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Nightmare on Cancun Street

By Tim Wilson - posted Monday, 6 December 2010

One year after the Copenhagen climate change circus, the Gillard government is being dragged by the Greens towards policies that are out of step with the international community.

On Monday in Cancun the next major round of climate change talks started to mop up Copenhagen's mess. Substantive negotiations broke down last December after the negotiating text for a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol swelled with contradictory proposals that made a conclusion impossible. At the time then prime minister Kevin Rudd described it as a "catastrophic collapse".

In the end the text had to be junked and world leaders cobbled together the face-saving Copenhagen Accord, including vague commitments for countries to cut emissions. But the accord failed to pass on the conference floor.


One year on, the Cancun conference is set to repeat history.

In the lead-up to Cancun the secretariat of the UN climate change body released a negotiating text including proposals from different countries, but again its size has grown with mutually exclusive proposals designed to protect the political and economic interests of its sponsors.

The only difference this time is world leaders are staying away from the impending fiasco. Instead of planes full of presidents and prime ministers, only environment and climate change ministers are expected to attend, to sign the conference's concluding negotiating statement of good will.

The consequence of Cancun's collapse doesn't appear to have got through to the government. In a speech yesterday to a Crawford School Forum, Climate Change Minister Greg Combet said: "we all know a carbon price signal is coming to the Australian economy".

If it is, it is out of step with current international negotiations. In the lead-up to Cancun the chairwoman charged with overseeing negotiations of a possible agreement, Margaret Mukahanana-Sangarwe, said a stumbling block was that "parties have also divergent views on the role of market-based mechanisms".

Even before the US mid-term elections. America's Democrat-controlled Congress wouldn't pass the equivalent of our emissions trading scheme. Now that the Republicans control the House of Representatives the proposal is dead. And even emissions reduction remains a red-hot issue in international talks.


According to Mukahanana-Sangarwe, emissions reduction remains a central challenge because of the divergence in expectations of developed and developing country reductions, and whether these should be achieved under the Kyoto Protocol or a new agreement. One proposal requires developed countries to cut emissions at home, undermining the Kyoto Protocol's flexibility for countries to sponsor cheaper reductions in developing countries.

Such a proposal is in conflict with Australia's previously modelled emissions trading scheme.

And the spirit of co-operative action is also disappearing from meetings. In October's preparatory talks, chief Chinese climate change negotiator Su Wei said: "after five years of negotiation we have seen slow or no progress [because] developed countries are trying every means possible to avoid discussion of the essential issue, that is, emissions reduction."

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This article was first published by The Australian on December 2, 2010

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About the Author

Tim Wilson is the federal Liberal member for Goldstein and a former human rights commissioner.

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