11/29/2010 04:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Cancun Climate Talks, We Sink or Sail Together

Imagine a boat with 195 passengers on board traveling at 20 knots.

The boat develops a small leak that at first no-one notices. As it gets bigger, water starts to rise in the boat, which doesn't have enough lifeboats for everyone on board.

At first the passengers can't even agree on whether to address the leak, even though there are plenty of buckets on board that could be used to bail the rising water. Some think it best to continue on the current course and simply ignore the leak. This includes some on the upper first class deck -- where the rising water has not yet reached and who feel more confident in their ability to secure a place on a lifeboat.

Those on the lower decks, in second and third class, are much more concerned, and urge everyone with buckets to use them. They are already experiencing the effects of rising water and have the least ability to get on a lifeboat.

As the boat starts listing, a Danish passenger called an emergency meeting. But still there is no firm collective agreement on who needs to do what, or by when.

Bickering breaks out among passengers. Not all passengers with access to big buckets want to use them, especially if others are using smaller buckets. It just isn't fair, they complain. Some make holes in their buckets to reduce the need to do heavy lifting. Others will only bail if they are paid to by the richer passengers. After all the rich passengers selected the course of the boat and should accept greater responsibility for the leak. And the most vulnerable passengers have neither buckets nor the capacity to make it on to a lifeboat.

Now imagine this boat as Planet Earth. Each passenger represents a country. The rising water represents global greenhouse gas emissions. The size of the buckets represent the level of ambition of the Copenhagen Accord emissions reduction pledges. Added together, after plugging leaks, the buckets still fall about 40 percent short of what is needed to save the boat from sinking into the unchartered and dangerous waters associated with a rise in global temperature above two degree Celsius. Can the passengers still save themselves and their boat?

Yes they can. The window of opportunity to put global emissions trajectories on a course consistent with keeping global temperature rise below 2 degree Celsius from preindustrial levels has not yet closed for negotiators meeting in Cancún, Mexico for the United Nations climate conference. To take advantage of this fast closing window, negotiators must take three actions in Cancún.

  1. First, they need to close the 40% emissions gap between what is needed to keep global temperatures within safe limits and what the Copenhagen Accord pledges put forward by 80 plus countries will deliver. To achieve this, countries must stand unconditionally behind the most ambitious versions of their emission reduction pledges. Countries that have not yet made a pledge, need to step up to the plate. Everyone can do something. Countries must take steps at home to lay the groundwork for transitioning to a near-zero-carbon economy by 2050. A climate science review mechanism will need to be instigated to ensure that commitments remain consistent with the latest science.
  2. Second, negotiators must agree on standardized, robust and credible accounting rules and monitoring systems for tracking a country's emissions. These are essential for fostering trust and cooperation among countries. We can't afford to be distracted by accusations of leaky buckets - countries not doing their fair share, or failing to honor pledges with actions at home. Countries need to feel confident that everyone is pulling together.
  3. Third, negotiators must agree on effective support mechanisms for helping the most vulnerable countries adapt to the physical impacts of climate change and for catalyzing the needed emissions reductions. This includes delivering the additional financial support promised in the Copenhagen Accord to countries with the least capacity to act. It also involves creating a new technology mechanism, whereby countries can share low carbon technologies and development models.

Depending on how successful negotiators in Cancún are in advancing these urgently needed actions, we will either sink or sail together.