Where does international climate policy stand after Cancún?

February 7, 2011

Lili Fuhr and Ingrid Spiller

One step forward and two sideways

One year ago, the climate summit in Copenhagen failed, leaving the UN climate negotiations in tatters. In the early hours of Saturday morning, the first world climate summit since Copenhagen drew to a close in Cancun, Mexico. The result – the Cancun Agreement – was a pleasant surprise for many observers, whose post-Copenhagen blues left them with little expectation of an agreement.

A new joint text was crafted and adopted at the closing plenary to great applause. Bolivia was the only holdout, protesting against it to the end. After several mediation attempts, Bolivia’s objections were finally put on record by Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa; the document was nevertheless adopted. This approach is unique in the history of the UN, and it is likely to keep many experts in international law busy for some time to come. Bolivia has already announced that it will make use of any redress available to it to challenge this precedent. All other participants were apparently so relieved at overcoming the trauma of Copenhagen that no one questioned the approach.

But what does the Cancun Agreement entail? Is the cheering actually justified? Or is it merely a desperate expression of a deep-seated pessimism that celebrates every tiny step forward in the multilateral process, even if the substance is lacking? We will attempt an analysis of the current situation.

The Cancun Agreement: Formalization of the Copenhagen Accords or precursor to a fair and binding international agreement?

The good news: an agreement was reached. A new text is available, both for the negotiating track of the Kyoto Protocol (KP) and for long-term cooperation under the Bali Action Plan (LCA). First, a look at the LCA text and at the good things it contains:

  • The 2°C target was stated (albeit in a slightly weakened form), and it was even noted that limiting global warming to 1.5°C must be considered in a future review based on climate research. This is already a clear and justified demand by developing countries, and climate research documents its necessity.
  • The Cancun Adaptation Framework was established to promote the implementation of adaptation measures.
  • The principle of historical responsibility on the part of the developed countries and their contribution to climate change was also stated. While this may sound banal, individual countries repeatedly strove to have the passage struck.
  • A new global Green Climate Fund, the board seats of which are to be divided evenly between industrialized and developing countries, is to be established. This fund will provide balanced funding for both mitigation and adaptation measures, with the latter primarily in response to a demand by developing countries.
  • Reference is made to Resolution 10/4 of the Human Rights Council, acknowledging that climate change also violates human rights.
  • Gender equality and the rights of indigenous peoples are mentioned explicitly in several places.

The KP text contains the following good elements:

  • A second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol is being considered. The language is so vague, however, that both its proponents and opponents identify with it. In any case, the Kyoto Protocol was not yet buried in Cancun.
  • An agreement was reached on the base year 1990 for all emission reduction targets of the Kyoto countries. Previously, different base years had led to a great deal of confusion and a lack of comparability of the targets.

Despite all of these agreeable elements – which may take us to the point where we imagined ourselves three years ago in Bali (i.e., well down the road toward a binding agreement in the near future) – there is more than one big ‘but’. The shortcomings are glaring and only permit one conclusion: the political will for fundamental change is still lacking. In this regard, we have scarcely moved ahead since Copenhagen. Instead, we are marking time and canceling out small individual examples of progress by taking steps to the side (creating loopholes, delaying tactics in negotiations, etc.). Cancun fell short in the following respects:

  • An agreement on concrete and binding emission reduction targets to limit global warming to 2 degrees or even 1.5 degrees was not reached. In particular, long-term objectives for 2050 have been weakened. This is due to the major newly-industrialized countries’ justified fear of having to bear an unfairly high degree of responsibility in 2050, given the low targets of the industrialized countries for 2020 – a burden they are not prepared to shoulder at this point.
  • The gap between present goals and scientific necessity (the “gigaton gap”) was recognized; a process to close it is lacking, however.
  • The call for 25 to 40 per cent emission reductions for the group of Kyoto industrialized countries may be sound in theory, but useless if we also know the countries want to bury the Kyoto Protocol (Japan, Canada, Russia and others).
  • No specific financial commitments were made to fill the coffers of the lovely new Green Climate Fund. There is also no indication as to the sources of the financial resources, or who must pay how much. Concern thus remains that this might be yet another empty fund – regardless of how good its governance ultimately might be.
  • A major worry of developing countries was not addressed: while the seats on the board of the Green Climate Fund are to be divided evenly between industrialized and developing countries, the World Bank will initially serve as the interim trustee. Decisions with regard to the final governance structure will be based on a review process after three years. The World Bank has been very successful in undermining the Adaptation Fund which has been in place since Poznan by creating facts on the ground with funds of its own, and it has in no way demonstrated that it has turned around from its structural adjustment policies and industrial path promotion based on fossil fuels, so the developing countries are rightly concerned about whether this is a wise decision.
  • Given the urgency of measures to adapt to the already significant impact of climate change in many places and the wheeling and dealing with fast-start funds pledged in Copenhagen by 2012, the fact that no decision was reached in Cancun regarding concrete steps to resolve this situation is a scandal.
  • Negotiations on REDD (forest protection) have taken a big step forward. Nevertheless, the text must still be seen as a compromise. Questions related to inclusion in emissions trading, dealing with subnational activities and the legal status of safeguards were not clarified.

The process is not the problem

The climate summit in Cancun has made it abundantly clear that the international negotiation process is not the problem. The Mexican presidency successfully reached its goal of putting the multilateral process back on track. It learned its lesson from the Copenhagen fiasco and made the process as open and transparent as possible. The text was not hammered out in the privacy of a back room in the final days of the meeting by a select minority of leaders, but took shape with input from the poorest countries most affected by the outcome of the conference. In Cancun, all of the ministers were allowed to participate and the doors of the working groups were open. The president of COP 16, Patricia Espinosa, therefore rightly received generous praise – including minute-long standing ovations from the delegates. It is too early to tell whether the conference’s adoption of the text despite Bolivia’s objections will be seen at some point as a new chapter in UN history, or as a violation of international law.
And yet we do not have the outcome we need. In total, and taking the numerous loopholes into consideration, the targets for Annex 1 (industrialized) countries result in a reduction of only a few per cent by 2020 (some say 2 per cent) when using 1990 as the base year. That is a disaster.

But the fundamental changes that are needed to remedy this cannot be brought about in the UN negotiations. They can only contribute to a sense of urgency, prevent a worsening of the situation, and keep the process moving and on course. Without a multilateral process, not even that would be possible.

Much more is at stake than the global climate

The fact that climate policy is more than just environmental policy has since entered broad public awareness. The link between climate change and development is well documented and integral to the negotiation process. Yet the extent to which this is taken into account in political decision-making and implementation processes at the national level remains to be seen. More important, however, is the fact that wheel we are turning is far larger than the scope of the current negotiations indicate – and that makes it so heavy that it seems impossible to budge.

Climate policy is much more than green economy in the north and low-carbon development in the south. The fundamental principles of our societies and the global balance of power have been put into question. We will not manage the necessary changes from within the current system. Yet we do not yet know what the new system will be. How do we create wealth without consuming fossil resources? How can we redistribute without creating new losers? What kind of economy will let us meet our needs without living beyond our means? And furthermore, what can we hope for, and how can we overcome our fear? What do we need to do for this?

The answer is simple: everything. We must put everything and everyone into action. Our strategies need to be numerous, varied and effective. And above all, they must attack the very foundations of the problems. All previous strategies of small steps have been inadequate. The outcome of Cancun has also taught us that the political will to change will not come overnight, and above all, not by itself. Civil society is needed here – not only for proposing reforms within the negotiation process, but also to engage in radical protest.

In Mexico, attempts to link those “internal” and “external” processes were not successful. While justified fundamental and radical criticism of the climate regime and its market-immanent mechanisms was voiced in parallel civil society forums outside the formal negotiating process – but without proposing concrete political action and thus bordering on irrelevance – NGOs closely involved in the negotiations are in danger of being trapped by the dynamics of the talks and thus losing their watchdog function. A combination of both strategies is needed.

What can we expect of COP 17?

The climate summit in Durban, South Africa in 2011 is also unlikely to deliver the fair, ambitious and legally binding global agreement that we need. At best, Durban can and must produce a legally binding agreement which is broad and strong enough to initiate the global change in course, and which includes mechanisms and elements that permit essential continuous improvements in an iterative process. But will that be enough?

Time is tight and getting tighter. Global emissions must soon reach their apex and then be reduced rapidly. This will only be possible if a climate agreement in the near future includes a core of principles and does not exceed certain limits. These include:

  • Avoiding shoddy compromises: The world must not be taken hostage by a single country. Global climate protection cannot be realized without the United States. But what can be done if the very country that bears the greatest responsibility is incapable of political action, preventing an agreement from being ratified at this point? The process must be designed to permit the involvement of the United States at a later date in any case. At the same time, shoddy compromises vis-à-vis the United States with regard to core issues and principles must be ruled out.
  • Sharing burdens fairly: While we presently have a de facto bottom-up pledge & review system (in which parties only contribute what they are willing and able) which only results in the lowest common denominator, we must continue to see the challenge as global and work toward ensuring that contributions toward climate protection are not only appropriate to the magnitude of the problem, but that they are also based on transparent, comparable and fair obligations for all. Cooperation and trust can only be expected from the developing and newly industrialized countries if the old industrialized countries live up to their historic responsibilities and take the lead. The key to this could include a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol – which countries such as Japan, Russia and Canada are actively working to prevent.
  • Keeping promises, providing funding: In Copenhagen, the industrialized countries pledged 30 billion U.S. dollars until 2012 and 100 billion per year until 2020. Very little of that money has materialized to date, and what has is often old wine in new bottles. Only minimal amounts are available, especially with regard to adaptation to the inevitable impacts of climate change. It is very clear that a lack of money is not the problem, as not only the financial crisis has shown. Innovative sources of financing such as the auctioning of emission rights, taxes on aviation and maritime transport, or the introduction of a tax on international financial transactions could mobilize considerably more than 100 billion U.S. dollars annually. Subsidies that are detrimental to the climate must also be reduced. The issue is therefore not so much one of money. The lack of political will is more a matter of this not being “merely” about the climate, but about a fundamental change in the global economy and the world’s economic balance of power. This is a huge opportunity for the world’s poor – but also a great danger for the rich and powerful, who will do everything to maintain their position of power.
  • Demanding standards and principles, preventing false solutions: The quantitative challenge is huge. But at the same time, we must never forget that money alone will not solve the problem, and that it can even create new problems if used incorrectly. Climate financing does not take place in a legal vacuum. Human rights conventions, international environmental law and applicable standards of development finance must find their inclusion in the new climate financing instruments. Bad investments – in nuclear energy, mega-dams and GM agriculture, for example – have no place there. Greening the economy is also a matter of principle. That, and other topics, will be covered at the conference in Rio in 2012.

What is the role of civil society?

Civil society groups play an important part in the climate negotiations. They provide transparency and serve as watchdogs, keeping an eye on their respective governments. Without such participation – which tends to be meager enough and is often consciously obstructed – there would be a great danger of the skeptics and stonewallers running the process into the ground in short order. In Mexico, unlike other climate change conferences, civil society participation in the negotiation process was hampered by spatial separation. The information booths and venues for side events were about 8 km away from the negotiating rooms and delegation offices. Being active in both locations meant a considerable amount of bus travel.

Civil society also has a vital and indispensable role in changing national frameworks to create the foundation for an ambitious, fair and binding international agreement. The insufficient progress in the negotiations underscored the extent to which such preconditions are currently lacking.

Now more than ever, global civil society organizations must ask themselves about the resources (financial, personnel, time) they are investing in the negotiating process, versus those they are putting into changing conditions at the national (and individual) level. That should have become clear in Copenhagen at the latest. But a change of course at the NGO level has not been as apparent in recent months as it should have been.

“Cancun must not become another Copenhagen” was heard often in recent weeks from various parties. That naturally also holds true for the next climate summit in Durban, South Africa. Preventing another Copenhagen also means, however, that forces in civil society must be bundled in such a way that mobilization and resistance on the outside meshes tightly with close scrutiny and watchdog functions within. Without multilateral climate negotiations, the 1.5-degree target is untenable. But without a massive effort to bring about the fundamental changes needed at the national and local level to create political will and bring substance into the negotiations, the best process will be worthless.

Lili Fuhr heads the Department for International Environmental Policy at the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Berlin.
Ingrid Spiller is director of the regional office Central America, Mexiko and Cuba in Mexiko City