Cancun climate conference: UN process key winner

By Cliona Sharkey, Trócaire

On my way to Mexico two weeks ago I was reflecting on the differences between the prospects for the Cancun meeting and the level of expectation in the run up to the Copenhagen summit last year.  Sitting in the airport on my way home I find myself comparing the day the gavel went down last year with the atmosphere today, the day the Cancun conference closed.  Thankfully, the mood couldn’t be more different. On substance, however, you have to look at the detail to assess what progress has been made..

Around 4am local time Saturday the international community adopted the Cancun Agreements.  They contain a series of decisions under the working group on the Kyoto Protocol and the working group on Long-term Cooperative Action, prepared by the Mexican Presidency and based on the extensive consultations carried out over the last two weeks.  Although some groups continued to feel the process was not transparent, and that civil society expression was constrained, the general verdict on the Mexican Presidency’s management of the process was clear yesterday evening.  Minister Espinosa was met by a standing ovation before she had even opened the informal plenary at 6pm to present the revised texts and announce that agreement was within reach.  When the final texts were presented to the formal meeting at around 12am this morning the Chair was again met with rapturous applause.  When Bolivia raised objections to the texts, rightly pointing out the inadequacy of its commitments to protect vulnerable peoples from devastating impacts of climate change, it looked like there could be a re-opening of the text and a long night ahead.  Saudi Arabia saw an opportunity and also said they also had some concerns to raise.  This was followed, however, by an extensive round of interventions from developed and developing countries alike, including many of the most vulnerable countries, India, China, the European Union, the US and Japan, all stating that while the text was not perfect they were satisfied that it represented both progress and broad consensus.  They emphasised the delicate nature of the package of compromises and cautioned against re-opening it, and emphasised that next year would see renewed negotiations to build further on the consensus agreed in Cancun.  Virtually all thanked and praised the Mexican Presidency profusely for their skill and commitment in facilitating an inclusive process, and for re-instilling trust and momentum in the multi-lateral process. With every intervention punctuated by resounding cheers from observers and government delegations alike, the overwhelming will in the room was to see the decisions adopted.  On this basis the Presidency assessed that in this case consensus could not mean unanimity, and so the decisions were adopted with objections from Bolivia.

In terms of substance, as the interventions by government delegations noted, the Cancun agreements are indeed not perfect.  From a justice and development perspective, which demands deep and urgent reductions in emissions led by developed countries, and establishment of scaled-up and secure new public finance for developing countries to help them adapt to climate change and to pursue sustainable development, all captured under a fair and binding agreement, we are still far off.

There are important elements of progress however. These include recognition within the decisions both under the Kyoto Protocol and under the Long-term Cooperative Action track, of the need for an increase in current emission reduction pledges to bring them into line with the levels recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to avoid dangerous climate change.  For developed countries as a group this will mean raising their pledges from their existing average of 17%, to between 25-40% based on 1990 levels by 2020, though Trocaire and others are calling for reductions of more than 40% to provide a reasonable chance of achieving this goal. Global recognition of the inadequacy of current emission reduction pledges, as well as of the need to address loopholes in the existing system to ensure commitments made are not undermined in practice, is an important step forward.  However, no deadline was attached to these, and so when there will be a push for progress, and how successful this is likely to be when it happens, is not clear.

An important inclusion in the package of decisions was agreement on the need for periodical review of the adequacy of the agreed goal for the limitation of a further rise in the earth’s surface temperature, now agreed as 2˚C. This keeps open the possibility of lowering this to the safer limit of 1.5˚C being called for by the majority of developing countries.  However, there was no agreement on a global long-term reduction target or a deadline for the peaking of global emissions, crucial milestones on the way to achieving the temperature target. These are to be ‘considered’ at the next meeting in Durban in December, but again no deadline for decision has been set.

The Cancun Agreements also see the establishment of the new ‘Green Climate Fund’ which should channel a significant amount of future adaptation financing, and agreement on a ‘Standing Committee on Finance’, tasked with improving the mobilisation and coordination of climate finance flows, and assessing the financial support being delivered by developed to developing countries.  These were key asks for developing countries, but to achieve them they have had to accept that the World Bank will play the role of Trustee of the fund for at least 3 years, and have had to compromise on the composition of the Board of the fund, in which donor countries will now have greater proportional representation.  Furthermore, the agreement does not address a number of key issues in relation to finance.  While the $100bn by 2020 figure for long-term finance from the Copenhagen Accord is now captured in a UN decision, there is no indication of how much of this will be public money.  There is recognition of various reports assessing the financial needs of developing countries (which indicate clearly that $100bn will be inadequate) and reports assessing various options for mobilising long-term finance, but there is no process outlined for consideration of these reports, or for decisions to be taken on their basis.  Developed countries continually emphasise the big role that private finance will play in funding climate action in developing countries, but significant public financing is crucial to ensure support reaches the most vulnerable. Private finance seeks profit, and cannot be relied upon to deliver pro-poor adaptation and sustainable development for the most vulnerable people.  Without a process to agree how much climate finance will be public, and on how it is to be generated (e.g. new innovative mechanisms such as taxes on carbon, on shipping and aviation, or on financial transactions) there is a high risk that this critical question will not see progress between now and the next decision-making meeting in December next year.

Progress was made in a number of other areas, including in areas demanded by developed countries.  These included capturing within the official UN process the emission reduction pledges made by all countries in the Copenhagen Accord, and increased detail on how governments will be able to verify that others are implementing the emission reduction actions they have committed to (the crux of the US-China dynamic).  There was also agreement on the establishment of an Adaptation Framework, including an expert committee, to improve global coordination of adaptation efforts, though many of the commitments are weak on implementation.  Agreement was also achieved agreement on forestry issues and on a work programme to address loss and damage in relation to the impacts of climate change, crucial questions for the most vulnerable countries.

Many of the big questions remain unanswered, however, and the pathway forward is unclear.  Whilst the Cancun Agreements have kept open the possibility of a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, they have not given an explicit signal that it will, and refer to a decision being taken ‘as soon as possible’ but without setting a deadline.  Similarly, the decisions under Long-term Cooperative Action keep the option of a legally binding outcome open, but do not decide definitively that this is the ultimate objective of continued negotiations. With recognition of the need to increase mitigation ambitions but no clarity as how and when this can be expected, and even less direction as to how to progress the issue of long-term public financing over the next year, overall, it is hard to see what governments have committed to achieving when they meet this time next year in Durban.

In parallel to the official conference many civil society groups and social movements had gathered in Cancun, organising forums to debate the state of the negotiations and alternative policy approaches.  In criticising the inadequacy of the outcome they highlighted the need for a fundamental shift in production and consumption models and if we are to achieve real and lasting change.

Reflecting on the overall picture, I think the big win in Cancun was the reinvigoration of the multilateral process and increased trust amongst governments.  As the Indian Minister stated in his intervention in the final hours, Cancun had given a signal of hope for multilateralism at a time when this was badly needed.  Cancun has shown that the UN process works and that it can deliver agreement, this in itself is a vital outcome.  Much work will have to be done, and popular pressure brought to bear at national level over the next year to raise domestic ambitions in line with what science and justice demand.  Cancun achieved an outcome because governments were determined to achieve one.  Governments must go to Durban next year with the same determination to secure the fair ambitious and binding agreement the world is demanding.

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Filed under Advocacy, Climate Change, Food, High-Level Meetings and Events, Latin America, Mexico

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