Why go to Cancún when it’s not Spring Break?: A short primer on COP16

When you tell people you’re going to Cancún, their first thought might be of parties and the beach, not climate change. However, this December, people from all over the world will be in Cancún, not to go wild, but to attend the latest round of United Nations climate change negotiations.

These negotiations happen every year – you probably heard about the Copenhagen talks last year – and this is actually the 16th year they will happen, hence, the name for the conference: COP16 . COP stands for Conference Of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC is the agreement that was signed way back in 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit. This convention essentially declared that climate change is an important issue, but wasn’t supposed to say exactly what the countries who signed on (almost all countries have, by the way – there are 194 parties today) were going to do to address the problem. This is where agreements like the Kyoto Protocol come in.

The Kyoto Protocol, negotiated under the UNFCCC, was the first agreement where developed countries took on legally binding targets for reducing their greenhouse gases. The average target under the Kyoto Protocol was a 5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, compared to what they were in 1990, to be achieved between 2008-2012. You may be saying to yourself, “What happens after 2012? That’s just two years from now!” This is exactly the question the international community is asking, and is a major focus of these negotiations.

There are many complexities to the climate change negotiations, and tons of seemingly obscure policy debates, which our policy team will bring to life for you over the next few weeks. For now, though, here is a brief outline of some of the hottest issues:
Post-Kyoto and the USA: after 2012, there are no emissions reduction targets in place for any countries. We need an international agreement to be in place as soon as possible to set out a plan for the future. Furthermore, the USA never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, so in order for it to be included in future international emissions reductions strategies, it must be incorporated into the next agreement.
Mitigation: “mitigation” refers to what countries are going to do to prevent or decrease the impact of climate change. Naturally, one of the most important ways this is done is by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, countries often talk in terms of “mitigation targets” – how much will they reduce their emissions, and by when? This question is particularly complex because countries have “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which are particularly shaped by their development status. Figuring out what is a fair amount for each party to take on, and making sure it adds up to enough to stop “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” is a major challenge.
Adaptation: while the Kyoto Protocol was being negotiated, countries didn’t really want to acknowledge that climate change might not be completely preventable, and so did not want to consider how we may need to adapt to a changing climate. However, it has become apparent that adaptation will be very important, particularly for developing countries with fewer resources to devote to adaptation, but also within Canada. The UN climate negotiations are working toward establishing adaptation financing and helping countries create adaptation plans of action.
Forests: deforestation and forest degradation currently account for 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Clearly, if we need to reduce emissions globally by a significant amount, we need to incorporate forests into international mitigation strategies. Important debate is happening at the conference regarding how countries should be accounting for their forest-based emissions, as well as how financial incentives might be used to slow deforestation and degradation. This highly contentious issue has made significant process over the past few years, and is expected to be a big part of the upcoming negotiations.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” you may be saying, “isn’t all this just what was supposed to have been negotiated in Copenhagen last December?” That is correct: Copenhagen was the target conference where countries hoped to have the basics agreed upon for future agreements, so that we would have a strategy in place by at least 2012. However, while progress was made in some areas of the negotiations, the major outcome of the conference, known as the Copenhagen Accord, was not developed within the official UN process and was rejected by a number of parties. It is largely a political agreement, with no legal requirements. Thus, while the accord may inform negotiations this coming December, there is still significant negotiation that must take place within the UN before a new legally binding agreement is developed. Currently, some suggest that after the disappointing outcome in Copenhagen, it is crucial that this round of negotiations rebuild trust between countries.

So why would a bunch of Canadian kids show up in Cancún if it’s not spring break and it’s just going to be a bunch of bureaucrats in suits talking to each other? Youth have actually been involved with the UNFCCC process for years. It was in Montreal, at COP11, that there was a significant youth presence at the negotiations for the first time, and last year, in Copenhagen, there were hundreds of young people. There are many ways young people engage with the negotiations, from making speeches in the official negotiations, to submitting policy statements, to creating actions inside and outside the conference, to meeting with and lobbying our political leaders and negotiators. One of the biggest reasons to engage with the negotiations, though, is because it’s our future that’s being negotiated. The decisions made at these conferences are going to impact our worlds, and we are the ones who are going to be implementing and being affected by the plans made today to address climate change. While at the conference, we are the voice of concerned youth from across Canada, and we are committed to making the conference accessible and interesting to people back home. One of the first steps toward making a change is understanding the problem, and we hope to do our best over the next weeks to provide a window on the international negotiations and to give you knowledge you can use to be even more effective as you fight climate change at home.

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