December 12, 2010


[But the outcome left some gaping holes, including spelling out exactly how the new pot of international aid will be funded and whether the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the current global climate pact, will be extended once its first commitment period expires in 2012. Signatories such as Japan and Russia oppose an extension because the United States, China and India are not bound to mandatory emission reductions under Kyoto.]

By Juliet Eilperin and William Booth
Nearly 200 nations were represented Monday as  
the U.N.-sponsored climate talks started in Cancun, 
Mexico. A central question: Can they achieve  enough 
to keep the negotiations alive ?  More photos >>
CANCUN, MEXICO - Delegates from 193 nations agreed Saturday on a new global framework to help developing countries curb their carbon output and cope with the effects of climate change, but they postponed the harder question of precisely how industrialized and major emerging economies will share the task of making deeper greenhouse-gas emission cuts in the coming decade.

The package known as the Cancun Agreements has salvaged a U.N.-backed process that was close to failure, delivering a diplomatic victory to the talks' Mexican hosts. But it also highlighted the obstacles that await as countries continue to grapple with climate change through broad international negotiations.

After an all-night session that included a face-off between Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa and Bolivia's U.N. ambassador, Pablo Solon, members of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) agreed to create a "Green Climate Fund" that will transfer money from rich countries to poor ones; research centers that will ease the transfer of clean-energy technology; and a system in which developing nations can be compensated for keeping rain forests intact.

"Cancun has done its job," UNFCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres said in a statement. "Nations have shown they can work together under a common roof, to reach consensus on a common cause."

But the outcome left some gaping holes, including spelling out exactly how the new pot of international aid will be funded and whether the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the current global climate pact, will be extended once its first commitment period expires in 2012. Signatories such as Japan and Russia oppose an extension because the United States, China and India are not bound to mandatory emission reductions under Kyoto.

Akira Yamada, Japan's deputy director general for global issues, said the current Kyoto framework amounted to having big emitters act as "spectators" while the rest of the industrialized world played a soccer match. "We would hope they would come down to the field to play with us, to score against global warming," Yamada said.

The new framework encapsulates the current commitments that both industrialized and developing nations have made to cut their carbon emissions over the next decade, though it notes that these will not meet the agreed-upon goal of keeping the rise in global temperatures from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels. To achieve that, industrialized countries would have cut their emissions between 25 and 40 percent compared with 1990 levels in the next decade, as opposed to the 16 percent they have promised.

Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said delegates have "bought themselves some time" but will face an even tougher negotiation next year in Durban, South Africa. "The big issues are still unaddressed," he said.

Still, the agreement cemented and fleshed out key elements of the Copenhagen Accord, the controversial deal brokered among President Obama and the leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa in a closed meeting last year. That pact was not formally adopted by the U.N. body after a handful of Latin American countries raised objections, but it established the idea that major developing countries would subject voluntary emissions cuts to international scrutiny while the industrialized world would mobilize $100 billion in climate aid for poor nations by 2020.

"The reality is we really got what we were looking for," said U.S. special climate envoy Todd Stern in an interview Saturday. On issues such as forests, financing and scrutiny of major emitters' carbon reductions, he said, "we got good, substantive decisions on all of those things."

Michael Levi, senior follow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an e-mail that while "most of the important work of cutting emissions will be driven outside the U.N. process," the Cancun agreement "should be applauded not because it solves everything, but because it chooses not to: it focuses on those areas where the U.N. process has the most potential to be useful, and avoids others where the U.N. process is a dead end."

Some elements of the deal, including one known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, could have an immediate impact on curbing carbon emissions. The new language establishes rules for calculating how much carbon is stored in forest stocks vulnerable to logging or burning, along with safeguards for rain-forest dwellers and biodiversity.

Rebecca Chacko, who directs climate policy for the advocacy group Conservation International, said this "basic framework" is "going to inspire countries to really ramp up the financing immediately" for forest preservation, as well as open the door to more private funding.

In the end, Mexico was able to pull off what the president of the Center for Clean Air Policy, Ned Helme, called a negotiating "tour de force" by asking delegates what was most important to them and what they could compromise on. The Mexicans finally won over everyone - except Solon, who complained about everything from future climate targets to his treatment by checkpoint security guards.

In an interview, Espinosa said: "We were feeling very uncomfortable, because Bolivia is a very close friend to the Mexican people. We share a lot with Bolivia. Both countries have many indigenous peoples. We both have forests. So being so far apart was difficult for us."
President Felipe Calderon in an interview Saturday morning called the late-night conclusion, with its repeated applause for Mexico and its appeals to save humanity, "a very emotional night for all of us."

Minutes later, at a breakfast by the sea for the Mexican delegation, Calderon hoisted a cold beer and dug into his tacos, after being hailed as the world's new leader on climate change.

The Cancún  conference has beaten expectations by producing new, if modest, agreements
THE room spoke just after the sun set. Patricia Espinosa, the foreign secretary of Mexico and the president of the UN climate conference, presented drafts of the conference’s two final texts, which had been circulating for a couple of hours, just before six o’clock on Friday December 10th. The assembled negotiators and ministers clapped. And, in a prolonged surge of relief, they kept clapping. The room rose to its feet, and clapped some more.
They were not just praising the documents, and the impressive diplomatic efforts of Ms Espinosa and her team. They were clapping the fact that they were clapping, because they knew what the clapping meant. Something about their common response confirmed the feeling that had been gaining ground: the documents might actually get adopted, and the wounds inflicted on the UN process in the bruising breakdown at Copenhagen in 2009 might be healed. The room applauded yet more. For the rest of the long night, the voice of the cheering room was as important a factor in the talks as any national delegation or inspired diplomatic finesse.
As expected, the subsequent sessions were dominated by Bolivia. Uncompromising in its belief that mother earth and capitalism cannot both survive, and that it is “a small country that speaks for the peoples of the world”, Bolivia rejected the proposed texts on grounds both procedural and substantive: they aimed to limit global warming two degrees, which Bolivia considers too lax; they gave a role in a new climate fund to the World Bank, which Bolivia doesn’t like; they did not require new commitments to emissions reduction under the Kyoto protocol, which Bolivia wants; they smuggled in parts of the Copenhagen accord, a document Bolivia has bitterly imposed; and so on.
Last year procedural objections to that accord—led by Bolivia, but backed by others—dominated the closing plenary of the talks, and stopped the conference from deciding to accept the accord in a formal way. Though the accord had various things in it that the parties wanted, such as pledges on emissions from developed and developing countries alike and a climate fund, the UN process neither got nor deserved the credit. The Bolivians were able to keep the accord from being integrated into the UN process because of a principle of consensus common in UN bodies; a sustained explicit objection is taken to mean that no such consensus has been reached.
This year Bolivia stood alone, and the voice of the room spoke against it. When the Colombian delegate said that the principle of consensus does not allow one country to impose a veto, the delegates erupted again into prolonged applause. Ms Espinosa, in her role as the chair of the plenary, took a similar line, and got a similar response. Consensus was held not to require unanimity, and down came the gavel. The Cancún agreements became part of the UN’s climate process.
Of trees and technology
The texts set in train a bunch of new processes. The most anticipated aimed at reduced deforestation and forest degradation, also known as REDD+. This is a formula for action on the loss of forests in developing countries, some of which is to be paid for in various ways by the developed world.
There is also, as outlined in the Copenhagen accord, a new fund for climate finance that will benefit from some of the $100 billion dollars in “long-term finance” that the agreements see flowing from north to south every year by 2020. In a compromise between likely donors and recipients, this fund will not be directly under the control of the parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, but instead run by an independent board. The World Bank will function as a trustee for the fund, but in a way as yet to be fully defined. 
In those two respects—a lot of compromise between developed and developing countries, and a number of details to be filled in at a later date—the fund agreement is typical of Cancún ’s achievements. What is surprising about the agreements is that there are so many such achievements in them. A Cancún Action Framework on adaptation; a new programme on technology transfer; an associated new technology executive body and more besides. It is hard to say how much, if at all, these things may come to matter; but they should in principle offer new ways of actually doing things, rather than just talking about them, which should do the UN process a lot of good.
The Mexican presidency’s most impressive coup, though, was heading off a potential train wreck on the subject of the “second commitment period” to the Kyoto protocol. Because it actually makes binding demands on developed countries, the Kyoto protocol has a touchstone quality for developing countries; their insistence on its continuing relevance and power was one of the key stumbling blocks in Copenhagen.
The developed countries which are parties to Kyoto (which is to say all of them except America) made initial commitments on cutting emissions that run out in 2012. In principle these are to be followed in 2013 by a second, more ambitious, commitment period. At the beginning of the Cancún conference Japan reaffirmed, in a particularly trenchant way, its long-held refusal to have anything to do with that second commitment period; Canada and Russia take the same position. Given that the world’s biggest emitters, America and China, are not bound to such commitments, these countries say, why should we be? The big emerging economies—Brazil, China, India and South Africa—made it clear in turn that a second commitment was their top priority.
The text on the Kyoto protocol that was agreed in Cancún talks positively about the second commitment period in principle. But careful reading makes it clear that neither Japan nor anyone else is currently obliged to sign up for it, and that its legal form remains to be determined. And the pledges on emissions cuts that developed countries made as part of the Copenhagen accord have not been slotted into the Kyoto text, where they might have been seen as commitments by any other name. They have put into a separate part of the text. In short, Japan pretty much got its way.
Cancún  could
So why did Cancún  succeed in making progress within the UN process where Copenhagen so spectacularly failed? One reason is low expectations. Copenhagen was meant to produce an all-encompassing agreement; Cancún was expected to embarrass itself. Its fairly modest successes therefore look particularly good.
Copenhagen itself is another reason. A similar failure would have killed the multilateral talks on climate, and many of the parties value the UN process enough to have been willing to make extra compromises in order to come away with a success. 
China, which did not enjoy being blamed for the breakdown at Copenhagen, went out of its way not to look like the heavy again, and probably pushed reluctant developing countries in the direction of compromise, rather than away from it. The Mexican presidency did a lot to reassure countries that their opinions were being heard, and that there were no secret talks-within-talks subverting the process; again and again in the final plenary Ms Espinosa and her colleagues were praised for their transparency and openness. The fact that Ms Espinosa is the exception among people chairing climate talks in coming from a diplomatic background, rather than being an environment minister, probably helped, too, as did a wealth of diplomatic experience on her team.
None of this amounts to a breakthrough. And, as the agreements make clear, the pledges from the Copenhagen accord, which have now been formally, if loosely, associated with the UN process, are nowhere near large enough to deliver the two degree target that those agreements enshrine. Some might now be raised; there will be calls for Europe to go from a 20% cut to a 30% cut. And the problem of the second commitment period has not gone away.
But something may have started to shift. The new board, programmes and institutions mean there is now more to the UN process than the flawed Kyoto protocol. And this new kit includes, in the form of the new fund, a fresh way to transfer money from north to south. With more money on the table, and more going on in the UN process, Kyoto may lose its talismanic importance, becoming one of an ever increasing raft of things to trade and compromise on.
The talks ended as the sun came back up.