Reflections on Cancun

Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC | December 17, 2010 Print

At 4:30 a.m. on the morning of December 11, 2010, the participants at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) broke into a long applause and by acclamation ratified what has become known as the Cancun Agreement. Bolivia held out to the end and refused to ratify the agreement. Two close allies of Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela did ratify the agreement.

No one in the hall was claiming that the Cancun Agreement was a historic moment in effectively dealing with climate change. Even those most favorably disposed to the 147 paragraphs in the Cancun Agreement did not claim that it offers any ground breaking ways of dealing with climate change and its effects. But there was genuine relief that the multilateral negotiating process within the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC ) actually did finally succeed. If the Cancun Conference had been as frustrating an experience for developing countries as the Conference in Copenhagen was in December 2009, multilateralism may not have survived.

One of the reasons why it did succeed was due to the patient, professional diplomatic work of the Mexican government during 2010 and, especially, the skillful handling of the negotiations by the Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa. During the midnight plenary on December 10, 2010, the Zambian negotiator spoke for almost everyone in the room when he addressed the chair, Minister Spinoza, and said, “thank you for lifting our spirits from the depression of Copenhagen; you have restored our trust in multilateralism.” There was also praise for Luis Alfonso d’Alba, who was the chief negotiator for Mexico. The modest success at Cancun has ensured that the UNFCCC will be the primary home for climate decisions, and not organizations such as the World Bank or G20.

What gains were made at Cancun?
1. The U.S. was happy that there was some progress on measuring, reporting and verifying methodologies (MRV). This means that domestic climate change efforts which might otherwise be unsubstantiated can now be registered, monitored and verified. The developing countries and China had earlier set their faces against any such monitoring and verification.

2. Developing countries were happy with the decision to set up a Green Climate Fund. This money will be used for climate mitigation and adaptation programs in developing countries. According to paragraph 16, this fund is “accountable to and functions under the guidance of the Conference of the Parties (COP).” For the next three years, the World Bank will be the interim trustee of this fund. This decision has been a source of controversy in recent years. Industrialized countries prefer that the World Bank house the fund, but developing countries, with a history of negative experiences with the Bank, would prefer the Conference of Parties as the trustee of the fund. It is hoped that €100 billion will be available annually for the fund by 2020. Much of this money will come from carbon levies of utilities, energy-intensive industries and the aviation and shipping industries.

3. There were other gains in Cancun on what is called REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), Under this initiative countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Zaire and other developing countries which have forests can receive aid for keeping their forests intact, so that they act as carbon sinks. Anyone who has been involved in issues surrounding tropical forests knows how difficult it is to monitor projects. This was my own experience during my years in Mindanao. For a number of years I have been encouraging Catholic Development agencies to get involved with REDD projects. Such projects could deliver significant economic benefits to poor people who live in the vicinity of tropical forests.

By securing the forest, they could have a constant stream of income based on sustainable forest products and also ensure the protection of biodiversity. But, of course, these Development Agencies which in the past have specialized in areas such as education, health care and livelihood projects would need to develop a competence in this area. This should not be difficult as there is quite a bit of money there for capacity building. REDD also leaves the door open for big business to get involved in using forestry projects in the carbon offsetting market. Many community groups would be opposed to this development.

4. There was also some movement on clean technologies. According to Michael Jacobs writing in The Guardian, “After Cancun, the global race to produce clean technologies is back on. Business and investor confidence (in these technologies) has a chance of being restored.”

Before the Conference began, Japan stated that they would not sign up to a second Kyoto commitment. They were joined by Russia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. During the first week this demand seemed almost poised to wreck the negotiations. The reason for Japan’s jaundiced view of Kyoto is that it commits the signatories to making binding cuts, where other countries such as the U.S. are only making voluntary cuts. Developing countries see the binding commitments under the Kyoto Protocol (KP) as a good example of the “common but differentiated” approach to climate change and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Developing countries point to the fact that the prosperity which rich countries have enjoyed for more than 100 years is directly related to their use of fossil fuels.

Enormous pressure came on Japan during Cancun. It is reported that many world leaders telephoned the Japanese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, in order to get Japan to soften its position on KP. The issue is still part of the negotiations, and developing countries are now more confident that richer nations will support the second commitment period. Professor John Sweeney of National University of Ireland (NUI), Maynooth, points out that an over concentration on the Kyoto Protocol would miss the point that “only 25% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from countries within the KP.”

Many decisions that need to be made to further reduce GHG were not made at Cancun. Much hard work will need to be done over the course of the next year if a fair, ambitious and legally binding agreement is going to emerge from the next Conference of the Parties (COP 17) in Durban, South Africa in December 2011.

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