A police officer stands guard at the surroundings of the Moon Palace Hotel where the UN Climate Change Conference is being held in Cancun, Mexico Image Credit: AP

After the disappointment of last year's climate meeting in Copenhagen, this year the annual United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) took their two-week vacation in Cancun with still no treaty in sight. With Cancun agreements postponing negotiations to next year and the $100 billion (Dh367 billion) Green Fund still pending, climate talks were all about trees.

In the lead-up to COP16 in Cancun, there was no talk of the legally-binding treaty that the southern or ‘developing' endorsed so enthusiastically last year. US President Barack Obama had intervened in the last hour of COP15 in Copenhagen to dash any hopes of reaching an agreement. He shifted gears and focused on forests.

What's so special about forests? Trees placed together in large parks or naturally surrounding cities serve as green lungs to inhale the carbon dioxide humans emit. The trees then exhale oxygen that we breathe. Hence the move to ‘greenify' cities now, from sidewalks to gardens to rooftops.

When the forests are immense like the Amazon, then the impact of cutting down trees is even greater for global emissions. Rather than cut man-made carbon dioxide emissions — that come largely from the northern or ‘industrialised' hemisphere — Obama says let's keep emitting as much as possible for the economy to continue churning and let's make sure the forests are kept intact.

The argument is therefore a double-edged sword: the environmental/ecologist clause is one blade that is used to say we need to protect the Earth and stop chopping; the other blade is that the leading economies can continue to pollute as much as necessary.

In a severe recession, such as the one instigated by the US and from which the country and Europe are beginning to emerge, the economy obviously takes precedence over the environment. As ‘green' as business is becoming, it's still the green dollar that shines brightest.

Of course, when the sword is swung around, it hits ‘developing' countries first and foremost. Similar to big business in the US or Europe, a farmer in South America or Africa will also not worry about nature when expanding his farmland. Felling trees is part of the business for more grazing lands, crop rotation, and general agriculture. The timber trade and industry are also very lucrative.

The exploitation of natural resources does not stop there. In Liberia, for example, mining and mineral extraction is highly profitable. China Union is involved heavily (in the multi-billions) in the iron ore trade there. Now, as a way to ‘emerge' from years of conflict and destitution, Liberia is exploring off-shore drilling for oil and gas. Ghana hit oil — so could Liberia. And there is the business of agro-forestry.

Who's going to stop some struggling farmers or herders from cutting and selling trees? Who's going to stop the militias and smugglers from selling and dealing minerals on the black market?

It is now well-known that the extraction of coltran mineral in the eastern part of the war- and rape-ridden Democratic Republic of Congo fuels the cellphone industry in Europe. Who's going to stop that? Who's going to stop using their cellphone?

All talk, no action

Obama and company do not seem too worried about any of that. Due to geographic and political proximity, Washington has pushed Mexico to accept focusing on forests. Cancun is generally known as a destination for students from the US going for a week or two of debauchery during spring break.

The usual NGO side-parties would be even wilder in Cancun, which would serve as a ‘stepping stone' for more serious talks in Cape Town, South Africa, next year.

Since South Africa was a signatory of the last-minute Copenhagen Accord last year, many expect more to come from Cape Town in 2011. Talking about trees may have been a side-show for this year, but it has helped raise more awareness about Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+). After The Little REDD+ Book was distributed at Copenhagen, REDD+ has joined the UN to launch a perspectives for developing countries at Cancun.

UN-REDD+ asserts that "cutting and burning trees adds more global warming pollution to the atmosphere than all the cars and trucks in the world, about 15 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions."

Fine, but if you're going to talk about trees, why did it take most of this COP16 to advance the negotiations for a ‘balanced package'? The Chair of the REDD+ negotiations can assemble countries to talk, but if a country wants revisions made to the text, like Bolivia did, then the process is delayed.

The most positive aspect of Cancun was the parallel World Climate Summit — a platform for private business to make a difference. The basic philosophy is that the world cannot wait for politics to someday straighten out.

Where governments get caught up in petty national rivalries, competition between big multi-national businesses has the potential to cause real ‘green' change.


- Stuart Reigeluth is Managing Editor of Revolve magazine.