Wishy-washy agreement saves Cancún

The Cancún Agreement, reached at the United Nations climate conference in Mexico following months of horse trading, is being praised for restoring faith in multilateralism after last year’s fiasco at Copenhagen.

The Cancún Agreement, reached at the United Nations climate conference in Mexico following months of horse trading, is being praised for restoring faith in multilateralism after last year’s fiasco at Copenhagen. But the lowest common denominator it reached is so low that it can, at best, only point in the right direction for tackling global warming.

There was no mention of the extent to which industrialised countries would commit to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions after 2012, at the end of the current commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, the only legally binding agreement for the purpose. Nor was there any agreement on a second commitment period of the protocol; only a decision to keep talking about it.

India’s Environment minister Jairam Ramesh said during the closing hours of the night-long negotiations that “the BASIC countries [Brazil, South Africa, India, China] are very happy with the agreement.”

International environmental NGOs seemed at least partially satisfied with the outcome. Tara Rao of WWF said: “There is a longer road to come but we now have the tentative groundwork.” She called for “significant leadership from India, China and the European Union to strengthen the agreement before next year’s climate summit”, scheduled to take place in Durban, South Africa.

But the Indian environmental NGO Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) was not satisfied with either the agreement or the position in which it had placed the country. “The agreement is bad for climate change action,” said a CSE spokesperson. “There is no global emission reduction target for 2050; nor is there a target for peaking year. No targets have been set for emissions reduction for developed countries.

“There is no mention of equitable access to carbon space, instead a weak and meaningless language of ‘equitable access to sustainable development’ has been inserted, which will compromise India’s right to development.”

The UNFCCC summit, which took place from November 29 to December 10, did not end without controversy. The delegation of Bolivia objected to the agreement on many counts, with the country’s chief negotiator Pablo Solon saying it was not “ambitious enough to halt the climate change that will lead to genocide and ecocide”.

But the conference president, Mexico’s foreign minister Patricia Espinoza, gaveled the agreement through, despite the UN convention stating all decisions must be taken by consensus. Espinoza’s decision was greeted with thunderous applause by the thousands of delegates present through the night. A delegate from Colombia justified the decision by saying: “Consensus does not mean one country has the right to veto.”

As the final plenary sessions of the conference were postponed again and again on Friday, eventually stretching into the early hours of the next day, it became clear that all countries except Bolivia had reached compromise in closed-door negotiations to get to what UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres has called “a balanced package”.

The highlight of the package was the creation of a Global Climate Fund to help poor countries move to green technologies and deal with the effects of climate change, including reduced farm output, more frequent and severe droughts, floods and storms and rising sea levels. The fund is supposed to have US$100 billion a year by 2020, though no one is sure how such a sum will be raised.

The Cancún Agreement has placed more emphasis than before on adaptation to climate-change effects, a key demand of African countries, small island states and least developed countries.

Industrialised countries will now have their actions to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions subject to monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) by developing countries, while emerging economies like India and China would “have to have their mitigation actions subject to international consultation and analysis, while their MRV would be domestic”, as Ramesh pointed out.

But without any new numbers on the extent to which rich countries commit to reduce their emissions after 2012, the Cancún Agreement effectively legitimised the voluntary pledges made in the Copenhagen Accord. The UN Environment Programme has recently calculated that these pledges will go only 60% of the way to reaching the goal of keeping global temperature rise within two degrees Celsius, another key aim of the accord. While the goal has not been dropped, there is no clarity on how it will be reached, only a decision to keep talking about it in 2011. UN officials insisted that this was the best that could be achieved during this summit, given the declaration by Japan and Russia that they wanted to opt out of the second commitment period altogether.

There were small advances during this summit on how to help stop deforestation and transfer green technologies to poor countries, though one of the key demands made by China and India – to continue discussions on how to handle patented technologies – was dropped.

Another positive move was that the Cancún Agreement spoke of the need to build capacity to absorb green technologies in the poorest and most vulnerable countries, but again the details were left unclear. And, as observers of this negotiations process have been saying at least since the Bali summit in 2007, the devil is in the details.