Cancun agreements – 2010’s dramatic finale

It was a nice way to end a year peppered with disappointments.

In my last column for 2010, appearing on December 9, I wrote about the inspiring work of Canadian youth, using the example of pressing for climate action. Our young people were out in force in Cancun, Mexico for the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

They wore a powerful message on their T-shirts. It was a quote from Christina Ora, a young woman from the Solomon Islands, at last year’s COP: ‘You have been negotiating all my life. You cannot tell me you need more time.’

Now for the rest of the story.

After last year’s failure in Copenhagen, few held out any hopes for a good result in Cancun. The abuse and lack of trust in Copenhagen—the hijacking of negotiations to back-rooms by Barack Obama, the repeated insults to various delegations, particularly (and inexplicably) China by the host government, the rich country gambit that developing countries would take large amounts of money and look the other way as industrialized countries continue polluting—all led to a deep level of distrust as negotiations opened in Cancun.

By the time I arrived in Cancun on December 4, the atmosphere was gloomy. Initially there were rumours that the Mexican host was also working on a secret text, as Denmark had done last year. Prospects for success were dampened when Canada, Russia and Japan were named as countries unwilling to commit to a second phase of Kyoto. The mood was not optimistic.

At the mid-point in negotiations, Sunday, December 5, the president of the conference, Mexico’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Patricia Espinosa, convened an informal session of the plenary. Espinosa used that Sunday session for what amounted to a group therapy session. She set out how she planned to work over the remaining week, emphasizing repeatedly that she would not hold secret discussions. She explained that she was setting up a number of informal working groups on key issues, with co-chairs selected to pair a developing country with an industrialized country. While she was asking small groups to meet behind closed doors, risking comparisons to Copenhagen, she ensured that any country could join any meeting underway. Her repeated assurances of transparency and inclusiveness led to a remarkably cathartic discussion, with country after country calling for an exorcism of the ‘ghost of Copenhagen.’ That discussion seemed to shift the negotiations to a more constructive approach.

Still, progress was slow and sessions laboured in fragmented discussions, all off to the side. On the afternoon of the last day of the conference there was no sense of the dramatic events that were to unfold.

What we had not understood that: Mexican host Patricia Espinoza and Christiana Figueres, respected Costa Rican diplomat and new head of the United Nations FCCC Secretariat, had decided to try something novel (and risky). As each sub-group made progress, whereever consensus appeared, comprehensive draft language was prepared and distributed—fifty nations were in direct consultation around the emerging, consensual text.

Last Minute Surprise

Finally, in the afternoon of that last day, two texts were released. One dealt with the future for Kyoto, the other with the so-called ‘Long-term Cooperative Action’ (LCA) issues. In total over 30 pages of detailed text. The text had something for everyone. If accepted, everyone would have to give a little ground.

The two draft texts had been distributed and delegations were the mood of the room was clear. Espinoza was greeted by a prolonged, emotional, standing ovation. Work continued through the night, indeed until 6:30 the next morning. But the enthusiasm for the text was shared, nearly universally.

Only Bolivia registered its objections. Canada clearly didn’t like the text, but Canada was not going to block what was a widespread consensus. (I spoke with acting Environment Minister John Baird just as the plenary resumed at 9pm. He told me Canada had lots of problems with the agreement, and if the text was opened up, it would not survive.)

What Was Agreed?

The documents do not by themselves obligate governments to take any new steps to reduce emissions. What they do is build a strong foundation for agreements to be reached at COP17 next year in Durban, South Africa.

The language is strong and unequivocal. In the LCA decision it is stated ‘climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet, and thus requires to be urgently addressed by all Parties.’

The decisions confirm that the science and IPCC advice is compelling. It commits to find ways to avoid allowing global average temperature from increasing by 2oC, but recognizes the need to consider that the high point should be 1.5oC. For the first time in a UN decision, it mandates that all nations should immediately determine the year by which GHG emissions should peak and begin to fall. It states all parties agree ‘that Parties should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national greenhouse gas emissions as industrialized countries should reduce emissions by 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020.

It deals extensively with the need for adaptation (creating a Cancun Adaptation Framework and Adaptation committee), for financing, it creates a new Green Climate Fund, as well as funding to help arrest deforestation.

What Does It Mean?

It means Kyoto is still alive, but the parties are not committed to a second commitment period when Kyoto’s first period ends in 2012. It just means there could be a second commitment period. Anchoring of voluntary pledges from the Copenhagen Accord may fit into the language of the LCA text, but the Copenhagen Accord targets are laughably weak. Hence, the language calling for industrialized countries to ‘raise the level of ambition’ in their targets.

Somehow in Durban at COP17 we will have to find a way to either continue this two-track process (Kyoto and FCCC) or merge them in one agreement.

What Can Canadians Do?

Once again, our government won the Colossal Fossil Award for being the most obstructive nation in the negotiations. Before Durban, we have to get a change in our government’s position, or get a new government. Canada stepping up to commit to a second commitment period, even on weaker targets, could help shift the balance to saving Kyoto. The bottom line is that we are running out of time. In the next 12 months, we must seize the small ripples of hope that are emanating from Cancun. We must build a public demand for real action to bring the words and framework of the Cancun agreements to life.