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Zombie scare in Cancun

Expectations for last week's global climate change negotiations in Cancun were so low that many feared the talks would collapse into "zombie" status: still moving, but lifeless - like a green version of the UN Commission on the unification of North and So

Expectations for last week’s global climate change negotiations in Cancun were so low that many feared the talks would collapse into “zombie” status: still moving, but lifeless - like a green version of the UN Commission on the unification of North and South Korea.

Making just enough progress to avoid zombie status has some participants calling Cancun a success.

“The dog is resuscitated and up and running ... we’ll see how far it goes,” is how the BBC’s correspondent summed things up.

But don’t expect a binding global plan to deal with the problem any time soon. In fact, if you own any beachfront property in the Maldives, you should probably sell before our icecaps melt and the whole country disappears.

On the positive side, at least there was an “agreement” between the countries in Cancun. In Copenhagen last year, countries merely “noted” the 13-paragraph political accord that was all the major powers could agree to at the time.

The Cancun agreement includes a Green Climate Fund, which hopes to spend $100 billion per year by 2020 in poor countries. A new global Adaptation Committee will help countries develop action plans. And there was progress on funding poor countries to reduce deforestation.

What the pact didn’t include was agreement to extend the Kyoto Protocol. Nor was there clear identification of where the Green Climate Fund money would come from, or exactly how it would be run. Or binding targets. Or agreement on rigorous international verification of emissions. Or consequences for missing targets.

But the process is still alive. Diplomats will work in coming months to prepare next year’s shindig in Durban, South Africa.

Top Chinese negotiator Xie Zhenhua reminded delegates of the obvious when he said that the 2011 negotiations will be “difficult.”

The major issue is how to share the pain of carbon dioxide emission reduction. The logic of the Kyoto Protocol was that rich countries would reduce but that poor countries would not. After all, the bulk of the human-related CO2 in our atmosphere comes from rich countries during their rapid growth over the last hundred years.

People like Xie Zhenhua like to point out that Canadians emitted 16.9 tonnes of CO2 each in 2007, versus just 1.4 tonnes each for Indians and 4.9 tonnes for Chinese. If Chinese or Indian emissions were to be capped, it would severely limit the possibility for poor countries to grow out of poverty. A fair point.

And one especially important to the Chinese Communist Party leadership. The legitimacy of one-party rule in China, such as it is, depends on the Party steadily delivering increased prosperity. A recession in China, or even slower growth that can’t absorb the people moving from the country to the city, could result in civil unrest and the overthrow of the regime. The Chinese politburo has no interest in joining their Soviet colleagues in the history books.

But on the other hand, rich countries such as Canada, the US and Japan say that they won’t agree to strict limits if the huge emitters such as China, Brazil and India are not included. After all, just two years of Chinese economic growth at their current CO2 intensity would wipe out even a 100 per cent CO2 cut by Canada. This is also a fair point.

Furthermore, Canadian voters remain unconvinced of the need to do anything serious at all about climate change. Just ask Stephane Dion. In our next election, whenever that is, we can expect each party to emit as much hot air as a Chinese coal-fired smelter. But none of the big parties will propose anything that raises the price of gasoline or home heating fuel a cent.

The gap between the rich view and the poor view is huge. Too huge to be papered over by expressions of mutual goodwill, or even a hundred billion dollars of Green Fund money.

So although incremental progress with a few worthwhile minor initiatives might occur between now and Durban in 2011, the likelihood for a binding global deal that decisively cuts CO2 emissions is unlikely. The scientists tell us this means ongoing climate change.

Climate change will probably turn out to be an issue that, 50 years later, seems like a no-brainer. History students today really have trouble getting their minds around resistance to abolishing slavery, giving women the vote, or rearmament in the 1930s. In 2060, people will likely look back on Cancun from their solar-powered cities floating in the sky and say, “What were they thinking?”

However, each of those no-brainers took a long time to resolve, often waiting a generation or two for new leaders to take the stage.

One hopeful thing is that people aren’t waiting for the UN and 193 countries to come to consensus. Take Kristianstad in Sweden, for example. According to the New York Times, this northern town of 33,000 people has spent the last two decades reducing its dependence on fossil fuels. Using biogas from compost, farms and its dump, as well as other renewable energy sources, Kristianstad hopes to reduce its total carbon footprint by 40 per cent by 2020. It is already saving more than 50 per cent, about $4 million, on heating municipal buildings. And its buses run on biogas, eliminating the need for about two million litres of gas.

Meanwhile, closer to home, the Yukon sent a delegation of four officials to Cancun to talk about climate change.

“Yukon continues to experience impacts such as thawing permafrost, increased glacial melting, rising sea levels on the north coast and beetle infestations across our spruce forests,” said Environment Minister John Edzerza, going on to say that it was important to communicate this to conference delegates.

Presumably he’s keeping quiet about the fact his government has the lowest gasoline taxes in Canada, doesn’t have a sales tax on gas either, has an electricity surplus but a pricing scheme that discourages heat pumps, is investing something close to zero on biomass and biogas and has no excise tax on propane at all.

Of course, it is absurd to think that any important decision makers are paying attention to the Yukon delegation. Or even knew they were there.

The main reason small governments send delegations to these events is not to convince foreigners of anything, but to show voters back home they are “doing something.”

It probably would be more useful if those four officials spent a week here figuring out how to emulate Kristianstad, or even just using the money to install a few heat pumps in government buildings.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.