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Climate talks deal in Cancun - experts respond

SMC Alert

Climate talks deal in Cancun - experts respond

Over the weekend, delegates at UN climate talks adopted the 'Cancun Agreements', laying the groundwork for an extension to Kyoto commitments and reviving fading hopes for an outcome from international climate negotiations.

The package of agreements includes a further commitment to keep average global temperature increases to below 2°C and financial support for developing countries to reduce their emissions and develop new green technology.

Comments from local and overseas experts are below.

Associate Professor Euan Mason, School of Forestry, University of Canterbury comments:

"The Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) programme is welcome as a way to reduce deforestation, which has been estimated to contribute up to 17% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, but it further confuses the definition of a carbon credit.

"Carbon credits awarded for not doing something are quite different from those awarded for sequestering carbon dioxide.

"Take, for example, a company that emits 100,000 tonnes of CO2-e/year through deforestation. The company could purchase 100,000 units obtained from carbon sequestration and then proclaim that it is greenhouse gas (GHG) neutral. Alternatively, it could reduce emissions by 50,000 tonnes/annum and under REDD+ earn 50,000 carbon credits. It could then use those 50,000 carbon credits to offset the balance of its emissions and proclaim that it is GHG neutral. In the former case the company is truly GHG neutral while in the latter case it has net emissions of 50,000 CO2-e/annum."

Prof Martin Manning, Director - Climate Change Research Institute, Victoria University of Wellington comments:

"The UNFCCC meeting in Cancun reached a clearer basis for proceeding with the international collaboration that is necessary for dealing with climate change, but it has not resolved some of the key issues. The new Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres, had stressed that developing a clearer mutual approach to the issues was essential, but that this might take time.

"In the meantime changes in our climate have not slowed down and 2010 is clearly the warmest year on record in the northern hemisphere, even though parts of Europe and Russia had extreme cold weather and very heavy snow in the first two months of the year. Bolivia has recently lost a major part of its water supply as glaciers disappeared even faster than climate scientists had expected, so it is not surprising that they were strongly critical of the outcome at Cancun. Their concern raises the question of whether developing a mutual approach for major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can keep up with the rates of change in our environment.

"Cancun also raised the issue of whether or not the Kyoto Protocol can continue its original aim of having the developed countries reduce emissions first and so lead the way into new technology. Japan has adopted a strong position against continuing with this protocol, despite the fact that Tokyo is putting together a plan for a 25% reduction in their own greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. The argument is that China and the USA are responsible for far more emissions than are controlled under the Kyoto protocol, so a broader approach is now essential.

"There is very little coverage in the media of major moves coming from the private sector who also had a meeting in Cancun that strengthened collaboration on addressing climate change. The Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC), which most people will never have heard of, controls more than 15 trillion dollars in investment, more than the entire GDP of the United States, and they now propose to push substantially more capital investment into the development of energy efficiency and renewable energy.

"So while Cancun was a definite improvement on the meeting a year earlier in Copenhagen, there is still a need to quickly resolve major questions on the policy side and to strengthen its links to the growing potential for investments in new energy technologies."

The following comments were gathered by our colleagues at the UK and AusSMCs.

Dr Chris Huntingford from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said:

"Cancun also implies emerging challenges for the scientific community. Much research on the climate system and its response to increasing levels of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations has focused on general levels of global warming, and relatively broad-brush assessments of expected regional changes to weather patterns. However with funds set aside for adaptation to climate change, very precise assessments of how best to spend this are required. The monies must maximise the chances of continuity in water supplies, food security and the general safety of populations from other potential hazards such as sea-level rise or alterations to rainfall extremes.

"Emissions verification has been discussed in Cancun, and this most likely will first occur at the actual sources of carbon-dioxide being released in to the atmosphere. However, if this becomes a more general aspiration of future climate change summits, then the use of satellites combined with models of atmospheric dynamics will be needed. Such a system will itself need verification of its accuracy, requiring significant co-operation between different government researchers and with the builders of satellite technology."

Dr Roger Jones, Professorial Research Fellow in the Centre for Strategic Economic Studies at the Victoria University comments:

"The agreement at Cancun is more mature than any previous climate agreement. The parties have wisely concluded that having a process that can achieve an emissions target is more important than a target without process. The provision of US$30 billion fast start finance by 2012 and US$100 billion by 2020, and an agreed plan to co-ordinate adaptation internationally are all welcome. Although emissions targets are not a specific part of this agreement, the 2°C target for warming is maintained. An agreement to investigate a warming target of 1.5°C recognises the role of science in assessing the ongoing risk of climate change.

"Politics in individual countries will continue to frustrate the setting of substantially lower targets in those countries, e.g. in both the US and Australia. However, we now have a process that can turn the cost of abatement into the benefit of avoided future damages. This will transform the economy and allow successively lower targets to be achieved in time. Globally, opponents of climate science and the UNFCCC treaty process are very few but have undue influence in the press, in pockets of industry and in politics. There is no place for their views in the new economy."

Dr Barrie Pittock, CSIRO Honorary Fellow and former leader of the CSIRO Climate Impacts Group comments:

"The press release from the UN Conference at Cancun is indeed good news. It indicates that all countries represented at Cancun are concerned to do something to reduce human-induced climate change. Both developed and developing countries recognise that there is an urgent problem and that action is needed. Indeed major developing countries are already developing renewable energy and reducing emissions of carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced.

"What it means for Australia is that we, as one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases per head of population, should try harder to reduce our emissions. It is in no country's long-term interest to have serious climate change and sea-level rise. We must all work together to achieve emissions reductions. This is best achieved by making alternatives to the use of coal and oil competitive through start-up subsidies and other incentives so that these alternatives become economically competitive with old technologies. We are facing a technological revolution and need to get in the forefront if we are to be winners."

Professor John Quiggin, Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in the school of economics at the University of Queensland comments:

"The Cancun agreement delivers some modest progress, and gives governments the chance to recover from their failure at Copenhagen. In particular, it provides a process by which developed-country governments can formalise their commitments to emissions reductions targets. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that the targets currently being proposed are sufficient to prevent dangerous global warming. However, the Agreement increases the chance of at least some significant mitigation effort being undertaken, and provides a framework for funding adaptation efforts in developing countries."


Note to editors

The Science Media Centre (SMC) is an independent source of expert comment and information for journalists covering science and technology in New Zealand. Our aim is to promote accurate, evidence-based reporting on science and technology by helping the media work more closely with the scientific community. The SMC is an independent centre established by the Royal Society of New Zealand with funding from the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology. The views expressed in this Science Alert are those of the individuals and organisations indicated and do not reflect the views of the SMC or its employees. For further information about the centre, or to offer feedback, please email us at


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