Cautious Celebration In Cancun


At 4am on Saturday morning negotiators in Cancun finally put down their pens and stopped debating technicalities and semantics. At the same time, civil society campaigners breathed a collective sigh of relief. The ground work had been laid and for the first time ever mitigation targets from all major polluters have been locked in under UN convention. This is an historic demonstration of a new collective understanding that climate change is an imminent and reality — but also that with cooperation and ambition we can work to avoid the worst of its effects.

Before I delve into the Cancun Agreement itself, there are two ovations that need to be delivered. Two players displayed remarkable leadership in Cancun this year and gave hope to those who were disillusioned and fatigued by the years of negotiating that preceded COP16.

The first ovation goes to the Mexican delegation, fronted by President Espinosa, who undertook the task of balancing geopolitical tensions and conflicting priorities.The Mexican delegation wrote two texts (pdf) that attempted to achieve the "balanced package" (a buzz term that took on a new meaning at COP16) which were received with tears and cheers. Phil Ireland’s short video of the moment captures the hope and spirit of cooperation that those texts provoked.

The second demonstration of leadership and strength came from Tuvalu who consistently and doggedly refused to accept a decision on Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) that contained loopholes and lacked environmental integrity. Tuvalu withstood significant pressure from Annex 1 countries to accept forest management rules that would allow for half a gigatonne increase in emissions from recent trends. Instead, the existing rules have been retained for another commitment period which will allow time for reform in advance of for a third commitment period.

COP16, Cancun, was characterised by a sense of cooperation — and of caution. Bolivia was the only country that openly and repeatedly blocked decisions.

This meant that the Climate Talks in Cancun copped a lot of media flak for lack of ambition, for slow progress and for being dragged down by failures in Copenhagen.

While the "Cancun Agreements are neither adequate nor world changing, they are a definite step toward a legally binding agreement in South Africa next year — and that is to be celebrated. However, the substantive progress that has been made is modest. The necessary framework has been laid but the urgency of the climate crisis means that these small steps are not enough, and not fast enough.

The highlights of COP16 were been the aversion of disaster in the LULUCF text and, in a roundabout way, the continuation of Kyoto as well as in the COP recognition of the need for stronger targets and firmer financial commitments. These are not leaps and bounds but they are significant incremental wins.

LULUCF are the rules that govern how countries account for their emissions from forestry and other forms of land use. As it stands, there are big loopholes in the text which allow countries to claim credits where emissions have not actually been reduced. Australia is particularly culpable in this regard. However, the integrity of LULUCF was further threatened by the prospect of accounting mechanisms that allowed for countries to measure their emissions against a "projected reference level", a hypothetical estimate of what emissions would be in 2020. Countries would then be able to count emissions that remained below that hypothetical level as emission cuts. No decision was passed on LULUCF which means that there is now room for it to be improved.

The controversy of the life or death of Kyoto was one of the few things that did make Australian news. The Kyoto Protocol is the only text that binds its industrialised signatories to their emission targets. Japan advocated against a second commitment period (as the target commitments expire in 2012) as did Russia. However, the best outcome-second to convincing the Russia and Japan to support a second commitment period after all-was achieved as Kyoto’s mandate (pdf) was extended. Negotiations will continue next year with a much clearer text to work with. Another moderate step forward.

The Conference of the Parties (COP) is the peak decision making body of all the countries that are party to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Not only is the recognition that global warming needs to be kept below two degrees (as determined in the Copenhagen Accord) significant, but also the further acknowledgment that the 2 degree warming goal needs to be reviewed and perhaps replaced with 1.5 degree in accordance with current science. This is very important for the most vulnerable countries like G77, the Africa Group, AOSIS and small island nation states who need global temperature increases to be kept below 1.5 degrees in order to survive.

The COP decision locked in the financial commitments made in Copenhagen, binding all parties to the $100 billion per year by 2020 commitment to help developing countries adapt to and mitigate the affects of climate change.

Further, a decision to establish a Green Climate Fund was passed. The transitional committee formed to set up the fund will be comprised of 25 members from developing countries, and 15 from developed countries — ensuring those who will be most affected by the allocation of funding will be well represented. It’s yet to be decided where the funding will come from and who will administer it. An invitation has been extended to the World Bank to serve as an interim trustee. It will be problematic if the World Bank becomes the permanent administrator because of issues of transparency and equity. Most developing countries are adamant that they want the Fund to run through the UNFCCC.

Small policy wins aside, COP16 saw the cooperation and trust that was shaken after Copenhagen rebuilt. There were displays of good faith and compromise from almost every country, something unprecedented in the history of such negotiations. The modest but substantial gains made in Cancun restore integrity to the UNFCCC process and pave the way to greater gains next year.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.