Cancún climate talks: hui or doey?

Delegates came home upbeat from the Cancún climate talks, although the Copenhagen Accord texts were hardly altered by the Cancún Agreements. Were there good reasons for optimism? Or were the “rounds of cheering and applause,” “at times near euphoria,” psychological symptoms of something else?

Adrian Macey says it’s far too soon to analyse the meaning and import of Cancún. Mr Macey is a highly regarded diplomat. I am a lowly blogger: a marginally less considered, cautious breed. Here goes:

Macey and some of his fellow delegates, including New Zealand’s climate change ambassador Jo Tyndall, addressed a public lecture on Wednesday lunchtime, fresh off the plane from Cancún. Macey will now chair the Kyoto Protocol negotiating track, as it attempts to forge a second commitment for the period post-2012.

They felt progress had been achieved. Macey said the climate talks had exceeded his expectations on most counts. The Cancún Agreement texts, by apparent contrast, seem little altered since Copenhagen, and this report might as well have been dusted off from a year ago.

Expectations were exceeded because they were so low.

Macey described Copenhagen’s legacy. The Accord could not be brought within the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), as a matter of legal form. There was residual bitterness amongst parties about the Copenhagen process, and a resulting lack of trust. There were real doubts about whether the UN was capable of responding multi-laterally to the problem of climate change. The Copenhagen Accord had been undermined in 2010, by changes to the text.

So, the close resemblance of the Cancún and Copenhagen texts was significant progress, given what had happened in the meantime, and the hurdles to be overcome. The legal form of the Cancún Agreements is now correct: two formal decisions of the conference of the parties, one under each climate change treaty — the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol.

On the commitment to cap global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, while this and the pledges to 2020 have stayed the same, the texts do not close off the possibility of greater ambition, in fact they refer to it. “Strengthening ambition” language in the texts picks up on the UNEP ‘Emissions Gap’ report, and a forthcoming ‘Closing the Gap’ report. The global 2 degrees goal is retained, plus a prospect of review, with 2050 pledges to follow.

The real significance of Cancún, said Jo Tyndall, is that for the first time, it’s a global solution. It was heralded by the presiding Mexican minister as a “new era of international co-operation on climate change”. Until now, the onus has been on Kyoto Protocol parties and Annex 1 parties, which excludes the US and China: these parties, Tyndall said, are responsible for only 27% of global emissions.

Developing countries were encouraged by new finance arrangements, for a green climate fund. The expectation for a single new treaty would still be differentiated outcomes, as under Kyoto and the UNFCCC, for developed and developing countries.

The future of the Kyoto Protocol was an important part of the negotiations. There is, as yet, no second commitment period. For developing countries in particular, this was their bottom line: no second commitment period, no result. In Macey’s terms, the Cancún Agreements therefore offer “constructive ambiguity” on this point. The texts have “been finessed”.

Because, if Cancún had failed, the diplomatic future for these talks would have been in real doubt. With a new narrative of success, faith in the UN to deal with these big multi-lateral issues has, allegedly, been restored.

Allegedly, and arguably, because faith in the UN to deal meaningfully with climate change — to do enough about it fast enough — may not have been restored at all. There was some byplay with Bolivia. The Cancún texts were adopted, overriding Bolivia’s explicit objections, and debate about what was meant by ‘consensus’ in UN parlance: did it mean unanimity, or a majority? Could one country hold to ransom 192 others?

Bolivia, cast as the bad guy here, said that the texts were not strong enough. The pledges were too loose; it is doubted they will be effective in stabilising greenhouse gas emissions at a level sustainable for human and other life. Also, with no guarantee of a second Kyoto commitment period, there are fears developed countries could eventually wriggle out of this loophole, evading the Protocol’s binding emissions reduction commitments.

Process-wise, Bolivia called it a worse outcome than Copenhagen where “there was respect for the rule on consensus. The [Copenhagen] Presidency did not have the gall to hammer through a decision … This is an unhappy conclusion.”

The “imperfect” nature of the texts was also noted by a number of other countries.

According to our delegates, though, it was important to remember at Cancún that ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’. 193 countries all knew, if not this, then nothing. Since nobody was prepared to countenance nothing, all bar one were prepared to set aside their differences and make this step along the way — and it is only a step along the way, not the end of the discussion.

There were, said Macey, two three-minute standing ovations for the Cancún Presidency and her tough handling. According to one report, there was at times “an atmosphere of near euphoria”. We are “trying to make sense of the Cancún agreement and the rounds of cheering and applause that accompanied it” wrote another.

Assuming these diplomatic types are not given to mass hysteria, you have to conclude that progress, in diplomatic terms, was indeed made, against mighty odds; and that this was an outpouring of relief in recognition of its importance.

But it is progress in environmental terms that Bolivia, and others, are worried about.

Compared to what the science demands, Cancún was a disappointment at best.

On Wednesday in Parliament, Kennedy Graham for the Greens invited Bill English’s comments on “the independent analysis done by scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research that the emission reductions agreed to at Cancún will probably result in global warming of 3.2 degrees Celsius”. English replied (my emphasis):

The Cancún process represents a credible attempt by countries that are, by and large, badly affected by the global financial crisis, and therefore pretty aware of the costs of any policy to their populations, to do their best to get some common agreement that may allow for reduction in pollution, with some effect on global warming.

At the lecture I attended, none of the delegates wanted to address a similar sort of question — Macey, in particular, with an eye on his new role, declined — except this slightly testy offering from one of them: you seem to suggest it’s simple, he said, and it’s not. Not simple, the other guy replied, but it is urgent. The planet is what it is, and it doesn’t compromise.

It was as if, in a room full of blind people, someone had said, “look! it’s an elephant!”.