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politics trumps science at cancún’s climate change talks—will the same be said for New Mexico?

December 15, 2010, 12:05 am

The talks in Cancún begin calmly. Delegates from all around the world pore over documents and make incremental changes—changing a word here or there, crossing out sentences and bracketing others for later approval. 

But as ministers and heads of state begin showing up, the drama surrounding the talks bumps up a few notches. Increasing numbers of journalists arrive, and protesters take to the streets of Cancún, far from where delegates are cloistered away in the Moon Palace, an exclusive seaside resort. 

US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern repeatedly assures the press that the Cancún climate talks build on the success of the widely controversial COP15 in Copenhagen last year.
Credits: Mark Malijan

On a near-daily basis, Todd Stern, the US special envoy for climate change, repeatedly states in press briefings that the Cancún talks build on the success of COP15 in Copenhagen—even though last year’s talks were widely acknowledged as a failure that left much of the world disappointed. 

After eight years of the George W Bush administration’s inaction, nations worldwide embraced President Barack Obama’s election and a Democrat-controlled Congress as a sign the US would finally step up on climate. But Copenhagen failed to yield any legally binding agreement on cuts. Nor did the United States pledge any substantive action. 

In December 2009, more than 190 countries signed the so-called Copenhagen Accord, agreeing that worldwide temperature increases should not exceed 2 degrees Celsius. But the accord—negotiated by heads of state and not under the rules of the convention—does not actually commit to achieving that goal by cutting carbon emissions. 

As it stands now, the only legally binding international agreement to cut emissions is the Kyoto Protocol, the second phase of which begins in 2013, and still needs to be hammered out by the UNFCCC. 

Although the US itself never agreed to the Kyoto Protocol, other industrialized countries have been complying with it since 2005. The protocol encourages countries to cut their carbon emissions, and sets targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European Union to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions 5 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. 

While some countries—including Canada, Japan and Russia—are now balking at signing onto the agreement’s second commitment period, others have taken the emission cuts seriously. 

Three years ago, the European Union committed to a 20 percent reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. In 2005, it also implemented an emissions trading system (EU ETS). That cap-and-trade system sets a limit on the total amount of greenhouse gases that factories and power plants can emit. A limited number of allowances are distributed among companies, which can then sell to or buy from one another as necessary. Emissions are reduced through time as the limit—or cap—is reduced each year. 

Speaking at a gathering of environmental journalists in Brussels in October, Jos Delbeke, director-general of the EU’s newly established Directorate-General for Climate Action (DG CLIMA), acknowledged that these are not revolutionary, overnight reductions. 

“They are gradual, but valuable,” he said, pointing out that the ETS’ new phase will kick in on Jan. 1, 2013, and it will become more harmonized with international markets. 

Because carbon trading still remains a relatively lonely market, Europe is watching closely what happens in the United States. Europeans are keeping tabs on numerous factors, from federal climate change legislation—which Congress failed to pass this summer—to region-wide cap-and-trade schemes, such as the Western Climate Initiative, and even state-level emission-reduction plans. 

Nearly 1,000 protestors march through downtown Cancún, Mexico, during La Via Campesina’s Global Day of Action for Climate Justice in the second week of the 16th Conference of the Parties, Dec. 7, 2010. The march was organized by La Via Campesina International on behalf of the rights of indigenous people and farmers. The organization believes some programs discussed at COP16, such as REDD and carbon market initiatives, are imposed on people as false solutions to climate change.
Credits: Mark Malijan

Implementation of the Western Climate Initiative would be a positive indicator, Simone Ruiz, European policy director for the International Emissions Trading Association, an international industry group focused on carbon trading, says. Development of the market would mean that a price signal for investors could emerge. 

“I see a lot of companies that are supporting this,” she says. “They see a business opportunity to move away from their traditional businesses.” 

Setting a price on carbon emissions would help those businesses seeking to invest in renewable technology and energy, she says. In fact, they might need that carbon price to be successful. 

But time and again, the issue of action on climate change—on a state, national or international level—comes down to political will. 

“Politicians can’t do much if citizens don’t understand the importance of the issue,” the EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard said, also in Brussels, prior to the COP16 talks in Mexico. “We must make progress in Cancún, and if the political will is not there, the world will have to deliver.”

Action on climate change is necessary given the current and projected circumstances, she said, but it makes sense for other reasons, as well.

“If 20, 30 years from now, the ice core drillers who were working in the Arctic say, ‘Oh we were wrong…’ what would have been the harm of acting?” she asked, pointing out that there would be less pollution, cleaner sources of energy, a healthier planet. “And if we are right, and we do nothing, we are in a very grave situation—if I were a politician and those were the choices, I know what I would do.”

Over the past few years, New Mexico has begun making strides on climate change. But a change in administration—and a tremor in the political will—may herald unwelcome changes in the coming years.

On Dec. 6, the state’s Environmental Improvement Board voted that, starting in 2013, polluters in New Mexico will have to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by 3 percent per year from 2010 levels.

The EIB earlier this year already had approved a separate proposal from the New Mexico Environment Department to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pave the way for a cap-and-trade plan. This plan follows up on an agreement that Gov. Bill Richardson signed in 2007 with the governors of Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington to create the Western Climate Initiative and establish a regional, market-based emission reduction program. Since that time, six other states and Canadian provinces have joined the initiative.

There have been other actions, as well. 

All of these actions add up to progress in New Mexico, Mariel Nanasi, New Energy Economy’s senior policy advisor, says. 

She points out that New Mexico’s coal-fired power plants contribute to climate change—and says that, without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, New Mexico is projected to warm on average an additional 2 degrees Fahrenheit by 2040 and 4 degrees by the end of the century. 

In an email to SFR, she adds that winter temperatures are predicted to increase by more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit and summer temperatures could rise by 8 degrees by the end of the century. Additionally, within the 21st century, there will likely be no sustained snowpack south of Santa Fe in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. 

European Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard (pictured here with Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) says citizens must understand climate issues’ importance before political change is possible.
Credits: Courtesy Ernesto

“New Mexico’s freshwater supplies will become even scarcer as 50-80% of the state’s water supply originates from snow pack,” she writes, “which is projected to decrease in the state by as much as 60% by 2040.”

Transitioning to cleaner energy sources is good for the economy, she says. Taken in combination with the state’s plentiful renewable energy resources, New Energy Economy’s adopted rule will trigger investments and jump-start the transition to a new, clean-energy market, she says.

“Governor-elect Martinez has pledged to create jobs for New Mexicans and the new carbon cap regulations provide her with an opportunity to do so,” she says. “There will be foregone opportunities for New Mexicans if the administration does not implement these regulations.”

Regardless of optimism from Nanasi, and silence from officials within the state government, it’s clear there may be a battle ahead. During her campaign, Gov.-elect Susana Martinez said she would not support emissions reductions plans, a cap-and-trade program or the EIB’s votes on regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

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