After the modest results of the climate change talks in Copenhagen a little more than a year ago, expectations were low for the follow-up negotiations in Cancun last month. Gloom-and-doom predictions dominated.
But a funny thing happened on the way to that much-anticipated failure: During two intense weeks of discussions in the Mexican resort that wrapped up at 3 a.m. on Dec. 12, the world’s governments quietly achieved consensus on a set of substantive steps forward. And equally important, the participants showed encouraging signs of learning to navigate through the unproductive squabbling between developed and developing countries that derailed the Copenhagen talks.
Unprecedented first steps
The tangible advances were noteworthy: The Cancun Agreements set emissions mitigation targets for some 80 countries, including all the major economies. That means that the world’s largest emitters, among them China, the United States, the European Union, India, and Brazil, have now signed up for targets and actions to reduce emissions by 2020.
The participating countries also agreed — for the first time in an official United Nations accord — to keep temperature increases below a global average of 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F). Yes, that goal is no more stringent than the one set out in Copenhagen, but this time, the participating nations formally accepted the goals; a year earlier, they merely “noted” them, without adopting the accord.
Other provisions establish a “Green Climate Fund” to finance steps to limit and adapt to climate change, and designate the World Bank as interim trustee, over the objections of many developing countries. And new initiatives will protect tropical forests, and find ways to transfer clean energy technology to poorer countries.
The Cancun Agreements on their own are clearly not sufficient to keep temperature increases below 2 degrees C, but they are a valuable step forward in the difficult process of constructing a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action.
Small steps vs. global accords
The progress was as much about changing the mindset of how to tackle climate disruption. Significantly, the Cancun agreement blurs the distinction between industrialized and developing countries — a vital step to break through the rich-poor divide that has held up progress for years. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol assigned emission targets only to the 40 countries thought to be part of the industrialized world, which left the more than 140 nations of the developing world without any commitments. But today, more than 50 of those so-called developing countries have higher per capita income than the poorest of the countries with emission-reduction responsibilities under Kyoto.
Implicitly, the process in Cancun also recognizes that smaller, practical steps — some of which are occurring outside the United Nations climate process — are going to be more easily achievable, and thus more effective, than holding out for some overarching thunderclap in a global accord.
The parallel processes of multilateral discussions on climate change policy, including the G20 meetings and the Major Economies Forum, have been useful. For the first time at Cancun, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, under the new leadership of Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, offered a positive and pragmatic approach toward embracing these parallel processes.
Fixing the past (and future)
The Kyoto Protocol, which essentially expires at the end of 2012, is fundamentally flawed, especially in dividing the world into competing economic camps. At Cancun, it was encouraging to hear fewer people holding out for a commitment to another phase of the Kyoto Protocol. It was politically impossible to spike the idea of extending the Kyoto agreement entirely, but at least it was punted to the next gathering in Durban, South Africa, a year from now. Otherwise, the Cancun meeting could have collapsed amid acrimony and recriminations.
Usefully, the Cancun Agreements recognize directly and explicitly two key principles:
- All countries must recognize their historic emissions (read, the industrialized world); and
- All countries are responsible for their future emissions (think of those with fast-growing emerging economies).
This also helps move beyond the old Kyoto divide.
A better dialogue
An essential goal in Cancun was for the parties to maintain sensible expectations and develop effective plans. That they met this challenge owes in good measure to the careful and methodical planning by the Mexican government, and to the tremendous skill of Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa in presiding over the talks.
For example, at a critical moment, she took note of objections from Bolivia and a few other leftist states, and then ruled that the support of the 193 other countries meant that consensus had been achieved and the Cancun Agreements had been adopted. She pointed out that “consensus does not mean unanimity.” Compare that with Copenhagen, where the Danish prime minister allowed objections by five small countries to derail the talks.
Mexico’s adept leadership also made sure smaller countries were able to contribute fully and join any meetings they wanted, avoiding the sense of exclusivity that alienated some parties in Copenhagen. That’s a sign that Mexico is one of the key “bridging states” that have credibility in both worlds. Another is South Korea. They will need to play key roles going forward.
It’s also vital to note that China and the United States set a civil, productive tone, in contrast to the Copenhagen finger-pointing. From the sidelines in Cancun, I can vouch for the tremendous increase in openness of members of the Chinese delegation.
The acceptance of the Cancun Agreements suggests that the international community may now recognize that incremental steps in the right direction are better than acrimonious debates over unachievable targets.