International leaders are congratulating each other over the final agreement reached at the recent Cancun climate change summit. But looking closely, it becomes clear the gains are more illusory than real. The world is certainly not any closer to cutting down effectively on the greenhouse gas emissions.
All that has happened is that pledges made by rich countries over the past year under the Copenhagen accord have been incorporated into United Nations documentation. For the first time, developing countries also agreed to look at how they can cut emissions in the future - but did not make specific pledges.
But even if one were to take the pledges at face value, it is still no great news. For after all those pledges, the global warming is projected to increase by 3.2C - far higher than the 2C generally considered to be a level of "safe" warming.
The final deal does mention the need to limit global warming to 2 and 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. But to keep warming limited to these targets, global total emissions need to drop below 44 billion tones CO2eq per year by 2020, whereas after adding up reduction proposals of individual countries and taking into account accounting provisions, expected global emissions leave a gap of 12 billion tonnes CO2eq/yr by 2020, according to the Climate Action Tracker, a trusted websiteon the issue.
Besides, unlike under the Kyoto agreement, the current international treaty binding rich countries to cut emissions, there will be no worldwide emission target. Each country will determine its own limits, and no one will question whether these targets, taken together, will be adequate to stop global warming. The UN will be allowed to check to see whether countries are keeping their pledges, or not. But if they're not, the international body will be powerless to force them to comply. Add to it the fact that none of the cuts are legally binding, one will get a clearer picture of what has happened.
More importantly, decisions on the future of the Kyoto protocol were effectively deferred until South Africa next year. Whether countries will sign up for a second "commitment period" to cuts beyond 2012 remains to be seen. Any binding cuts hereafter could be a tall order, given the determination of the emerging countries to catch up and the reluctance of the rich countries to back down too much. So in the name of development, emissions will continue.
Of course a formal backing was given to the UN's deforestation scheme, Redd (reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation), under which rich countries pay poorer nations not to chop down forests and so lock away carbon emissions. But details on when and exactly what form the scheme will take - particularly whether developed countries will be able to use it to "offset" their emissions rather than make cuts at home - are still vague.
A new climate green fund was also agreed upon to transfer money from the developed to developing world to tackle the impacts of climate change, but no figure was put on how much money will go into it.
Separately, ministers repeated their political promise made last year at Copenhagen to raise $100bn (£63bn) in climate aid by 2020, starting with $30bn (£19bn) by 2012 for "fast track" financing. This headline-grabbing promise, however, is not part of the UN process and is merely an aspiration of rich countries.
A technology executive committee and a climate technology centre and network are to be set up to transfer knowledge of clean technology, but there are no details on the money, where they will be based, when or by whom, points out Adam Vaughan, writing in the Guardian.
As National Post commented acidly, "We think we see a pattern here. The devil is in the details, so agree to broad motherhood principles and delay any discussion of details as long as possible. That way dealing with the devil can be avoided indefinitely and delegates are free to continue jetting around from one resort to another for lavish annual gatherings at someone else's expense."