Cancun Climate Talks a Failure in Disguise

Hundreds of sleep-deprived delegates from 192 nations gave themselves a standing ovation at 3:30 on Saturday morning after days of intensive negotiations over United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Cancun, Mexico.

But in reality, the agreements were watered-down, toothless texts that defer all major decisions to next year and seek to provide a smokescreen for the conference’s many failures. Perhaps the biggest emerging development is that some frustrated nations are increasingly going ahead with bilateral projects in the absence of a full multinational framework. They include Norway, Australia and Germany, with Indonesia, Mexico and Brazil, which have gone ahead with bilateral REDD+ projects in the absence of a framework.

The delegates agreed on a set of initiatives and institutions during the 12 days of bargaining that are designed to protect the poor from the impact of climate change, with governments agreeing how to spend funds to assist developing countries in acquiring clean technologies to reduce their emissions, adapt to climate change and curb deforestation.

But in the grand scheme of things, the agreements produced from Cancun were far from a “breakthrough,” as they were quickly dubbed by delegation heads and UN officials. They may have felt like a breakthrough at the time, as they delivered the delegates from a fear of complete failure. They had placed nothing on the table until three hours before the deadline on Friday evening – and thus any document presented at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday would have been met with applause and relief.

Constant roadblocks from vetoing nations had observers and delegates themselves questioning the effectiveness of the multilateral process. Nothing was getting done and no one wanted to budge.

In theory, any agreements made at these meetings had to be unanimous between all UN-member states. But in desperation, Patricia Espinosa, president of the Conference of the Parties, banged down her gavel on the Cancun Agreements despite opposition by Bolivia, which believed that the deal was too weak.

Ironically, to save face for the multilateral system, the conference president had to massage the rule of unanimity – a principle that goes to the very heart of multilateralism. The Bolivian UN ambassador, Pablo Solon, announced on Sunday that Bolivia would file a complaint with the International Court of Justice in The Hague, media reports say. Effectively, this would put the multilateral process on trial.

When it comes to making emissions reduction targets, some kind multilateral efforts will obviously be needed. But how should they come about?

The 13-year-old Kyoto Protocol, which legally binds developed nations to cut their emissions, remains flawed because the world’s second-biggest emitter, the United States, still refuses to sign it. The US maintains it will not make legally binding emissions cuts unless China does as well.

Japan, Russia and Canada announced at the conference that they would not extend Kyoto beyond 2012 or agree to any new emissions reductions unless both the United States and China were also bound to cuts.

China from the start was obviously set in its decision to extend the Kyoto Protocol, which excuses developing nations from making emissions reductions. With Japan, Russia, Canada and the United States taking equally stubborn positions, the whole negotiation was headed for a train crash.

On Friday, a frustrated European Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said that her delegation had spoken with Japan in a “very frank discussion” on its position.

“If we leave Cancun without getting anything out of this, I think multilateralism has a problem," she said. When the Cancun Agreements were announced, however, she said her faith in the system had been restored. In the end, the United States, China and Japan agreed to the broadly-worded clause that said parties would “aim” at either an extension of the Kyoto Protocol or a new agreement “as early as possible.” This was the lauded breakthrough.

The text was full of more flimsy statements. The parties “recognized” that developed nations should lead climate change mitigation; they “welcomed” progress on Kyoto; and they “urged” developed nations to consider deeper emissions cuts. They “decided” on just about nothing.

Smaller developing nations maintain that their voices are not loud enough in the agreements, despite being the nations most-affected by climate change.

There were hopes for an agreement on a comprehensive framework for a scheme that would curb deforestation. Working groups agreed on some of the nuts and bolts of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation scheme (REDD+), but without an agreement on emissions cuts, a fully-fledged REDD+ framework could not go ahead.

The praised Climate Fund that emerged in Cancun has been wrongly labeled a victory. By 2020, the fund is to mobilize US$100 billion a year from developed nations to assist developing nations with climate change adaptation and green technology, but this decision was made last year during talks in Copenhagen. What the parties did this year was finalize some details, give it a name and announce that a body would be created to administer it. They could not even decide on where the money would come from.

In other words, it took a year for parties to say “this is what we will do with the money, this is what it is called and somebody will be responsible for it if we get it.”

What developing countries wanted to see was more money put on the table, or at least an improvement in methods of delivery. They have seen little of the ironically labeled fast-start finance that they were promised a year ago, and they say the funds needed for adaptation and green technology is more like US$600 billion per year.

The Cancun Agreements show there is some political will to tackle climate change, and they will frame talks in Durban next year. But calling the agreements a breakthrough, a turning point or a success is vindicating a process that needs serious scrutiny.