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The climate change summit in Copenhagen last year was a disappointment for many. This is mainly because of the lack of a concrete document to take big steps towards reducing greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions and stopping climate change. Has the delegates’ experience on negotiations improved since then? Can the next meeting in Cancún deliver something more substantial than the non-biding Copenhagen Accord?

The upcoming conference of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), widely known as the UN Climate Change Conference will take place in less than a weeks time in Cancún, Mexico, between 29 November and 10 December 2010. What concrete actions have been taken since Copenhagen, considering that under the Copenhagen Accord reached last December, commitments and pledges were made on emissions cut up to 2020, but these are widely seen to be insufficient to meet the 2 degree Celsius warming limit?

Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Planning Robert Orr told journalists at the UN Headquarters in New York that he did not expect the conference to deliver a “final answer” on solving climate change but remained positive about the possibilities. “Significant progress is possible in Cancún,” he said. “That is not to say that we expect all issues to be resolved.”

A new report, coordinated by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), was published ahead of the Cancún conference. The findings highlighted the size of the “emissions gap” between where nations might be in 2020 against where the science indicates they need to be. “The results indicate that the UN meeting in Copenhagen could prove to have been more of a success than a failure if all the commitments, intentions and funding, including the pledges of developing economies, are met,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. He also pointed out that through negotiations, the current options on the table “can get us almost 60% of the way” to ambition levels.

It was estimated that in order to keep temperatures to or below 2 degrees C this century, global GHG emissions will have to peak within the next 10 years and be around 44 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2020. The UNEP report, which was produced by 30 leading scientists, stated GHG emissions could be cut to approximately 49 gigatonnes of CO2 by 2020, if the pledges made in Copenhagen were fully implemented. This is 5 gigatonnes above the level which must be achieved to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees C, which means more cuts must be made to close this gap. 

 “The report underlines both the feasibility of emission reductions and the importance of international cooperation to raise the current inadequate level of ambition,” said Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of UNFCCC. She appealed for governments meeting in Cancún to “anchor the pledges they made in Copenhagen” and work swiftly to reduce emissions in order to remain below a 2 degrees C temperature rise.

AlertNet Climate, the Thomson Reuters Foundation's daily news website on the human impacts of climate change reported various examples of how climate change might be already affecting many countries. The most affected are often those that are already impoverished. I have copied below some of AlertNet’s examples of what people are facing due to droughts and floods:

  • Many Chadian farmers hit by last year's devastating drought have lost their crops again and some villagers are so hungry they have resorted to raiding ant hills for tiny grains and seeds.
  • Every planting season, the women of a village near the Limpopo River, in Mozambique face a tough dilemma: cultivate the fertile lowlands and risk flooding, or cultivate higher ground and face losing crops to drought.
  • Emerging from his hut to yet another day of cloudless skies and scorching sun, Pusindawa Ndaskoi watches as hawks circle and feed on the carcasses of dead cattle scattered on the dusty ground. “We’ve had no good rains for the past eight years,” said Ndaskoi, 50, of Tanzania’s drought-hit Monduli district.
  • Pastoralists struggling with prolonged drought near Kenya's border with Somalia are sparking conflict at the region's remaining active wells as they drive their herds increasing distances in a desperate search for water.
  • Low rainfall, extended dry spells and warmer weather in parts of Rwanda are creating ideal breeding conditions for mosquitoes, raising the prospect of severe outbreaks of malaria that could undo the country’s gains against the disease.

These are just a few examples of what can happen if delegates at the Cancún summit can’t work out a real deal on reducing GHG emissions.

As a co-editor for the CABI Environmental Impact internet resource I come across a vast amount of the literature on global warming and climate change, daily. Although it would be impossible for me to discuss all of them in a blog, my colleages and I have added all the relevant ones to the database, including the above UNEP report and over 1700 other reports from over 200 organisations plus, if you're a subscriber, relevant content from Cabdirect, reviews and news articles on the subject.

Link to UNFCCC Cancun conference site.

Link to UN News Centre.

Link to AlertNet Climate.

Link to UNEP emissions gap report.

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