13 December, 2010

The Cancun Agreements

Sergio Abranches

The Cancun Agreements were a continuation of the Copenhagen Accord, and an additional important step forward. COP16 meant more progress in the right direction. But we are still far from a new binding agreement on climate change.

It may seem paradoxical to say that COP16 was a continuation of the Copenhagen Accord. But it has finished a job that was not concluded in Copenhagen. The Cancun Agreements have formalized the essential provisions of the Copenhagen Accord, including the emission reduction pledges registered on its annexes. The core of the Accord has now been adopted as an official UN document. In Copenhagen there was considerable progress in negotiations on central issues related to a future binding deal, but they stopped short of getting a final vote. These negotiations were resumed and finalized in Cancun. Definitions regarding the emission reduction pledges, the Green Fund, the transparency mechanism to monitor the implementation of the pledges, all designed as pieces of the Copenhagen Accord are now formal decisions under the Cancun Agreements.

Intense negotiations were able to prevent the collapse by default of the Kyoto Protocol. The formal veto to a second period of commitment by Annex I countries – Japan, Russia, New Zealand and Australia – would in practice amount to renouncing the Protocol. It would become inapplicable from 2012 onwards. I’ve been arguing for some time that we should abandon the Kyoto Protocol. It is less representative of global emissions than the Copenhagen Accord. But its collapse rather than its formal replacement by a more encompassing and representative binding agreement could lead to a dangerous legal void. This sudden abandonment of the sole negotiation track that already has a legal instrument could put in jeopardy the whole multilateral framework for global climate policy formation. The decision to abandon the Kyoto Protocol should be by supersession. Its provisions that have already proved to work should be transferred to a new and more encompassing legal instrument, having new provisions especially regarding its enforcement. This evolution would be more than just reforming the Kyoto Protocol and adding more countries to its Annex I. The world needs a brand new climate treaty that builds upon the Kyoto Protocol’s few strengths and moves beyond its several limitations.

Every country now is aware that in the future there will be only one binding instrument regulating mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. It could happen in Durban, South Africa, next year, during COP17. But is doesn’t seem likely.

The Cancun Agreements did, however, more than formally adopting the central provisions of the Copenhagen Accord. They have solved some critical deadlocks preventing a final solution on issues that were negotiated in Copenhagen but fell short of being adopted. The most important concerned REDD+, adaptation, finance and transparency (monitoring, reporting and  verification). The guidelines for REDD+ were satisfactorily approved. Delegations have clarified governance problems regarding the Adaptation Fund, and made decisions that might eventually lead to a final solution. They’ve formulated an working framework for global adaptation policies. An international institution to deal with loss and damage and an Adaptation Council will be created. Parties have also decided to create a Technology Executive Council and a Climate Technology Center and Network to support technology transfer. There was agreement on the specification of the ICA – International Consultation and Analysis as a transparency mechanism, negotiated between president Obama and premier Wen Jiabao in a BASIC meeting in Copenhagen, with the supporting mediation of India and Brazil.

Cancun was a clear continuation of the endeavors that have begun in Copenhagen. The results achieved by COP16 depended on the political shift made at COP15. Copenhagen represented a paradigm shift in global climate politics. It marked the transition of a politics of negation to a politics of cooperation. In Copenhagen, the U.S., China, Brazil, and India have stopped blocking any progress towards a new binding climate change agreement. They’ve admitted for the first time ever to register emissions reduction pledges under an international agreement. It wasn’t foreseen that the Copenhagen Accord would not be adopted by the plenary of COP15. The expectations of the chiefs of government was that it would become an official accord adopted by the Climate Convention. They viewed it as an important building-block for a binding agreement. An inept and confused Chair prevented it from being adopted. In Copenhagen, an unassertive president has lost control of the plenary, and provoked a dismal decision. In Cancun, a firm presidency has led the plenary to a legitimate and successful outcome.

The failure of the Danish presidency transferred to Cancun the task to officially adopt the core elements of the Copenhagen Accord, as the foundation for the negotiation of a fully binding agreement in the future. Most of the core issues necessary to design a new treaty were fully negotiated in Copenhagen, but the climate of distrust and conflict prevented them from being adopted. The strategy adopted by the Mexican presidency made a crucial difference. It started to be designed by president Felipe Calderón during the hot final moments of COP15 in an otherwise freezing Copenhagen. It was aptly implemented by Patricia Espinosa, the president of COP16, with a firm hand and a careful approach. With cautious but unwavering leadership Espinosa ensured the necessary prerequisite to achieving a good final result in Cancun: to restore confidence and to regenerate the commitment of all to the multilateral regime for global climate policy.

Her caution helped to eliminate the lack of confidence and the misgivings that still prevailed by ensuring full transparency and representativeness to every move in the negotiations. “An open doors policy”, as she herself defined it. To respond to the fear of hidden texts and secret documents that poisoned the Copenhagen environment, she devised a process of informal negotiations, that should produce no written documents, only “informal notes” and spoken reports by the Chairs at informal stock-taking plenaries. There were drafting groups, but no draft documents to circulate. The only documents to be ever tabled were written at the end of the negotiations, under the supervision of the presidency. They were made available only in the evening of Friday, last day of the Convention.

Confidence building along the several days of intense informal negotiations, and full transparency have created a very cooperative climate and a degree of conviviality that increased the propensity to compromise of almost all players. This strategy was not without risks. Taking informal negotiations up to the last hours of the summit left almost no room for the production of formal documents. A plenary without formal documents upon which to deliberate would be a plenary without substance. But the determination with Espinosa managed each step of this long series of informal meetings and the drafting of the final documents maintained COP16 out of this danger zone.

Her resolve prevented Cancun from having the deplorable end Copenhagen had. At the final plenary of COP15, a handful of countries vetoed an agreement supported by more than 100 countries, among them the larger emitters, and the large majority of the most vulnerable to extreme climate events. When Bolivia objected to the adoption of the documents for lack of consensus, Patricia Espinosa has made perhaps the most important decision of a whole generation of COPs: she argued that consensus does not mean unanimity; consensus is not giving one country or a very few countries the right to veto the decision of a large majority. She did not use an argument of plurality, not even one of qualified majorities. She used an argument of common sense, of large numbers: if everybody but a few want a decision, and that decision harm no one, it has to be adopted as a consensual rule. It is a fair and legitimate definition of consensus. It combines a high level of agreement (large numbers against a few), a high degree of representativeness (all major emitters, all countries with financial and technical means to support the decisions on finance and technology, all most vulnerable countries but one favored the adoption of the documents), and a clause of no harm done (no one could say persuasively that one would be worse-off with the decision than without it). The first two elements are political. The third is a moral one. The three provided a sound technical and legal basis to determine the limits of both consensus and legitimate veto power.

That’s how politics works: step by step, eliminating vetoes, clarifying arguments and giving transparency to stakes and interests involved, creating partial consensus in search of overall consensus. Political decisions at the multilateral or multiparty level tend to begin by  asserting general principles, while there still is disagreement over more concrete issues, and over policy operationalization and implementation. A policy that can be enforced and fully implemented requires that conditions are ripe for its adoption. This usually takes a succession of negotiating steps towards the final outcome. It can take more time than climate science says we have. Let’s hope not. It is moving slower than the pace of observed signs of climate change. That can help to accelerate the political process. Each new step depends on previous domestic decisions and change. The multilateral process of negotiation can be an important driver of domestic change and help countries to move forward on domestic climate policy-making.

COP17, in Durban, South Arica will be the third stage of this new phase of global climate politics. As Cancun’s achievements depended on the results achieved in Copenhagen, and improved upon them, Durban will benefit from progress made in Copenhagen and Cancun. Can Durban be the final stop on this long and difficult journey towards an encompassing, effective, and binding climate agreement? Yes it can. But it is not likely. Particularly if the present economic crisis in Europe and the U.S. persists. It becomes even less likely if inflationary pressure and exchange rate imbalances also negatively affect the Chinese economy. But it will almost certainly make a significant step forward in the right direction. The parties will hardly lose track in Durban. They’ll probably move faster towards the desired goal, now that confidence has been restored, the multilateral process revitalized and several core issues have been appropriately resolved.

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