Beyond Cancun: What's The Future Of Climate Policy? Experts say outcomes from the U.N. climate meeting in Cancun will not include a new international treaty. Rather, a piecemeal approach, with individual countries setting their own goals for greenhouse gas emission cutbacks, is likely.

Beyond Cancun: What's The Future Of Climate Policy?

Beyond Cancun: What's The Future Of Climate Policy?

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Sierra Club activists wearing flags, representing more than 20 countries, take part in a protest by hiding their heads in the sand in Cancun last week. The group said countries participating in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Cancun are not doing enough to stop climate change. AP hide caption

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As the climate meeting in Cancun, Mexico, begins its second week Monday, heads of state are conspicuously absent and attendance is way down from last year's meeting in Copenhagen.

Most everyone involved agrees that the international climate machine is sputtering, and efforts in Congress to do something big on climate have ground to a halt. So environmental activists and climate scientists are looking for bite-sized solutions to curb global warming.

The U.N. meeting in Copenhagen last year was supposed to deliver the blueprints for a new treaty to curb climate change, since the current Kyoto treaty expires in two years. Instead, the U.N. delivered practically nothing.

So at the Cancun conference, which ends Friday, expectations are modest and the head of the U.N.'s climate agency, Christiana Figueres, put delegates on notice that Copenhagen's chaos, replete with grandstanding speeches and demands for untenable cuts in greenhouse emissions, wasn't on this meeting's agenda.

"No one can afford permanently immovable positions; no one can afford to stay in inaction. And it is very clear that countries are actually willing to engage to produce a result here in Cancun," she said.

But that result will clearly not include a new international treaty with the U.S. and the other big greenhouse gas emitters onboard.

"The reality is that there's no international forum that's going to be able to force the U.S., China, India -- the other big players -- to do something they perceive that is not in their national interest," said Alden Meyer, a seasoned climate negotiator from the Union of Concerned Scientists, before heading off to the meeting this week.

Realistic Goals From Cancun

So climate activists are looking for more realistic commitments. They're talking about a $100 billion-a-year fund from rich countries to help developing nations adapt to climate change, and some way to transfer greener energy technology as well.

But Ken Green, an environmental scientist from the American Enterprise Institute, says even that's not going to fly.

"The international framework has always rested on a fundamentally fatally flawed idea," Green says, "that the developed countries are going to transfer voluntarily unprecedented amounts of wealth to the developing world along with turning over technology, including intellectual property."

Some big polluters aren't waiting for handouts -- or directions from the U.N.

"Countries, particularly countries like China and India, are doing things to cut emissions that they are not prepared to sign up for as part of an international treaty right now," says Dan Lashof, with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We need to recognize that it's what they are actually doing that matters."

"No one can afford permanently immovable positions; no one can afford to stay in inaction," Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said in a speech in Cancun. Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

China in particular has set ambitious goals to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, and President Obama has, too -- he's promised a 17 percent cut below 2005 levels over the next 10 years.

'Back To The Drawing Board'

But legislation to cut emissions died in Congress this year, and environmentalists like Mark Tercek, who runs the Nature Conservancy, says that was bad, but not the end of the world.

"With the loss of the climate bill, environmentalists had a big setback," says Tercek. "It's not all bad. It's good in this job to be humble. It's a complicated world -- we all have to go back to the drawing board, and think about how we can do things differently and better."

Tercek's group will focus on protecting land and farms from flooding or droughts that may come with a warmer world. Meanwhile, California has its own laws to reduce their greenhouse emissions, and business investments in green energy technology like wind and solar power are at an all-time high.

None of these changes relies on an international, U.N.-mediated regime of emissions caps and timetables, as prescribed by the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol.

Meyer, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that if the U.N. climate bureaucracy is to have a role in these national efforts, this is their last chance.

"I mean, I think it's two strikes and you're out here, that if Cancun is perceived as a failure in the wake of Copenhagen, it really is going to be hard for the U.N. process to recover and get the political support it needs."