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Lessons from Cancun

Following up on my recent promise (thanks Via – free wifi on the train is a good thing), here is a written version (padded with additional thoughts fostered by what is turning out to be a lovely train ride) of what I presented last night.

I was asked to give an overview of the Council of Canadians experiences at the recent UN climate talks in Cancun.

I arrived in Mexico on November 27 to join an international caravan for environmental and social justice. I was part of a 9 person Canadian delegation that included staff and members with the Council of Canadians, Public Service Alliance of Canada and Polaris Institute.

Our caravan of two buses which started in San Luis Potosi was one of 5 caravans that converged first in Mexico City, then in Cancun.

Each stop provided participants an opportunity to meet and hear from people experiencing environmental and social impacts associated with a local polluter, and aimed to connect these struggles with both causes and solutions to the collective challenge we face – the climate crisis.

The caravans were organized by Via Campesina, an international peasants and farmers organization, the National Assembly of Affected Peoples based in Mexico and a number of other local organizations in the communities we stopped in.
Our stop in Cerra San Pedro speaks to our broader experiences on the caravan and provides important insight on our experiences in Cancun.

We arrived in Cerro San Pedro to meet with local populations who have been deeply affected by a gold and silver mine, a subsidiary of New Gold.

We were welcomed in the town square by members of the community who  told us about how New Gold removed the top of their mountain to get at the gold and silver—a mountain which is tied intimately to their history and cultural identity.

In the extraction process, New Gold uses cyanide to separate the minerals from the rock. We were told that this has polluted local water sources. Community members believe water contamination is the source of illnesses in the community.

We further learned that the rock that had been blasted by New Gold for this mountain-top open-pit mine was dumped on top of the river that flowed through this town; we later walked over a bridge seeing for ourselves the parched bed of the now dry river.

The community has been challenging this mine for 14 years, including in the Mexican federal court. Community members describe it as an illegal mine, referring to a court ruling that nullified the companies Environmental Impact Assessment – yet the mine still continues.

The Canadian delegation presented to a community leader an open letter signed by 36 Canadian organizations noting our regret that Bill C-300 was defeated, and stating our commitment to redouble g our efforts to mobilize Canadian public opinion and challenge the abuses of Canada’s extractive industries whether operating at home or abroad. 

Bill C-300, the Corporate Accountability of Mining, Oil and Gas in Developing Countries Act was defeated by a very narrow margin, it would have increased accountability on the part of mining corporations operating international.
While San Pedro had less to do with greenhouse gas emissions – this was not the case in other stops that looked at the actions of local fossil fuel companies and export-agricultural business – there is much to learn from their struggle when it comes to the climate crisis.

Cerro San Pedro was chosen to start the caravan because it is emblematic of the struggle against the disregard for people and the planet and the drive for profit that is at the heart of the environmental, climate, and social crises we face. 

So when we think of the climate crisis, we think not only of the release of greenhouse gas emissions and the need to reduce this, but also, we think about what is causing the situation we are in.

This includes recognizing patterns of over production and consumption that are tied to an export-oriented global economic model (as Walden Bello often highlights in underscoring the causal role of this model to the climate crisis, it is not a coincidence that global ghgs dropped for the first time in many years in 2009 during the economic crisis).

It includes recognizing how this is facilitating a ‘race to the bottom’ which contributes to the social and environmentally destructive corporate practices we witnessed in San Pedro.

It is this type of understanding, or analysis, which has informed the development of a global climate justice movement. This is a movement that recognizes the connected struggles and need for solidarity in achieving environmental and social justice.

Last April’s World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba Bolivia was a critical moment for this movement.  It put into words the need for system change, not climate change. 

I want to give you a taste of what it was like organizing in Cancun.

Cancun is a resort town – around 90% is concrete. Sprawled across a main strip are massive resorts where many delegates stayed.

On one end was the Moon Palace where the official negotiations took place, within the official negotiations space itself there were separate buildings for NGO meeting space and the negotiations accessible only by bus.

 A 45 minute to 1 hour bus ride away was downtown Cancun where the alternatives spaces were.

There was the Dialogo Climatico, an alternative space hosting workshops, panels and events that drew many labour union activists from Latin America, a number of Mexican NGOs and international activists.

There was also the La Via Campesina’s Alternative Forum for Environmental and Social Justice which drew their membership and affiliates alongside international activists.

To many of us the idea of having more than 2 alternative spaces may seem strange. Without getting into details, suffice to say that there is a history in Mexico, like many other places, of social movement organizing that contributed to this situation, alongside some differences on particular issues. That said, if you read both declarations emerging from the alternative spaces, they bear much in common.

While this context did pose challenges to us and many others, we managed to participate in a number of important ways in terms of ‘outside actions’.

• We joined the major demonstrations and held panels on the Rights of Mother earth                                    and water justice.
• We screened Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change which allowed us to connect with activists in Arctic Coastal states to help build international solidarity around ‘leaving it in the ground’ in the Arctic – the final frontier for oil and gas development.
• We helped to host a roundtable on the proposal for a global referendum or popular consultas on climate change that emerged from the Cochabamba process. Here we presented some of our experiences on conducting polling adapted from the proposed questions.

We were also active on the ‘inside,’ monitoring and responding to the negotiations. One of the first days we spent on the inside, we attended an ALBA press conference, the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas, and overheard a press conference featuring Christiana Figueres, the Secretary of the UNFCCC.

As a result, we broke the story to Canadian media about Canada being one of three countries walking away from the Kyoto Protocol.

Now we’re not proponents of all elements of the Kyoto Protocol. We believe cap and trade is an ineffective and inequitable means of reducing emissions, we are opposed to carbon offsets. Both are present under the Protocol, referred to as ‘flexible market mechanisms’ as ways in which countries can meet their emission reduction targets. 

International carbon trading allows business as usual. It allows Global North countries and the most polluting industries to avoid making emission reduction cuts domestically by buying carbon credits on the international carbon market. 

Offsetting is where credits are purchased from a project that is meant to reduce emissions.

In the international system under Kyoto, this shifts the burden of emission reductions from the Global North to South where many of the projects are financed.  Many of these projects are causing serious social and environmental damage. There is even evidence that many are failing to contribute to real, and additional (would not have been accomplished were it not for the offset project) emission reductions. For example, mega dams (in and of themselves can be very environmentally and socially destructive)  in China have been offset projects under the UN system, even though they are meeting new power needs, not helping to reduce reliance on coal. 

What the Kyoto Protocol does offer is much needed binding emission reduction commitments on the part of Global North countries. While countries like Canada have shown no respect for these legally binding targets, they set a precedent and are something that countries, organizations and social movements can hold their countries accountable to. 

This is the aspect of the Protocol that Canada, alongside Japan and Russia were stating they would not support – they would not agree to a second commitment period under Kyoto. This was a key demand of Global South countries, many had hoped this would be an outcome of the Cancun talks.

At this point of the talks it really did feel like all gloom and doom.

There were serious concerns that this indicated a shift away from the Kyoto Protocol to an entrenching of a Copenhagen Accord (or Discord)-like document under the UN climate negotiation process.

There were serious concerns that the talks themselves would completely fall apart.

While our demands are for far more, such as deep emission reduction targets and an end to offsets, we, and many others, felt that this was a battle worth fighting.

The Cancun talks did produce an agreement.

The Council of Canadians sees this agreement as a step backwards, from a climate justice perspective.

It is a step back in that it has paved the way for the death of the good part of Kyoto – the binding emission targets.

While the agreement keeps Kyoto on life support on paper by keeping the possibility of a second commitment period in the text, the weak Copenhagen Accord-like pledge and review system was adopted. The EU which had stated it would submit a target under Kyoto’s second commitment period is already showing signs of stepping away from this – it appears our argument that what was happening in Cancun was spelling the death of Kyoto, is not far off the mark. 

Under the pledge and review system, countries are not yet obliged to keep their pledges, the review process is unclear with no compliance mechanism.

While the text refers to a 2 degree target, the reality is that the pledges made after Copenhagen could result in an up to a disastrous 5 degrees of warming.

It also fails to provide a framework for achieving climate justice.

A quote from a senior negotiator of a developing country strikes a chord with me in this regard: “we saved the system but the climate and people were sacrificed.” 

Proposals from the Cochabamba conference including ending offsets, recognizing the rights of nature, significantly deeper emission reduction targets and greater climate financing for the global South, were dropped from the text early in the negotiations.

The World Bank is listed as a trustee to the Global Climate Fund – this was a key rallying point of the climate justice movement.

The flexible market mechanisms continue, the groundwork may even have even been laid for Carbon Capture and Storage to be included in the international carbon offsets system.

For a more detailed review of the policy outcomes of the Cancun process that share our perspective, I recommend the Third World Network and Friends of the Earth Europe.

This may not be the analysis of the outcomes of Cancun that you are familiar with:

The Cancun agreement was by far the most significant and collective agreement on how much is going to be cut in terms of carbon emissions,” she said. “That is not to be underestimated.“ Christiana Figueres, Reuters

Cancun deal puts climate action back on track,” The Australian

Cancun talks end with modest success” CBC

Global accord on climate change hailed as breakthrough” The Globe and Mail

Here is some of what the final declarations of the alternative forums had to say:

 La Via Campesina alternative forum declaration: “ In regards to the conference: Instead of confronting the climate crisis, the resolutions in Cancun will only worsen it, as they failed to establish binding agreements to reduce greenhouse gases and obligatory goals to reduce emissions; instead they strengthened carbon markets…. In Cancun, the business and nature speculation agenda triumphed, while they systematically threw out the demands that emerged from the World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba.”

Dialogo Climatico: “We call on governments to stop beating around the bush and reach binding commitments to reduce emissions in quantities required to stabilize the global temperature increase to a maximum of 1.5 ° C. This requires agreeing on a 2nd period of Kyoto Protocol commitments…. We oppose false solutions: Carbon markets, biofuels, mega dams, carbon capture and storage and biochar. We oppose the commodification of life, the solution lies in addressing the systemic causes in the way we produce and consume.

The outcomes of the Cancun conference raise a number of key questions that we need to grapple with as organizations and social movements in Canada, as well as internationally in the lead up to the next major round of UN climate talks in Durban.

How and if we need to reconcile different opinions on the outcomes of Cancun talks?
• While there certainly are many areas for convergence including around green jobs and criticisms of the Canadian government’s current actions, there are areas of differences including over the role of cap and trade, offsets, and some of the Cochabamba conclusions.

What is the future of the UNFCCC negotiations?
• While we certainly do not want to see a shift to more undemocratic institutions such as the G20, and the climate crisis is an international crisis and has international equity dimensions – we need better to come of these conferences.

Those countries that do take a stand, such as Bolivia in the UNFCCC negotiations based on principles and positions social movements have endorsed, how do we support this – what does this look like?

There is no doubt that the crisis we face is significant and that we have are far way to go. There is also no doubt that we in Canada, a petro state, have a particular responsibility to build awareness and pressure on the Canadian government while also engaging in local struggles that are generating change.

In thinking about the way forward, I find it helpful to think back to the example of Cerra San Pedro.

I think the fact that San Pedro, which was not strictly about ghg emissions, was on a caravan tour in the lead up to the climate talks, hints at a couple of lessons.

First, it points towards organizing around those areas that are complimentary to an understanding of root causes of the climate crisis and need for ‘system change.’ This includes rejecting false climate solutions that adopt or reflect causes of the crisis we face. This includes attempts to ‘commodify’ nature, such as carbon offsets, and the next financial bubble waiting to burst – the carbon market. It includes fighting for real solutions like buying less and local, vastly improving energy conservation and efficiency, public and community ownership of renewable energy, supporting transition towns, keeping unexploited fossil fuels in the ground, respecting indigenous rights, ending subsidies to oil and gas and backwards trade rules that put profit above people and the environment.

It can also provide a lesson for us in how we approach our social movement-building. We should not be reluctant to reach beyond our ‘silo’s’ as Maude often terms them, when we organize. In fact, I think we should seek out common ground in climate justice campaigning, be it environmental opposition to a new coal plant pairing up with health advocates or parents concerned about a plant’s location near a school, people campaigning for energy retrofits pairing up with anti-poverty organizers, defenders of Ontario’s Green Energy Act mobilizing against trade rules that limit green policy options, people supporting the Cochabamba process also participating in transition towns and supporting local sustainable farmers, environmentalists joining the fight against the privatization of vital public services, pursuing ‘just transition’ strategies for workers and communities affected by the transition off of fossil fuels or great Toronto examples such as the People’s Assemblies organizing or the Green Jobs for All at Hydro campaign. As Maude often says at climate justice events – there can be no climate justice without water justice, or trade justice – we must stand together.

San Pedro’s example also underscores that when we think about how to address the climate crisis, we should also think about and organizing with the people that are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, including those impacted by the industries that are contributing to it. There is value in listening and acting alongside communities living beside fossil fuel plants. There is value and strength in listening and acting alongside people in the Global South for whom climate change impacts are a daily reality.