Turn the page on poverty

Cancun 2010 blog

Barry CoatesOxfam New Zealand Executive Director Barry Coates wrote from the United Nations climate conference in Cancun, Mexico, where he was part of Oxfam's advocacy team. Barry also attended and blogged from previous conferences in Copenhagen and Bangkok

Dec 10 — Agreement in Cancun

It’s midnight on Friday – so close to a done deal. I am sitting in a conference room with hundreds of people watching the end game. The contrast to the last hours of Copenhagen could not be more stark.

UN Climate Change Conference Cancún Mexico. Photo: UNFCCC
UN climate change delegates and observers gather on the last
night of the climate conference in Cancun. Good progress has been made towards Oxfam's ultimate goal of a fair, ambitious and legally binding deal. Photo: UNFCCC

Although it’s not everything we need, the agreement on the table puts the UN negotiations back on track after the shambles of Copenhagen last year. Expectations were lowered in the run-up to Cancun and completing the final agreement was never a possibility. And for much of the conference, there was a distinct possibility that the process may fall apart, particularly when Japan announced that they could not sign up to a 2nd commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. But, unlike Copenhagen, the dynamics were positive, the process was transparent and negotiations were skilfully steered by the Patricia Espinosa, the Mexico Minister for the Environment, as chair.

So tonight, when it became obvious that a deal had been crafted, there was such a palpable feeling of relief amongst the delegates and observers that the chair got two standing ovations, the first for three minutes. The speeches were mostly upbeat, although the Bolivian Climate Change Ambassador complained that governments had not gone far enough in agreeing emissions cuts. He is right, but for almost all the governments, the deal on the table is a good step forward, and all that could be achieved.

It has been difficult to call. The emissions reduction pledges in the Copenhagen Accord were merely noted in this Cancun agreement. They fall woefully short of the level of ambition required to avoid dangerous climate change. The pledges add up to 12-18 per cent below 1990 levels to be achieved by 2020. This is way short of the required level of 40 per cent.

However, the good news is that, for the first time in the agreement, there is recognition of the inadequacy of the pledges, and there is a process to raise the level of ambition. The agreement specifies a target range of 25-40 per cent emissions cuts for the wealthy countries (drawn from the 4th Assessment Report of the IPCC), and a process for clarification, analysis and comparison. This is a potential way to raise the level of ambition, but there will need to be a serious increase in political will amongst the rich nations for this to happen.

Green climate fund established

Amongst the highlights from the conference are the establishment of a Green Climate Fund (couldn’t they have come up with a snappier title?!), an Adaptation Committee to provide learning and guidance on adapting to changing climates, a framework for supporting clean technology, an agreement to reduce deforestation, and a process for reviewing the global goal of maintaining global temperature rise below 2°C, specifically to look at a pathway to keeping temperature rise below 1.5°C. This is crucial for the survival of low lying communities and islands, including our Pacific neighbours.

The structure, governance and design of the Green Climate Fund includes ensuring that a significant share of the money for adaptation will be channelled through the Fund, and calls for a balance of mitigation and adaptation (to redress the Adaptation Gap – the past situation where only 10 per cent of climate funding has been devoted to adaptation). It was disappointing that discussions on filling the Fund have not gone far. There was no agreement on the proposal for the most promising source of funding – levies on shipping and aviation fuels.

Confidence restored in the multilateral system

Considering the expectations for Cancun, this is a good outcome. It restores confidence in the multilateral system, and the UN system in particular, which is much needed. This is a global problem and it needs a global agreement.

Oxfam's giant sand sculpture of Mexican farmers calling for concrete action on climate change. Photo: Ainhoa Goma/Oxfam
On the last day of the talks, Oxfam unveiled a giant sand sculpture of Mexican farmers calling for concrete action for the sake of the millions of poor people around the world who are already feeling the effects of climate change..

But 24 hours ago, we had real doubts that they would be able to put such a complex deal together. We were preparing ourselves for a collapse or a bad deal. But the deal was done through skilful chairing, not only by the Mexican chair, but also by the government Ministers acting as facilitators, including the New Zealand Minister, Tim Groser. It also drew on a far more constructive and flexible negotiating approach from most countries, with the exception of a few including the US, Japan, Canada and Saudi Arabia.

The US in particular, blocked agreement to other elements of the agenda until they were able to get the key element they needed for domestic political purposes – a system of monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) for the emissions reductions in developing countries. The target was China, but fortunately the Cancun conference was spared the sharp disagreements between the US and China that had been evident in Tianjin two months earlier. The irony is that China has entered its pledges in 5 year development plans and has a very good record of implementing what it commits to do – in fact, their record of compliance is far better than legislation in many countries.

On the final evening, it became apparent that a deal was possible and the mood of the delegates lifted. Applause and even cheering broke out. Now the hard work starts. Overcoming the really difficult issue of comparability between the countries that have signed the Kyoto Protocol and the US (which hasn’t) will return as a challenge. So will the insistence that larger developing countries take on the same obligations as the US, even though the mandate for the negotiations clearly identifies a difference based on per capita emissions and historical responsibility for the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Despite their initial reluctance to agree to a 2nd commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, Japan agreed to go along with the deal on the table. But this is not the end of the process. The compromise required all the developed and developing countries to accept an agreement where the US is treated leniently on the issue of compliance for their emissions reductions. This leniency must not be allowed to undermine the integrity of emissions targets.

We need to build political will for deeper emissions cuts

Some of the most difficult challenges lie ahead. We need to collectively build the political will for countries to accept far deeper emissions cuts and accelerate the pace of negotiations to secure a fair, ambitious and binding global deal.

The warning signs are there. While in Cancun, NASA confirmed that 2010 has been the hottest year on record, and the past ten years the hottest decade. Last week’s massive floods in Colombia and neighbouring countries are the kinds of impacts predicted by climate models.

Further delays will risk worsening natural disasters – droughts, heat waves and intense cyclones – as well as melting glaciers, further sea level rises and the rapid acidification of our oceans. The impacts are falling most heavily on those least able to cope – women, men and children living in vulnerable communities in the developing world. Cancun may have put the climate talks back on track, but now we need them to be concluded quickly and followed up by urgent action.

It is now 2.10am. The delegates are tired and so are we, the passionate NGOs from around the world, the social movements, women’s organisations, trade unions, academics, faith groups, the dedicated few amongst the media who stayed up, and the concerned citizens who have been pushing for a good deal in Cancun. The final plenary is about to start. Bolivia is still raising concerns about the process and the lack of ambition, but in the end they joined the consensus.

At 3.32am the Cancun deal was agreed.

Dec 9 — Coming down to the wire in Cancun

Last night was very tense here at the climate change talks in Cancun. There is a certain rhythm when the deadline approaches. Some countries refuse to negotiate until they get their own way, playing Russian roulette and pushing the talks to the brink of collapse. This is particularly the case with the US at this summit. Their obstructionist behaviour is getting in the way of progress and putting people’s lives at risk.

I am writing this during heated parallel meetings, one chaired by NZ Climate Change Negotiations Minister, Tim Groser. The prospects of real progress in Cancun are on the edge. Here is the state of play:

The positive and constructive spirit that was evident last week is being put to the test. The real negotiations have finally begun, and parties are working late into the night. So far there has been too much posturing and not enough searching for solutions.

Checking the negotation texts. Photo: Ainhoa Goma/Oxfam
Oxfam's Barry Coates (left) and David Waskow analyse the negotiation texts in the conference center at the climate talks.

As expected, the issues of mitigation (reducing climate change pollution) and the future of the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol are crucial. There is a proposal from the facilitators – UK, Brazil, Indonesia and NZ – which would see the Copenhagen Accord pledges listed in "Information documents" and taken note of in the decision text. This is not a strong enough solution for many developing countries and NGOs. Venezuela and others suggested this would signify a rolling back even from the commitments made under the Copenhagen Accord. Merely "taking note" of the numbers is very weak, and does not entail any legal obligations whatsoever on parties with regard to the pledges. That's a lowest common denominator approach, and parties must do better. We need progress towards an agreement, not just a noting of what was agreed in the last hours of Copenhagen.

On a range of other issues, the US continues to block progress. They are unconstructively insisting that the issue of concern to them (MRV, or Measurement, Reporting and Verification) is resolved to their satisfaction before they allow anything else to move. They are refusing to agree issues such as the establishment of an adaptation committee, agreement to the proposed technology transfer mechanism and, crucially, the establishment of a global Climate Fund.

Last night in the finance negotiations, developing countries pushed for agreement on a decision that would establish a new Climate Fund, refusing to discuss the modalities of such a fund until this was clear. The US was unprepared to do that without further progress on the issue of MRV.

These blocking tactics in all night negotiating sessions are particularly hard to bear for the smaller delegations of many developing countries – those who have most at stake in a successful deal in Cancun. Their few delegates are expected to work into the morning hours, a workload that is more manageable for the larger delegations from the industrialised countries.

The Climate Fund is essential as an agreement from Cancun. This is a key to unlocking the potential for developing countries to strengthen their action on climate change, as well as to provide funding for countries and communities around the world suffering the harshest impacts. The US must not be allowed to hold the lives of poor and vulnerable people hostage to their political needs.

With one day left to strike a deal which delivers for poor countries already facing worsening droughts, stronger storms and eroding shorelines, it is time for Ministers to lead in our common interests, not to pursue their own political agendas.

Dec 7 — Will Ministers unlock the Cancun talks?

Things are starting to move here in Cancun. Most of the Ministers arrived today, joining around 30 who have been around since the weekend. Some were shoulder-tapped to do consultations on key issues, including the New Zealand Minister Tim Groser, who has been paired with the Indonesian Minister to consult on mitigation and MRV – which is how to go about Measuring, Reporting and Verifying emissions cuts – one of the really tough nuts to crack.

Oxfam demonstrates with mojigangas, traditional mexican puppets. Photo: Ainhoa Goma/Oxfam
Oxfam demonstrates with 4m high mojigangas, traditional mexican puppets, calling for a fair climate deal that puts women first.

The arrival of politicians can help unlock these talks. In the past three years there has been some progress but at this rate we may be negotiating for the next decade. A major problem has been that the political mandate has never been clearly defined for the negotiators – this was obvious when the current round was kicked off in Bali in 2007. The subsequent summit in Poland failed to make important political decisions, leaving a log-jam for Copenhagen in 2009.

There is some interesting re-thinking of what Copenhagen achieved or not. Certainly it was badly chaired by Denmark (not the fault of the Environment Minister who is now with the EU) and it damaged trust between countries. But, as Michael Jacobs, former climate adviser to Gordon Brown (and old friend from my UK days) has written, the Copenhagen Accord was never officially adopted but countries accounting for around 85 per cent of global emissions have put in pledges under it. The Copenhagen Accord, for all its failings and bad process, has provided some of the political direction that has been lacking.

So in preparation for Ministers starting the "high level segment", the pace of negotiations accelerated today. It's been a juggling act, with my time divided between analysing the last draft of the section on finance (the "text") to understand what changes are being made, who is making them and where there is scope for the points Oxfam wants to see included; lobbying delegations; writing articles; coordinating Oxfam’s policy team work; tracking the flow of information on email and Skype chats; networking with allies, generally through the coordinating group, Climate Action Network; and doing media interviews (from Al-Jazeera to USA Today!)

In all of this, I did not get a chance to join a march involving the international farmer’s movement, Via Campesina, the indigenous people’s networks and of a host of social movements and NGOs from Mexico and across Latin America, but I have had a look at the photos.

Evenings are the time for meetings. Tonight was the New Zealand delegation reception, with the Minister, Nick Smith and the NZ negotiating team (but not Tim Groser who was tied up in consultations). The highlight was the presentation of an amazing fern mounted on a long sheet, containing hundreds of signatures (I couldn’t even see where mine was) and messages for the negotiations. The fantastic NZ Youth Delegation, who made the fern, gave a speech about the importance of the talks, especially for their future. They have been doing some great campaigning on the accounting rules for forests (called LULUCF for all you policy wonks). I will include some photos in the next blog.

But in amongst all of this, has been the opportunity to discuss strategy for climate change campaigning with allies in the Global Campaign for Climate Action – the tcktcktck campaign. Key people from Oxfam, Greenpeace, WWF, Avaaz and 350.org talked about where to next for the campaign. I also had a chance to meet with Martin Khor, formerly head of Third World Network and now head of the South Centre. I have worked with Martin on trade issues for many years and on climate issues more recently. I have huge respect for his incredible power of analysis, confirmed by his really interesting insights into the dynamics of the negotiations.

I have not yet mentioned much about the Pacific negotiators and NGOs here in Cancun. Pacific people have acted as the moral conscience of these negotiations with skill and determination, generally working with other island countries in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). It has been great catching up with Oxfam partners Pelenise Alofa from Kiribati and the amazing Ursula Rakova from Bougainville. She is an inspiration.

Another AOSIS representative made a memorable comment today in response to British Minister Chris Huhne, who pointed out that if you had a 95 per cent chance of your house burning down, and it would only cost 2 per cent of your income to insure it, you'd kick yourself if you didn't do something. The AOSIS negotiator pointed out that it is more like there are 192 houses in these negotiations and the developing country houses are on fire. This was in support of the proposal from AOSIS to introduce a form of insurance for loss and damage from climate change, an innovative and important idea.

There are now three days to go. Oxfam is calling on ministers to elevate the level of vision and ambition for these negotiations, and ensure that the key political direction is provided. This must include the agreement to set up a new fair Climate Fund and clarity about the legally binding outcome of the UNFCCC negotiations. Success in securing agreement on these issues is essential to mark Cancun as a milestone that accelerates the pace of negotiations towards an agreement in Durban next year.

Tomorrow morning, the Ministers get down to work. They carry the expectations and hopes of millions of people. We will encourage them to be bold, but also hold them to account for the decisions they make.

Dec 3 — We have no more time

Negotiations have picked up pace in Cancun. But it is impossible not to feel frustrated with how long it has taken to get to this point. The problem is not just about the past few days in Cancun. Much of the past three years of negotiations has been wasted since the Ministerial meeting in Bali in 2007 that kicked off these negotiations. Government negotiators stated their positions early on, and then in meeting after meeting over the past three years, repeated these positions. Too much of the time and energy of negotiators has been spent trying to score points off each other.

Indigenous delegates gather at the Indigenous People's Caucus in Cancun. Photo: Ainhoa Goma/Oxfam
Indigenous delegates gather at the Indigenous People's Caucus in Cancun. Many Indigenous peoples are living on the front lines of climate change.

In previous years, the rich nations were very good at doing this and used un-transparent and biased processes to get their own way. This is particularly the case in venues such as the World Trade Organisation. The last time I was in Cancun was for the WTO trade talks in 2003. After huge protests and the tragic death of a Korean farmer, the talks collapsed in spectacular fashion. The African group walked out of the Cancun WTO negotiations after an unfair negotiations process (eg. a small group of nations were picked to steer the outcome – the "Green Room" named after the office in Geneva where the practice started) and after rich nations tried to force their own issues (notably the deregulation of international business) onto an agenda that was meant to be about development (the ‘Doha Development Agenda’). Since then the WTO talks have limped along, in perpetual deadlock.

There have been some similar tactics tried in past climate change talks, although the common aims in negotiations on climate change are more obvious than on trade (or should be). This was one of the reasons that the Copenhagen talks last year were so ill-tempered and disappointing.

The world has changed and these unfair negotiating tactics are being challenged. Developing countries have gained negotiating skill and economic power. The tectonic plates of global governance have shifted with the rise in economic and political power of the major developing countries. As a result, developing countries will no longer accept the agendas imposed by the rich nations. And they negotiate skilfully and collectively in groups – including the large and powerful BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), Africa and other regional groups, the radical ALBA group (Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and some Caribbean countries), the low income Least Developed Countries and the moral conscience of the negotiations, the Alliance of Small Island States.

So the good news from this re-alignment is that developed nations will not get away lightly with their attempts to renege on their obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When Japan earlier in the week said they would not agree to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, the response from negotiators was sharp and strong. Japan was heavily criticised. Civil society groups have also played an important role – Japan’s announcement was met with campaign actions here in Cancun from NGOs in the Global Campaign for Climate Action, and by campaigners in many countries. It appears that Japan has been surprised by the reaction (I don’t know why they didn’t anticipate it). They are still here, and still negotiating and they may be showing more flexibility than their harsh statement implied ("we will never inscribe our target in the Annex B to the Kyoto Protocol under any circumstances and conditions").

But in other ways this greater balance of power poses challenges to global governance. In climate change negotiations, as in most UN negotiations, there are two main blocs – developed and developing countries – under the rather outdated UN definitions (developing countries include relatively rich nations like South Korea and Singapore). The two blocs can grind each other into stalemate, as they seek to gain advantage, often through unproductive points scoring. Even the most obvious decisions, such as defining a base year for emissions reductions, take years to agree. The answer to the question was always going to be 1990, as it was under the Kyoto Protocol, but Canada and Croatia resisted because it doesn’t suit their pattern of greenhouse gas emissions. Yesterday, after three years, it appeared that this issue had finally been agreed. Glacial progress.

The United Nations is often blamed for these problems, but really the blame lies in the approach of governments. Despite the attempts of the United States and others to find a new place to negotiate, only the UN can generate the full participation and buy-in that is essential for a global agreement.

This means that negotiations are taking years, and we are running out of time. Rising greenhouse gas emissions are causing damage and suffering. The World Meteorological Organisation came out with its most recent data earlier this week. It shows that the past decade has been the hottest ever. Temperatures this month will determine whether 2010 is the hottest year since records began. But millions of people around the world know this already. Farmers know that the seasons are changing, that droughts or intense rainfall are destroying their crops and storms are more frequent and intense. Climate change is deadly serious and extremely urgent, particularly to millions of poor and vulnerable people whose lives and livelihoods are at risk.

The good news from Cancun is that, despite the glacial progress over the past three years, Japan’s unhelpful announcement, and a myriad of other obstacles, there is a real possibility that there will be some meaningful agreement here. The Mexican government has been fair and transparent in chairing the negotiations, but they have also been insistent that negotiations will not take place on a line-by-line basis, with arguments over every word. They are steering progress forward through informal meetings, the involvement of Ministers (including New Zealand’s Minister of Climate Change Negotiations, Tim Groser), and strong directions by the chairs of working groups. A lot of the real progress in the negotiations is therefore happening outside the formal process, but it is being managed in an open and transparent way. At last, the negotiations are starting in earnest and compromises are getting made.

The establishment of an equitable and effective climate fund is long overdue.
The establishment of an equitable and effective climate fund is long overdue. More photos.

The agreement will not include everything we want. But it will include some elements that are important for tackling climate change and helping those at risk. In particular, Cancun might agree the basic structure of a fair Climate Fund. Oxfam has been lobbying negotiators to make sure the structure is equitable and effective in getting funding to those who desperately need it. Some of the other issues will need more work to get to a decision, particularly the level of ambitions on emissions reductions. There has been little progress on that so far, but at least Japan and others are still around the table negotiating. We are pushing hard for a clearly defined process beyond Cancun to raise the level of ambition for emissions reductions.

The 2003 collapse of the WTO trade negotiations was a disappointment for the developing countries that were pushing for fairer trade rules, but it had the silver lining of getting issues like investment out of the trade talks. It also sent a strong message that the rich nations could no longer bully their way to get what they want. But we haven’t got time for a collapse of these climate change negotiations. A collapse would mean even more delay and more suffering. As a T-shirt in Cancun worn by youth delegates here says: "You have been negotiating all my life. You cannot tell me you need more time."

We need a global agreement – a fair, ambitious and binding agreement. It is clear that an agreement won’t be signed here. But if we get the right result from Cancun, signing the deal in Durban next year becomes a real possibility. We have no more time.

Dec 1 — Lonely hearts but no tequila

The climate change talks have gotten really busy over the past two days. No midday siesta. No runs along the beach. Definitely no tequila. Only earnest conversations with government officials rushing from meeting to meeting. And lots of confusion.

This is partly because of the complexity of negotiating a huge range of interrelated issues. And these are issues about economics, business and jobs, as well as the climate, polar bears and vulnerable people. The stakes are high.

There are a number of draft documents being discussed in nine parallel sets of negotiations, plus many other informal groupings. Out of all of this is meant to come an agreement acceptable to all 192 countries.

Still unresolved is the fairly fundamental question of what is being negotiated. When the talks started at Bali in 2007, a main aim was to ensure that there would be no gap in the commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol runs out at the end of 2012, but there is a structure in place for a second commitment period to follow.

The US never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, so a parallel track was set up to create a way for them to join in the long-term global agreement. The negotiations have since been organised in two tracks – a second period of commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, and a "Long-term Cooperative Agreement".

But this plan has been undermined by toxic politics in the US, and the election of a slate of climate sceptics to the US Senate. I was passing a press conference room and heard the Brazilian Ambassador to these climate change talks, when asked to comment on the role of the United States in the negotiations, say: "I couldn't possibly comment on the actions of another country whose positions I disagree with!" Most undiplomatic.

There is now an acceptance that countries may need to move ahead without waiting for the US, again. But this time, the rich nations are balking.

Barry Coates in Cancun with activists who don't want Japan to break off it's relationship with the Kyoto Protocol
Barry Coates in Cancun with activists who don't want Japan to break off its relationship with the Kyoto Protocol. More photos.

Japan's statement on Monday that they would not, under any conditions, agree to a second round of commitments under the Kyoto protocol earned them the Fossil of the Day award (a special prize given by civil society groups to the country that does the most to block progress on climate change). It is ironic that the home country of the Kyoto Protocol has put the knife in. It has added to the perception that the rich nations (called Annex 1 countries) are trying to wriggle out of their responsibilities to reduce emissions and failing to recognise that they need to move first and furthest on climate change (since they were the countries that did the most to cause the problem).

The following "Lonely Hearts" ad appeared in today's daily news bulletin, ECO:

Annex 1 country seeking no-strings attached treaty for good times in Mexico. Currently trying to find a way out of a 13-year relationship with lots of commitment and compliance. Likes: excellent food, movies, comic books, robots and big industry. If interested please send a name and photo to ... scaredofcommitment@kyoto.com


But this is by no means the death knell of the Kyoto Protocol. Japan has made it clear they are prepared to make future emissions cuts. But not within the current form of this agreement. So the search is on for the solution – an answer to the question of what will be agreed in these negotiations. I'll write more about this over the next ten days.

In the meantime, the approach is to fill in the parts of the jigsaw that are ready, and particularly to set up the framework for climate funding, so that developing countries have the resources to help protect their communities and reduce their own emissions.

There has been progress in the past few days and it looks like a "fair climate fund" may possibly be agreed here in Cancun. This would be a big step forward from the stranglehold that donor countries have exercised over funding, either through their aid programmes or through institutions such as the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility. The result has been a spaghetti bowl of different funds that have forced developing countries to jump through unacceptable hoops – in one case, a proposal took four years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees. There is a better way, a more efficient way and a more accountable way.

At stake is how to get assistance to poor and vulnerable communities around the world that are suffering floods, droughts, heat waves and more frequent and/or intense storms. Their ability to grow food is under threat, as is their access to clean water. Millions of people are affected. This is worth fighting for and it is a major reason why I'm here in Cancun. These negotiations are not going to be easy, but there are definitely important agreements that can be achieved. Maybe there will be cause for having that tequila after all.

Nov 29 — Cancun starts

I'm sitting in the warm evening air of Cancun after the first day of the climate change talks. It was quite a trip getting here - I came from Timor-Leste and the journey took 60 hours!

It was a great preparation for me to go to Timor-Leste first. It is the poorest Asian country, still recovering from a bloody and traumatic struggle for independence. I visited some remote rural agricultural cooperatives with Oxfam's partner, Movimento Cooperativo Economico Agricola (MCE-A). These were small growers, generally farming a hectare of customary land and working on a larger plot with other members of the cooperative. They have recently increased their income through support from MCE-A. They use a revolving loan scheme to invest in hand-tractors and milling machines, and have dramatically improved yields from sustainable rice intensification using permaculture techniques. It is a really inspiring programme that is driven by the cooperatives themselves.

But in a country with high levels of malnutrition and months without enough food, these farmers have just experienced a disaster. This is not one we read about in the papers but one of the many thousands of disasters that happen around the world, affecting farmers such as those in Zumalai in Timor Leste. During the dry season they had unprecedented levels of heavy rainfall that caused floods and damaged their irrigation canals. The communities of Zumalai live a tenuous existence and disasters like this are the difference between them and their children having enough food for their needs – or not.

This is a typical situation faced by farmers around the world. Weather has become more extreme and unpredictable, and seasons have changed significantly over recent years. This is the backdrop for Oxfam's new report "Now More Than Ever: Climate talks that work for those who need them most", which says that 21,000 people died due to weather-related disasters in the first nine months of 2010 – more than twice the number for the whole of 2009. This year is on course to experience more extreme-weather events than the last ten-year average. Many countries have also broken heat records, with Pakistan logging 53.7°C – the highest ever in Asia.

Behind these numbers are the stories of people's lives. Not only millions of people suffering from the massive flooding in Pakistan or those affected by heat waves in Russia, but all of those whose destroyed lives and livelihoods never make it into the statistics or the media. It is the flooding affecting people in places like Zumalai in Timor Leste or the low-lying coasts of Bangladesh. It is those suffering from cyclones, king tides and sea swells in small islands across the Pacific. It is people struggling to cope with droughts across the arid zones of sub-Saharan Africa, and even in unexpected places like the Papua New Guinea Highlands. These are the people who did little to cause climate change. But they are the ones suffering most. This is a good reminder of why we are in Cancun.

Message in a bottle: Urgent Save Lives in Cancun
Urgent Save Lives in Cancun. A giant message in a bottle from the world's poorest to the delegates in Cancun. More photos.

When I arrived here, I was roped into Oxfam's campaign launch, featuring a great image on the beach. This giant message in a bottle says "Urgent: Save lives in Cancun" and has featured in newspapers and websites around the world. I also joined in an opening event for the Global Campaign for Climate Action (the TckTckTck campaign). Yesterday, TckTckTck and partners built a 'Mayan Pyramid of Hope'. Pyramids were built through collective will, and the 'Pyramid of Hope' serves as an affirmation of this collective will, showing what can be achieved if we work together. It is a message from tens of thousands of people around the world representing their aspirations for concrete action and real progress in Cancun. The pyramid is covered with photographs of people taking action in their communities to tackle climate change. UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres wrote her hopes on one of the pyramid's building blocks: "Commitment and compromise". You can see photos of both actions on the Oxfam Flickr site.

The negotiations started today. Not much to report, except for the usual highs and lows of political game-playing. The bad news was that Japan said that they would not, under any conditions, agree to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (which would mean that they would agree to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions after the end of 2012, when the first commitment period runs out). It is a bit ironic that it is Japan, the home of the Kyoto Protocol that is joining the US in not agreeing to these reduction commitments. The danger is that other countries, notably Canada and Russia, but also Australia and (shamefully) New Zealand, are likely to use this announcement to hide behind Japan and "kill" the Kyoto Protocol. This is a serious setback. The "like-minded countries" already went ahead in 1997 and signed the Kyoto Protocol without the US. But the like-minded group looks a lot smaller without those other countries as well. The EU is unlikely to agree to go it alone. This is a blow to many developing countries that have signalled their willingness to reduce emissions themselves. Even tough negotiators like China are making long-term commitments to reduce their emissions through renewable energy, clean technologies and shutting down polluting factories.

The good news from Day One is that a number of countries have made statements saying how important it is to make progress – to pick up the pieces after Copenhagen and move on. There are real gains that can be made on issues such as establishing a new climate fund that would channel money to the countries bearing the brunt of climate change, particularly the small and vulnerable nations (such as the Pacific islands), and to support emissions reductions in the developing world. And progress is possible on getting an agreement on adaptation and technology transfer. Other agreements that may come from Cancun are potentially more problematic – I will report out on the discussions around forests later this week. So the good news today is ‘mood music' but a refreshing change after the trauma of Copenhagen.

But now it is late and I'm still in recovery mode, trying to figure out what time zone I'm in. I may miss a day or two of blogging this week while things are a bit slow, but I'll write daily posts when Environment Ministers and some heads of state roll into Cancun next week. I'll leave you with the words of the negotiator from Tuvalu, again toughly defending their right to survive as communities, as a culture and as a nation: "Give life to KP (the Kyoto Protocol) or take the lives of people in vulnerable island countries". The stakes are high in Cancun.