: getting access to the satellite data and making it user-friendly,” said Asner. Continue reading

Rich and Poor Collide in Cancun

Contrasts and bus connections in Cancun provide a metaphor for the climate talks going on there.

COP16 attendees waiting in line for the UN bus (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

For a conference aimed at lowering the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, COP16 sure looks like it has big carbon footprint.  Just the air travel alone for the thousands of people coming to Cancun from literally all over the world is a huge source of emissions.  But once you get here, the excess emissions continue.  Cancun’s hotel zone is one long line of huge beachfront resorts boasting luxury accommodations, all-you-can-eat buffets, and — in the case of my hotel — giant jacuzzi tubs in every bedroom, despite the sign on the bathroom sink suggesting that guests remember to conserve water.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), there isn’t really time for taking baths in enormous tubs, because attendees must spend so much time on the road.  Special UN buses are shuttling people back and forth between the Hotel Zone and the negotiations constantly, commutes made more arduous and carbon-intensive by the added miles and long circuitous routes the buses have to make due to security.  Most of the hotels are located north of the negotiations, but security to attend them is located to the south. Therefore, attendees must first travel south, then north (up the same road) to get into the conference.   A common conversation on the buses is wistfully recalling how wonderful it was at COP15 last year, when attendees could simply take public transit (or walk through the streets of Copenhagen) to reach the talks.

At least the long intervals spent standing in line at bus stops provide a chance to warm up in the hot sun and recover from the Arctic conditions inside the conference centers.  Despite the fact that attendees were encouraged to “dress down” this year: traditional Mexican shirts for men and cotton dresses for women, so that the venues could save emissions with less air conditioning, many of us are wearing jackets and sweaters inside the venues.

One journalist described this year’s conference to me as “an island within an island.”  Military blockades have closed roads at various points, diverting local traffic.  Because of the geography, it would be very easy for people to come to COP16 and never actually see the town of Cancun, which, is a far cry from the Hotel Zone.  There’s a sharp divide between rich and poor here, with the opulence of these resorts just a few miles from abject poverty — which may be a fitting metaphor for the climate talks themselves.

Rich nations and poor ones are, in many ways, lined up on opposite sides of a fence as they sort out how to level the field.  Last year, as part of the Copenhagen Accord, a coalition of developed nations, including the United States, agreed to provide funding to help developing nations deal with climate change: $30 billion by 2012 and $100 billion by 2020. A major issue at this conference is working out how to allocate this money. While much of that money has been pledged, much of it has yet to materialize.

While the United States is moving forward with building and solidifying the Copenhagen Accord, according to chief negotiator Johnathan Pershing, some people (and nations) are concerned that this path will not be enough to stop the Earth from warming to dangerous levels. Even UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, who heads the UN climate effort, said on Monday that if all the emissions-reduction promises made in the Copenhagen Accord were delivered, the world would be on track for warming more than the two degrees Celsius that the accord was designed to meet.

On Tuesday night I attended a community prayer vigil in downtown Cancun.  There were about 200 local people from different denominations, including Pentecostals and Catholics, gathered to sing songs and say prayers for the Earth.  Victor Menotti, head of the California-based International Forum on Globalization described the Copenhagen Accord as a path to “collective suicide.”

“The Copenhagen Accord doesn’t get us what we need in terms of emissions reductions, financing, and technology transfer,” he said. “All it is, is a collection of voluntary pledges that don’t add up.”

California Floats Plan B in Cancun

Photo: Gretchen Weber

After the hype and subsequent disappointment surrounding last year’s UN climate talks in Copenhagen, which failed to produce binding global agreement on emissions reductions, the expectations for this year’s talks, which open in Cancun, Mexico today, are much more modest.

“We’re not going to get a global, legally binding deal at Cancun,” UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced at the Governors’ Global Climate Summit at UC Davis earlier this month. “We’ve got to make it a staging post toward that deal.”

Rather than focusing on a comprehensive binding agreement, negotiators will likely focus on technical steps that could pave the way for a final deal at next year’s talks in South Africa, when the Kyoto Protocol expires. Those might include financing for developing nations to deal with climate change; setting standards for measuring, reporting, and verifying nations’ greenhouse gas emissions; and tackling emissions from deforestation.

Meanwhile, California is moving ahead with its plans to organize a network of sub-national cooperation, called the R20, which Governor Schwarzenegger announced in Copenhagen last year and officially launched at his summit in Davis two weeks ago.

“As a binding international agreement remains elusive, we know that there’s a lot of work that can be done at the sub-national level,” said Cal-EPA Secretary Linda Adams, who will be in Cancun promoting R20.  “In fact the UN itself says that up to 80% of all mitigation that will be required to keep the Earth’s temps stable will be done at the sub-national level.”

That work will primarily focus on organizing regional and local governments around to world to work together on clean energy projects, said Terry Tamminen, the former Cal-EPA chief who is currently leading R20 efforts.

“Basically our main purpose [at Cancun] is simply to say to them ‘Look, you’re not the only ones in this game, and we know you’re all frustrated because you haven’t been able to reach a successor agreement to Kyoto, but we at the subnational level are here to help. We’re going to be this bottom-up, even as you continue to try to get the top-down agreement and we’ll be waiting for you, whenever you show up,'” said Tamminen.

Over the last year, R20 has grown to include 69 governments and organizations, and Tamminen said he expects 100 members by the end of the year.  He said he’ll spend the next few months recruiting members, organizing structurally as an organization, lining up financing, and identifying projects that are “low-hanging fruit,” such as installing efficient street lighting, replacing old boilers with more efficient ones, and piloting waste-to-energy programs.

Tamminen said that Gov. Schwarzenegger plans to “devote a lot of his time” to R20 when he leaves office in January. 

“Next year in South Africa when the world meets, and the UN is once again looking for a global deal, you can imagine him taking center stage and saying, “Well, we’ve got a deal for you!” said Tamminen.

Gretchen Weber will remain in Cancun for the next two weeks, following the UN climate talks as a fellow with the Earth Journalism Network, a project of Internews. You can check back here, at the Climate Watch blog for dispatches, and follow her on Twitter at: