Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | December 11, 2010

From Brokenhagen to CanDo? Initial Thoughts on the Cancun Agreements

The perceived contrast between the 2010 UN-climate negotiations just concluded in Cancun (http://unfccc.int/2860.php) and 2009’s Copenhagen UN-meeting could hardly be starker.  The Hopenhagen negotiations began with wildly unrealistic expectations about the possibility of achieving a comprehensive, legally binding agreement to combat global warming.  It ended as Brokehagen, achieving only a maligned Copenhagen Accord that both failed to commit major greenhouse gas emitters to change their ways and tarnished the negotiating process because of the nontransparent process that produced it.  The 2010 Canothingdoing negotiations in Mexico opened with little fanfare and virtually no expectations of success. The political climate for significant action has been chilly to say the least—midterm elections in the US that brought a climate-skeptical Republican wave to Congress was only the last of string of setbacks for global progress on addressing climate change.  Yet in the early hours of Saturday December 11, 2010 this UN meeting became the CanDo negotiations.

The “Cancun Agreements” were endorsed by nearly 200 nation-states.  They enshrine efforts to aggressively reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, lay out a goal of stabilizing global warming below a 2 degree temperature rise, provide billions of dollars to developing countries for adaptation to the ravages of climate change, they shored up the climate for investment in climate friendly technology and carbon markets, and they reaffirmed the global commitment to the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and the process of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), tools that facilitate the development of low carbon economies and forest protection in the Global South. What a difference a year makes!

Or does it? Lost in the mild euphoria that an agreement was reached in Cancun is the fact that, substantively, the Copenhagen Accord and the Cancun Agreements are actually quite similar.  Both allow developed countries to set their own emission reduction targets and methods.  Both commit developed countries to provide $100US billion per year by 2020 for adaptation efforts in developing countries.  Both call on developing countries to begin nationally appropriate mitigation efforts and move away from business as usual.  Both call for holding warming under 2 degrees. There are small, but important differences in the two agreements—more consensus on monitoring and verification of commitments and a reaffirmation of major market mechanisms like the CDM and REDD are in the Cancun Agreements. But on balance a first glance at the two results shows them to be functionally  similar. And yet the Cancun Agreements are already being cautiously lauded and they have the potential to be a long-term success.  The features that set the Cancun Agreements apart from the Copenhagen Accord are not a matter of details, but of process and the way in which they may be able to catalyze future action.

The Copenhagen Accord was widely perceived as being a backroom deal—the US and China colluding and usurping the ideals of transparency and consultation that are cherished in a multilateral process that has engaged virtually the entire world for the last two decades.  The Cancun Agreements, on the other hand were developed through the traditional negotiating process and transparency was stressed from the outset and throughout the meeting.  Instead of countries “taking note,” almost in protest, of a Copenhagen Accord that they had no hand in devising, the last plenary session erupted in applause as nearly 200 nation-states committed to the Cancun Agreeements.  Process matters.  The legitimacy of the UN-negotiating process is a key to moving this aspect of the global response to climate change forward.

The Cancun Agreements also promise to have a larger impact than did the Copenhagen Accord, but again, not because of the details of what was agreed to. It is time to admit that a relatively vague, general framework like the Cancun Agreements may be the best that global negotiations on climate change can produce.  The issue is simply too complex and the negotiating process simply to unwieldy and fraught with competing interests to produce the kind of legally-binding, comprehensive, and effective treaty that has been the ultimate goal since the early 1990s when global warming first became a prominent global issue. Many of the more difficult issues—quantified global targets, enforcement mechanisms, intellectual property rights on climate technology—have been punted to the next UN-negotiation to take place in South Africa in 2011 and the chances of producing a comprehensive, detailed, legally binding agreement there are no greater than were at Copenhagen and Cancun.

Yet broad, vague agreements like the one just negotiated play a crucial role in the global response to climate change in that they further the momentum to take action in a multitude of ways and locations. In enshrining a decentralized approach to addressing climate change—diverse national commitments rather than enforceable global targets—the Cancun Agreements provide motivation for innovations that are already underway across the globe in various guises.  National commitments will rely on activities that are already underway and that have been working for the last decade to move the response to the climate crisis forward. Global networks of cities are working to alter municipal economies, transportation systems, and energy use.  Corporations are forming alliances with environmental NGOs to devise large and small ways to deliver climate friendly technology and move towards a low carbon economy.  States, provinces, environmental organizations, and corporations are engaged in developing carbon markets that promise low-cost means of reducing emissions.

The success of Cancun, if it is ultimately considered as such, will not arise from the substance of the Agreements.  It will rather emerge from the transparent, legitimate process that garnered global support for an overarching set of goals and commitments to address climate change.  With this in place, the activities and momentum already evident in a multitude of initiatives can move forward and with luck, resources, and work, move the world onto a low-carbon path.

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