Promise and politeness in the climate talks at Cancun
Cancun, December 4, 2010--The mood at Cancun could not be more different from last year’s annual conference on climate change, which took place in Copenhagen. Even the setting of the Cancun conference—a beach resort in tropical weather—conveys a more mellow kind of international climate conference than Copenhagen’s freezing temperatures and hot tempers last December.
Getting through the formality of accreditation is fast and efficient. Queues are nowhere to be seen. In fact, the most striking thing is how few people have come to Cancun – about 5.000 so far, compared to almost ten times that number last December. More delegates and observers are expected next week when the ministers arrive, but the lower level of participation reflects lower expectations about what this conference can achieve. Surprisingly, this might actually help the conference. The Copenhagen talks were ruined by a combination of too-high expectations and insuperable gaps between developed and developing countries over the major issues that will forever define the problem of climate change: who should take on the burden of avoiding climate change and who should pay for this effort. The talks almost broke up in total disagreement before a group of heads of state—from the United States, Brazil, South Africa, India, and China—cobbled together a face-saving agreement. The so-called Copenhagen Accord is unloved and, to many, lacking in ambition, but it has allowed discussions to continue over the core issues that must be part of any new global agreement on climate change. They include: targets for developed countries, measures that developing countries should take, a goal to limit global temperature rises as a result of climate change, protection of forests, adaptation to the effects of climate change, money to pay for these measures, and standards to hold everyone to account.
The Mexican hosts are setting a tone conspicuously different from Copenhagen’s. Last year, some delegates walked out in protest at a “secret” text that was drafted by the Danish hosts. There was some posturing here: at almost every negotiation a roughly representative group of delegates draft a text at around this point for ministers to consider when they arrive for the second week of talks. But there was a real feeling among some delegates, especially from smaller developing countries, that they were locked out of critical talks contributed to the fallout of talks. This year, the hosts have repeated a mantra of inclusiveness, active participation by all, and—above all—there is no secret text! The question is, is the atmosphere positive, or just polite? There was no lack of graciousness today at the end-of-week plenary session to take stock of the talks. Speaker after speaker thanked the Mexican chairwoman for her skilful facilitation and opined that the prospects were good for significant advances in Cancun. But issues may boil up again next week. There are fundamental gaps between the developed and developing countries. And the statements of Bolivia and Venezuela that justice was missing from the talks got scattered rounds of applause. In the end, any deal will have to be teased out by closed-door negotiations among a small group of countries: The United States said as much when its representative said that countries “direct discussions” with each other in order to bring talks to a fruitful conclusion.
Finally, there’s another reason why the conference seems so quiet. Observers usually mingle with official negotiators, but this year the two groups are kept far apart. Observers are not officially excluded from the halls of negotiations, but there is a long and cumbersome bus ride in between. The UN climate talks have traditionally offered a remarkable level of access to observers. It would be a real shame if one of the legacies of Copenhagen’s unhappy conference was a decline in the openness of the process.
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