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Expectations for Climate Change Conference Limited

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Many environmentalists were disappointed last year when the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen did not end with a broad agreement to combat climate change, and they do not expect a major agreement to come out of the upcoming meeting in Cancun, Mexico from Nov 29 to Dec 10. But activists say governments attending the conference can still take incremental steps to advance world efforts to mitigate global warming.


Last year's climate conference in Copenhagen did produce consensus on some issues, but it failed to produce a major treaty that would bind nations to limits on their greenhouse gas emissions.

Many nations agree in general on the need to reduce emissions, yet they are often reluctant to commit themselves to measures that they think could imperil their own economic growth.

These national concerns, not the U.N.-sponsored process, prevented agreement in Copenhagen, says David Turnbull, the executive director of Climate Action Network International. "It wasn't because the U.N. is faulty, or because the consensus-based system is a problem. It's because the politics back home were not conducive to achieving an agreement," he said.

Turnbull says participants in the Cancun meeting should concentrate on plans to help poorer nations reduce emissions without jeopardizing development.  "We want to see them put forward low-carbon action plans, or zero-carbon action plans. These are plans that allow for countries to develop, but look towards low-carbon, cleaner ways of developing," he said.

One area where nations could make progress in Cancun is deforestation. Scientists say it is a major contributor to global warming.

Scientists also are concerned about the rise in greenhouse gas emissions from factories, power plants and vehicles in China, India and other rapidly developing nations.

China is now the world's biggest emitter of carbon and other greenhouse gases, but it promised to take action on its own at last year's meeting.

Neal Lane, a science policy analyst at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, considers China's commitment as a key part of advancing worldwide action on climate change. "I think the real challenge will be to be sure that China sticks to what it agreed to in Copenhagen and, of course, the United States, the (Obama) administration, is going to stick to what it agreed to," said Lane

But without binding agreements, there is no mechanism to determine if a country is taking effective action and there are no consequences if they are not.

Lane was a science advisor to President Bill Clinton. He says he hopes Cancun helps to foster more transparency. "I would expect some more progress on that issue of transparency because trust is really a big deal here. Often the reason nations cannot even come together on what seems reasonable is because they do not trust one another," he said.

Lane says he also expects to see participants in Cancun do more on adaptation, with funds from richer countries being used to help poor nations that are most likely to feel the effects of climate change in the decades ahead.

Lane says some years back he was skeptical about how bad these effects might be, but he says the science convinced him of the grave threat. "When I talked to the people who were doing climate science, who were measuring temperature change, sea level rise and doing the climate modeling, those were the people who were most fearful. Those were the people who felt most strongly about the negative consequences of climate change. So that got my attention," he said.

Lane says he hopes there will be progress in Cancun, because the world depends on it.

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