Cancun and the Rediscovery of the Lost, Limited Art of Climate Diplomacy
CANCUN — It is hardly news anymore when international talks on climate change fail to produce a breakthrough agreement. But the real story of the annual UN climate conference, which concludes Friday in Cancun, Mexico, is what was happening on the sidelines of the conference.
Last year’s summit on climate change in Copenhagen was ruined by the weight of excessive expectations and unbridgeable gaps between developed and developing countries. The talks did not quite break down — the Copenhagen Accord was a face-saving agreement that allowed the talks to reconvene this year — but they were traumatic for all involved. The global media saw, in the failure and fallout of Copenhagen, not just a setback for the climate negotiations but a deep crisis in multilateral cooperation. This year, the Cancun meeting has benefited from exceedingly low expectations about prospects for progress in negotiations toward a new climate treaty. Anything short of a blow-up of the conference Friday evening will be seen as a success. Cancun should manage to exceed that low bar, and that has led to a lighter tone to the whole conference. Officials have been largely upbeat, and certainly polite. There have been no dramatic walkouts and few angry denunciations of proposed texts. Yet the conference will not bring the world any closer to an ambitious climate agreement.
In some respects, the talks have left the world further from that goal. Japan created waves on the first day of the meeting by announcing that it would not agree to emissions targets for a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol (the first commitment period expires at the end of 2012). This may be a case of being chastised for admitting the obvious: There is no appetite among industrialized countries for legally binding targets while big developing countries like China and India are not bound to them, but Japan has broken ranks with Europe by saying so aloud. Connie Hedegaard, the EU Commissioner for Climate Action and a champion of ambitious measures on climate change, acknowledged that talking about a legally binding and controversial climate treaty was not helpful because it would block progress on slowing deforestation and financing to help countries adapt to climate change, areas where agreements at Cancun might be possible. And developing countries remain deeply suspicious of the intentions of the rich world. As the deadline for the conclusion of the talks approaches, the number of issues that divide countries remains hopelessly large. The negotiations could well conclude with vague language to delay decisions until next year’s climate conference in Durban, South Africa, because the alternative — acknowledgement that countries had failed to find a deal — would be even more embarrassing for negotiators anxious to avoid a replay of Copenhagen. But to concentrate on the thin legal outcome of the negotiations is to miss the larger significance of the UN climate talks.
Much has been written about the inability of the United Nations to deliver an adequate international response to the threat of climate change. On the surface, this is true. The talks seem to struggle from conference to annual conference, endlessly returning to the same issues—how to share the burden of actions across rich and poor countries to tackle climate change—and creating an ever-more complex yet ineffective legal framework. Even if there is agreement in Cancun, it will take a decade or more for the talks to produce a new international treaty with commitments and targets to match the challenge of catastrophic climate change. In frustration, many observers have called for negotiations to move to some other, smaller grouping of nations where unanimity between 184 countries is not required. It would be wrong to suggest that the UN negotiations don’t matter, however. The real action is taking place on the sidelines of the climate talks. Cancun is like a huge trade fair where entrepreneurs and government officials present their latest initiatives and ideas to promote renewable energy, integrate “green growth” into national economic strategies, and set up emissions-trading programs at the local, national, or regional level. A recurring theme is how these initiatives could be connected to each other in an expanding worldwide network of actions to tackle climate change. All this is happening — climate change has not gone away as a political priority for many local and national actors — largely because of the UN process. The annual UN conferences, supported by an international network of scientists and amplified by media attention when the ministers arrive for the high-level segment of the negotiations, provide recurring reminders of the wide gap between countries’ official pledges and the measures that will be necessary to reduce greenhouse gases to a reasonably safe level. Finally, the conferences are a kind of peer community and capacity-building network where ideas are born and reviewed. The legal framework of the UN climate convention has the potential to provide a set of minimum standards that could help knit disparate initiatives together into something that could, in time, approximate a global effort to tackle climate change. A weak deal between ministers in Cancun will not save the climate, but this headline should not detract from the progress that is the real relevance of climate diplomacy.
Thomas Legge is a Program Officer for the Climate & Energy Program at the German Marshall Fund.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.