Keeping countries in check at U.N. climate summit

Participants of the United Nations Climate Change Conference walk past a globe at the Bella Centre in Copenhagen.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: United Nations climate negotiators are at it again, this time in Cancun, Mexico, for a two-week conference on how to stop global warming. Maybe they're hoping nicer weather will be more conducive to agreement than a Danish winter was. Last December's summit in Copenhagen with great fanfare and ended mostly with a thud; no binding agreements on carbon emissions came out of it.

Marketplace's Scott Tong has drawn the short straw -- he gets two weeks in the sun in Cancun trying to figure out where big-time climate negotiations might be headed. Hey Scott.

Scott Tong: Hi Kai.

Ryssdal: So how is the global climate change community going to pick up those pieces from Copenhagen and move on?

TONG: Well the tone here among the faithful is 'keep hope alive' a year after Copenhagen. The first few days of this conference are theater, and there are all these signs that they really believe that we're on to something. The trash cans here have six subsections for organic, inorganic glass, paper, plastic. The conference buses run on biodiesel fuel, and there's even this brand-new, apparently cosmetic wind turbine outside the main exhibit hall. So the point is, as one delegate told me: confidence-building. He says countries' trusts in one another bottomed out last winter and this spring, and it's slowly been creeping back. The hope is to end this two-week conference with enough progress to sign some kind of a document in several areas by the end.

Ryssdal: So here's the show-me-the-money question, Scott: what has been done since Copenhagen?

TONG: Well each country signed the voluntary Copenhagen Accord. And in that, there was an agreement on the big goal, and that is to keep global temperature rise under 2 degrees Celsius. Some 80 countries pledged unilateral carbon dioxide emissions targets, and the rich countries agreed to give $30 billion to the developing countries. So how do we check that all that is happening? The U.N. doesn't have climate police. So that's what's happening here -- they're trying to find ways to measure progress and verify that money is flowing, that the emissions are going down in all these different countries. It's all really technical but the optimists say if it builds enough momentum, then we could have a big binding deal next year in South Africa, where there's some global carbon cap.

Ryssdal: Let me ask you this, though, Scott: is just measuring things real progress?

TONG: Well it is measuring how much progress countries are making, but the issue is scale; is the how much. Now the world has a budding solar industry and wind power, electric cars, but multiplying that up at a big scale takes a lot of money, and most of that comes from the private sector. The idea is for a government to put in say $1 and a private sector matches it, chips in $4 or even $10. And to get there, the regulators have to make clear to investors that we are building the plumbing, the infrastructure of a low-carbon future. That it's inevitable. I spoke to energy expert Dan Kammen at the World Bank about this, and here's how he put it:

Dan Kammen: Many in the private sector rightly say, 'Well my job isn't to make policy. My job is to respond to policy. I am willing to operate in a clean-energy economy, but governments have to set those rules.'

Ryssdal: Well very quickly on the way out of here, Scott, let me ask you about governments, specifically the United States: we don't have a climate bill, prospects are dim -- what is the American role down there in Cancun?

TONG: The question of is the U.S. serious, that shadow looms over all this. Many people have told me that the U.S., as the biggest emitter per person, has to show that it is serious. It made some promises in '97, it didn't happen; it promised legislation, it didn't happen; now it pledged cuts at Copenhagen. U.S. negotiators say, yes there are new vehicle mileage standards, new regulation on power plants, but if the U.S. isn't perceived as delivering, that will make it hard for everything. It risks the whole U.N. process being deemed irrelevant.

Ryssdal: Marketplace's Scott Tong on the line from Cancun and the U.N. Global Climate Change Summit going on there. He'll be there all two weeks that the summit's going on. Scott, thanks a lot.

TONG: You're welcome, Kai.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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