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Climate talks in Cancún, Mexico: A step forward?

10th February 2011

By: In On Africa IOA

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The auspicious 2010 United Nations climate-change conference took place in Cancún, Mexico from 29 November to 10 December.(2) This conference was promising, as its precursor in Copenhagen (2009) failed to produce a commitment among attending Governments to a legally binding treaty to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions after the expiry of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change in 2012. Copenhagen only produced a non-binding Accord – of which world Governments took note – concerning climate change adaptation and mitigation plans.


Therefore, attendees in Cancún were anxiously awaiting an improved outcome in the form of a real, legally binding commitment among leaders to combat the effects of climate change. Unfortunately, in this regard, the conference disappointed and only paved the way for future climate talks. Many nations are suffering the environmental consequences believed to be associated with climate change. Africa, with its vast tracts of forest, is among the most vulnerable to these consequences, as many poor people are dependent on its natural resources. New policies and plans adopted at these conferences, specifically those addressing deforestation and agricultural practices, might therefore affect Africa and its people in numerous ways.

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This paper provides an overview of the climate change conference held in Cancún. It highlights how current climate-change policies and plans might affect sub-Saharan Africa and its local people. The author particularly examines recent pilot reduction of deforestation and degradation (REDD) projects in Africa. He hints that recent climate-change conferences, including the one in Cancún, only add expectations and postpone serious climatic decisions to future conferences. In the process, developing countries seem to eagerly adopt internationally financed projects such as REDD schemes, while the foundations upon which these are built seem to be fragile.


The disappointing non-binding Cancún agreements

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Taking note of climate change, the inception in 1992 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) instigated annual conventions - labelled the Conference of the Parties (COP) - to deal with important future decisions on climate change.(3) The first conference was held in Berlin in 1995 (COP1),(4) and what followed was the cornerstone of climate-change policies, namely the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 by the UNFCCC.(5) The UN conference in Cancún,(6) attended by about 200 countries’ Governments, encompassed the sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP16). With many critics describing its forerunner in Copenhagen as a failure to set future GHG emission-reduction binding limits for each country, Cancún met with high expectations from worldwide leaders, bystanders and the media.


The Copenhagen conference (COP15), held from 7 to 18 December 2009,(7) built upon the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. The latter set binding targets for 37(8) industrialised countries’ emission reductions in a vigorous attempt by the UN to tackle climate change.(9) This Protocol, instigated by the UNFCCC in Japan, came into force in 2005 and expires in 2012 when its first commitment period ends.(10) It established several mechanisms to be implemented by both developing and developed nations to reduce their GHG emissions. Emission trading has become one of its key elements, whereby schemes such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Joint Implementation (JI) allow developed nations to assist developing countries in projects aimed at reducing GHG emissions. In this process, developed nations ‘earn’ excess GHG emission ‘points’ from developing countries to meet their own GHG emission reduction targets. This complex process has been described in a previous paper in this series.(11)


Several issues were unresolved in Copenhagen, such as the future of the Kyoto Protocol and collective emission-reduction targets for countries. The conference produced the Copenhagen Accord, which was only noted by countries attending the conference.(12) Basically, developed countries have taken the blame for contributing the most to climate change and accepted an obligation to provide funding to developing countries to adapt to or mitigate the effects of climate change.(13) New topics were also introduced or re-negotiated, e.g. REDD projects to be piloted in developing countries with aid from wealthier nations. However, certain aspects of this financing mechanism were not adequately resolved in Copenhagen, leading many critics to question the UN’s ability to foster real change among world leaders as regards the ability/willingness to deal with climate change. Some even hailed the conference and the weak non-binding Accord as ‘disastrous’.(14)


Against this background, Cancún met with high expectations from many parties, but produced what some critics believe to be a weak, non-binding outcome, labelled the Cancún Agreement. The latter - produced on 11 December - was adopted by more than 190 Governments.(15) The Agreement both recognises the need for deeper emission cuts (without outlining how these are to be brought about(16)) and reinforces promises made by developed nations to assist developing countries with projects to defend themselves against climate change, with one key element of these projects being the negotiation of a “green climate” fund(17)(18) intended to raise finances by 2020. More importantly, most attending Governments agreed to boost their actions aimed at assisting developing countries in curbing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. These actions involved channelling available finances and technologies in the form of REDD projects.(19) REDD projects have been at the centre of UNFCCC’s agenda since COP13, held in Indonesia in 2007.(20)


Beyond Cancún: ground level implications for sub-Saharan Africa


The Cancún conference has serious social implications for the world’s poor, who are already finding it difficult to adapt to a changing climate. This is because many tropical regions - which contribute the least to climate change - are estimated by scientists to be the most vulnerable to extreme weather such as floods or droughts. In Africa, the dire food crises coincide with the impacts of a changing climate, all of which alter grasslands, forests or marine ecosystems.(21) As climate pressure increases, so does the impact of humans who utilise these natural environments. Forests, such as the Congo Basin in Africa (the second largest tropical rainforest in the world), are estimated to shelter 1.6 million people who depend on these natural resources for their livelihoods.(22)


The Cancún conference was attended by many lobbying groups around the world who support projects to provide incentives to developing countries to conserve their rainforests.(23) As rainforests produce about 15% of the world’s total carbon emissions(24), conserving them became a priority during the COPs. REDD projects have provided these incentives. Probably the country at the forefront of these projects’ developments has been Indonesia, who is presumably attracted by the monetary gain – provided by developed countries – to be earned from changing their indigenous logging practices, for example.(25) Developed countries can now provide financial aid and technology transfers to developing nations by assisting in forest projects. These may include reforestation or changing agricultural practices, all of which should provide incentives to prevent forest loss – which adds carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Although the development of REDD projects enjoyed centre stage in Cancún, many of its financial issues have not been resolved. One key issue is whether such projects should be implemented at a country’s national or sub-national level, for example.(26)


Africa contains about 635 million hectares (Ha) of forest. It is therefore not surprising that countries such as Ghana, Liberia, Tanzania, Zambia and the Congo Basin are all currently implementing REDD pilot projects.(27) Tanzania for instance is implementing these in several regions – such as Shinyanga, which is prone to deforestation, agricultural expansion and the unsustainable usage of wood by local inhabitants.(28) One project in this region aims to promote sustainable resource management in order to reduce GHG emissions from deforestation in the area’s dry miombo and acacia natural ecosystems.(29) The Republic of Congo also seems to embrace REDD initiatives, as the Government joined other Congo Basin countries during previous UNFCCC negotiations on REDD.(30)


Although REDD projects in Africa might provide a means to both protect forests and encourage socio-economic development, some opponents express concern that these projects would mean that ownership of the forests could pass to developed nations who provide aid and technology.(31) Such projects might, for example, put an economic value upon carbon-producing trees, which indirectly transforms to a new form of ownership. This concern seems reasonable considering that a state such as the Republic of Cameroon is the sole guardian and manager of all forests in the country.(32) REDD projects might then only further marginalise local forest inhabitants from ownership or even access to forest land. Some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working with these communities have expressed similar apprehensions,(33) while Africa’s weak governance and financial incapacity to respond to such international projects with their own demands, add to REDD projects’ ability to create a new ownership of Africa’s forests in particular.


Conclusion


At Cancún, the lead U.S. climate negotiator, Todd Stern, commented that, “[o]bviously this package is not going to solve climate change by itself, but it is a good step forward”.(34) However, the Cancún conference on climate change did little to resolve key issues on climate change, such as providing new binding commitments for countries to reduce their GHG emissions post-Kyoto. At the same time, both the Copenhagen and Cancún conferences cast some doubt upon the UN’s ability to foster real commitment among world leaders to damp GHG emissions. Pilot forest conservation projects have been firmly established in countries in Africa. In the process, many opponents of these projects express fear that these will only entrench a sense of an old colonial-style ownership of these forests, marginalising local forest inhabitants’ rights to access.


As key issues pertaining to REDD projects have not been resolved in Cancún, the author sees these projects currently to be fragile in their ability to really conserve forests in Africa. In addition, Africa’s independence might be at stake. The next step forward, COP17, is scheduled to take place in Durban in South Africa from 28 November to 9 December 2011.


NOTES:


(1) Contact Jan Anton Hough through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Eyes on Africa Unit (eyesonafrica@consultancyafrica.com).
(2) ‘Press release: UN climate change conference in Cancún delivers balanced package of decisions, restores faith in multilateral process’, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2010, http://unfccc.int.
(3) Breidenich, C., Magraw, D., Rowley, A. & Rubin, J.W., 1998. Current developments: The Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The American Journal of International Law, 92(2): 315-331.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Huettner, M., Freibauer, A., Haug, C. & Cantner, U., 2010. Regaining momentum for international climate policy beyond Copenhagen. Carbon Balance and Management, 5(2):1-8.
(6) ‘Cancún climate summit: yet another opportunity lost’, guardian.co.uk, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(7) Dimitrov, R.S. 2010. Inside UN climate change negotiations: the Copenhagen Conference. Review of Policy Research, 27(6):795-820.
(8) ‘Kyoto Protocol’, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2010, http://unfccc.int.
(9) David Biello, ‘Cancun talks yield climate compromise’, Scientific American, 2010, http://www.scientificamerican.com.
(10) Dimitrov, R.S. 2010. Inside UN climate change negotiations: the Copenhagen Conference. Review of Policy Research, 27(6):795-820.
(11) Jan Anton Hough. ‘Carbon trading: the real threat facing Africa?’, Consultancy Africa Intelligence, 2010, http://www.consultancyafrica.com.
(12) Rogelj, J., Chen, C., Nabel, J., Macey, K., Hare, W.l., Schaeffer, M., Markmann, K., Höhne, N., Andersen, K.K. and Meinshausen, M. 2010. Analysis of the Copenhagen Accord pledges and its global climatic impacts – a snapshot of dissonant ambitions. Environmental Research Letters, 5(3):1-9.
(13) Dimitrov, R.S. 2010. Inside UN climate change negotiations: the Copenhagen Conference. Review of Policy Research, 27(6):795-820.
(14) Ibid.
(15) David Biello, ‘Cancun talks yield climate compromise’, Scientific American, 2010, http://www.scientificamerican.com.
(16) ‘UN climate change talks in Cancun agree a deal’, BBC, 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk
(17) Ibid.
(18) David Biello, ‘Cancun talks yield climate compromise’, Scientific American, 2010, http://www.scientificamerican.com..
(19) ‘Press release: UN climate change conference in Cancún delivers balanced package of decisions, restores faith in multilateral process’, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2010, http://unfccc.int.
(20) Hufbauer, G.C. & Kim, J., 2010. Reaching a global agreement on climate change: What are the obstacles? Asian Economic
Policy Review, 5(1):39-58.
(21) Bunce, M., Rosendo, S. and Brown, K. 2010. Perceptions of climate change, multiple stressors and livelihoods on marginal African coasts. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 12(3):407-440.
(22) Brown, H.C.P., Nkem, J.N., Sonwa, D.J. and Bele, Youssoufa. 2010. Institutional adaptive capacity and climate change response in the Congo Basin forests of Cameroon. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 15(3):263-282.
(23) ‘Cancún climate summit: yet another opportunity lost’, guardian.co.uk, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(24) Ibid.
(25) Myles Estey, ‘Climate conference ends with deforestation agreement’, Global Post, 2010, http://www.globalpost.com.
(26) Ibid.
(27) ‘Forestry and REDD in Africa’, Joto Africa, 2010, http://community.eldis.org.
(28) ‘Reducing emissions through agroforestry’, Joto Africa, 2010, http://community.eldis.org.
(29) Ibid.
(30) Brown, H.C.P., Nkem, J.N., Sonwa, D.J. and Bele, Youssoufa. 2010. Institutional adaptive capacity and climate change response in the Congo Basin forests of Cameroon. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 15(3):263-282.
(31) Myles Estey, ‘Climate conference ends with deforestation agreement’, Global Post, 2010, http://www.globalpost.com.
(32) Brown, H.C.P., Nkem, J.N., Sonwa, D.J. and Bele, Youssoufa. 2010. Institutional adaptive capacity and climate change response in the Congo Basin forests of Cameroon. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 15(3):263-282.
(33) Ibid.
(34) David Biello, ‘Cancun talks yield climate compromise’, Scientific American, 2010, http://www.scientificamerican.com.


Written by Jan Anton Hough (1)
 

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