The consensus reached at 3:00 a.m. on Saturday to forge the “Cancun Agreements” was a critical step forward in forging an effective global compact to fight global warming. It was the best possible outcome from a meeting that was often teetering on the edge of disaster. Nonetheless, these agreements will not solve the problem, and some of the hardest issues in forging a climate treaty are still waiting to be addressed. But in a relatively short time, especially for this process, the parties came together on a balanced package of decisions on adaptation, forestry, technology transfer, the structure of climate finance, and other issues which will be the basis for progress moving forward.

Achieving these agreements also vindicates for now the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, which had been on life support for a number of years for failing to negotiate through its own consensus process to move an agreement out of the body. Last year, even though over a hundred world leaders gathered together in Denmark to forge the Copenhagen Accord — the first significant step forward on a climate agreement since the Kyoto Protocol — the UNFCCC could not seal the deal with five countries exercising their effective veto to block the accord as an official decision of the UNFCCC. This left the agreement in limbo throughout the year.

This year, with the exception of a lone holdout who was overruled by the Mexican chair of the meeting at the last minute, all 194 parties agreed to turn the core elements of the Copenhagen Accord, expressed in a scant six page outline last year, to 33 pages of densely packed text which the negotiators will now be bound to use in working for a final agreement. It will also set substantive global goals and requirements on adaptation and mitigation for the present.

This outcome gets us halfway between the original idea of the Copenhagen Accord as originally articulated by the Danes: A two step process starting with a political agreement in 2009 to be followed by a legal agreement based on the same principles at a later date. While the Cancun Agreements are not the full second step they are a solid half step forward, a kind of Copenhagen 1.5.

Two weeks of tension

Coming into these meetings two weeks ago there were a number of issues in play, any of which could have derailed the process and resulted in no agreements whatsoever. Everyone agreed though that a fully fleshed out climate treaty was not going to emerge this year but were hopeful that issues would be resolved sufficiently to get a “balanced package” of agreements, first on improvements to the Kyoto Protocol, and second on core issues like forestry, finance, and technology from the companion negotiating track on Long-Term Cooperative Action (LCA).

The stage for a balanced however had not yet been set. While the Copenhagen Accord had set down markers for the building blocks for a package of agreements many parties didn’t want to use it at all.

Largely due to the ambiguous outcome of the 2009 Copenhagen meeting, there had been tension throughout the interim negotiating season over whether the Copenhagen Accord could even be used as the basis for discussions moving forward. Perhaps sensing this instability several parties, including China, began walking back their commitments under the accord and others demanded that it could not be used in any official communication as new treaty language was hashed out to prepare text for consideration at Cancun.

Most important to the United States was the compromise language that had been achieved in Copenhagen on a system of measuring, reporting, and verifying emissions (MRV). For years developing countries had maintained that they should not be bound, indeed could not be bound under the rules of the UNFCCC, to any system of MRV on their voluntary emission reductions. The Copenhagen Accord suggested an agreement whereby one system of MRV would be used for mitigation actions by developing countries supported by outside financial support, and another system would be used for actions which were not supported. As early as spring though this compromise looked like it had evaporated.

In response, the U.S. maintained that they would not agree to a balanced package coming out of Cancun until progress was again made on this issue and argued throughout the year that the only satisfactory outcome was a complete agreement rather than a package. As Deputy Climate Envoy Jonathan Pershing put it at the beginning of the Cancun meeting: “Moving ahead on a few issues — deemed by some to be easy — while holding off on others — deemed by some to be difficult — is not be a path for success.”

But the U.S. was far from being the only party raising possible hurdles. Japan rocked the meeting at the outset announcing (though in reality just repeating something they had been saying for a year) that they would refuse to sign on to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012. Their rationale however was sound. The countries in the protocol now only account for less than 30 percent of global emissions and so even the most ambitious mitigation targets in a second commitment period cannot hope to solve the problem.

Many parties however reacted in shock and anger. Given that the protocol is the only agreement that binds parties to emission reductions, and that a Japanese withdraw could lead to the effective end of the protocol if other countries followed, some saw this as an effective end to the goal of achieving a legally binding climate treaty. Unconfirmed reports in Cancun claimed that over a dozen world leaders had called the Japanese prime minister over the course of the meeting in appeals to reverse the decision.

Finally, of the five countries who blocked the Copenhagen Accord from moving forward last year — Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and the Sudan — Bolivia emerged as the most outspoken critic of almost all parts of the Cancun package. Throughout the week they confidently threatened to blow up any compromise deal using the UNFCCC’s consensus rule unless their demands were met. These included a requirement that the climate fund described in the Copenhagen Accord be funded only from public sources from developed countries and set at 1.5 percent of GDP from these parties, a ban on using market mechanisms to leverage funding for forest programs, and insistence that the overall agreement had to acknowledge “rights for mother nature.”

The showdown

The air of the conference hall was thick with rumors up until the final outcome that one or another of these parties, or others, would prevent a compromise from emerging. Following reports from late night negotiations the previous evenings the biggest worries were about the United States whose negotiators had been digging in and arguing for substantive changes on almost all parts of the negotiating text. Others thought that any developing country invested in the continuance of the Kyoto Protocol might object to any agreement because of Japan’s announcement.

Following an elaborate system of consultation the meeting chair, Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, temporarily stopped the negotiating on Friday afternoon and prepared a chair’s text which made the hard choices on all points of disagreement. These clean copies of what were christened later as the “Cancun Agreements” — a package of deals from the working groups on the Kyoto Protocol and Long-Term Cooperative Action — were then distributed and a three hour break was called to absorb them.

When the next plenary started at 9:00 p.m., it was clear from the beginning that the problem would not be the United States, or any other party, but primarily Bolivia. Bolivian Ambassador to the United Nations Pablo Solon started with
a sustained attack on the documents and almost all points of compromise. Cuba later joined in with severe words for both the Mexican hosts and the texts. Venezuela and Saudi Arabia called for longer negotiating sessions to get to the bottom of the disagreements.

But otherwise the mood in the hall was overwhelmingly in the other direction. Leaders of small island states, least developed countries and all major industrialized polluters praised the Cancun Agreements as imperfect but altogether an excellent compromise. They lauded Espinosa’s leadership and marked the agreements as a sound step forward. Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh called Espinosa a “goddess.” Many obliquely suggested trying to end the meeting then and there with a unanimous declaration of consent but Espinosa divided the room back to the two working groups to have them individually consider each separate package.

Other than a few minor technical questions, the two working group sessions starting at midnight mainly consisted in Bolivian Ambassador Solon denouncing the very idea of the Cancun documents and then going on to iterate a series of criticisms of the substance of each document. In both cases, the chairs of these sessions tried to gavel through a consensus agreement on the documents despite the objections and in each case Solon insisted that the consensus rule gave him the prerogative of blocking anything from emerging out of these meetings.

The bulk of his arguments were curious. What most had in common was an insistence that any agreement made in Cancun would completely lock the UNFCCC into a disastrous policy choice. For example, Solon argued that the LCA document was completely insufficient to achieve its stated goal of holding temperature increase at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F) because it had no stated emission targets. But while true, it was clear before the meeting started that such harder to negotiate details would be left off the table for now in order to achieve a compromise on some building blocks for a final treaty.

In this respect though, Solon’s worries were not unlike many that have been expressed since last year about the Copenhagen Accord by a variety of commentators. But just like the Copenhagen Accord the Cancun Agreements are not designed to foreclose the possibility of eventually folding in their content into a binding treaty with emission reduction targets. Both documents simply don’t address certain questions in the interests of making progress for now. What is even more important is that the agreements are structured so as to beg their gaps as important questions that must be addressed as soon as possible to make the agreements complete.

This rejection by the Bolivians of any pragmatic steps toward progress began to turn the assembled negotiators even more solidly against them. The most vocal were representatives from neighboring Latin and Central American nations who had clearly had enough of Solon’s intransigence. One after another challenged the Bolivians until eventually they voiced an opinion that had not been strongly expressed in pubic at these meetings though many had expressed it in private: The UNFCCC consensus rule either has to go or be radically reinterpreted. A negotiator from Columbia in the LCA meeting put it most starkly: “Consensus does not mean giving the right of veto to one country.”

It was a good turn of events to have this view expressed from the floor as reports on Friday were that the Mexicans had already decided that if push came to shove they would take a hard hitting interpretation of the prerogative of the chair in these meetings and simply not allow a single objection to impede an agreement.

When the final plenary reconvened Espinosa delivered, and after patiently listening to a series of strident objections from Solon, gaveled away his objection saying, “Of course I do note your opinion and I will be more than happy to make sure it is reflected in the records of the conference. And if there is no other opinion, this text is approved.” (The final showdown between the two can be watched here staring eleven minutes in.)

Another kind of step forward

But what did the Cancun Agreements get us? Primarily they enshrined the gains from the Copenhagen Accord — establishing temperature target for mitigation, a system of MRV, an agreement on forestry and land use, technology transfer, adaptation, and the architecture for a climate fund that apply to all parties and not just developed countries — in an official U.N. decision. But rather than being a thin paragraph on each topic, as we had in Copenhagen, the agreements have included detail which will significantly elevate the expectations on all parties for a range of obligations and lock in good compromises for a future hoped for binding treaty. In a companion column to this one, Richard Caperton outlines the details in the agreements on forestry, finance, and MRV. In all cases we see significant improvement in the texts since the negotiating began and massive improvement over the status quo which was, of course, no agreements on these topics at all.

A lot is left unanswered, most critically the gap between the national pledges under the Copenhagen Accord and the now confirmed 2 degree Celsius target in the Cancun Agreements. In that respect the substance of these agreements will best be measured over the next year as we see how they help to bootstrap serious discussions over those topics and advance a new treaty to deal with those problems.

But what may be remembered as the biggest success of this meeting may not be the agreements themselves but the success over reforming the process which emerged in the birth of the Cancun Agreements.

Many commentators, including myself, have been saying for some time that the UNFCCC has outlived its usefulness as the sole forum for seeking a climate treaty and needed to be complimented with parallel processes to get a climate agreement in the G20 or the U.S. led Major Economies Forum. While there is no reason to stop seeking complimentary technology development programs and sectoral agreements in these other forums as I’ve been calling for, the Cancun outcome has demonstrated that the UNFCCC’s biggest problem — the consensus rule — could be massaged under the right conditions.

One could even hope that the outcome today might lead to a call for a wholesale revision of the voting rules of the convention. After all, this is the only major deliberative body on environmental issues which operates in this way. And though flawed for many reasons neither the Montreal Protocol, the International Whaling Commission, the Convention on Biological Diversity, nor the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species work in this manner. From the negotiating floor in Cancun in the wee hours of Saturday morning many appeared hungry for a similar alternative.

One can also imagine looking for an alternative because the Cancun outcome could have been so very different. If Bolivia had not wound up being the sole voice of dissent, and if they had been joined by their friends in Cuba and Venezuela, and possibly even Saudi Arabia, their objections might not have been gaveled through with the support of the hall. If the Mexicans had not been such skilled diplomats from the beginning, and fashioned a process where the vast majority of parties felt that they had been fully vetted on a compromise package, others might have rallied to the Bolivian’s procedural objections.

What is certain however is that we finally have an agreement on critical areas of mitigation and adaption that need to be built upon if there is to be any hope for an international climate compact that can get the job done.