The Cancun Agreements

An initial assessment by Lavanya Rajamani, Professor – International Law, Centre for Policy Research

The Cancun climate negotiations stretched, as now customary, into the early hours of the day after its scheduled end. The events of the final day were far less acrimonious than one would expect after Copenhagen. Indeed, had it not been for the pesky Bolivian delegation repeatedly drawing attention to the lack of ambition in the “Cancun Agreements,” it would have been a virtual love fest. The Bolivians, however, notwithstanding their lengthy, lucid, and legally sound, if inconvenient, interventions were eventually beaten down by the euphoria in the room. Climate negotiators, still reeling from the trauma of Copenhagen, and in search of a glimmer of hope, found it in the pleasant climes of the Mayan Riviera, and the benevolent leadership of the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Patricia Espinosa. Bolivia, without support from other Bolivarian Alliance countries (Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Ecuador), as in Copenhagen, could not block agreement in Cancun. A consensus-based decision-making rule does not deliver veto power to every nation. So it was said, and so it proved.

Espinosa pulled together two texts, one under the Kyoto Protocol, and one under the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC). These texts emerged from consultations facilitated by Ministers in the final hours. Although the charismatic Jairam Ramesh chose not to take a visible facilitating role, perhaps fearing domestic repercussions, he played a constructive role, edging Parties towards compromise solutions. Espinosa accordingly singled him out for appreciation in her remarks.

The Cancun Agreements, which in the words of Espinosa, launch a new era of climate cooperation, represent the outcome of three years of work since Bali in 2007. The international community agreed in Cancun to “work towards” identifying a global goal for emission reductions as well as a time frame for peaking of emissions, and to “consider” (not resolve) these at the next conference in Durban in 2011. Parties did “recognize” however that “deep” unspecified cuts are required to “hold the increase in global average temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.”

Intriguing as these perceived advancements are in the international community’s shared vision on climate change, the real treasures are to be mined in the mitigation text. In the lead up to Cancun, many developed countries, in particular the US, had argued for ways to “anchor” in the FCCC process, the pledges submitted under the Copenhagen Accord. Neither the Accord, given its tortured birthing process, nor the pledges inscribed in its Appendices, has any formal legal standing in the FCCC process. The Cancun text in an effort to anchor these in the process, “takes note of” developed country “targets,” and developing country mitigation actions, communicated by them and contained in an “information” document.  This “information” document is not currently in existence. The operational assumption is that this document will contain the pledges that countries have inscribed in the Copenhagen Accord. These pledges, if faithfully implemented, set the world on a 3-4 degrees C warming path. In effect, the Conference took note of a document that does not exist, and when it does is likely to contain targets and actions that will not hold, as is the stated aim, temperature increase to 2 degrees C.

There are however, to be fair, several saving graces, as far as developing countries are concerned. The Kyoto Protocol, much to the chagrin of Japan and Russia, lives to see another day. The text under the Kyoto Protocol track is crafted on the upbeat assumption that there will be a second commitment period after 2012.  That this will come to pass, of course, is highly unlikely.

The text on measurement, reporting and verification (MRV), of developing country mitigation actions is perhaps the most balanced part of the Cancun Agreements, and it appears to have benefitted from iterations of Ramesh’s discussion note on the issue. The Agreement enhances the frequency of national reporting and inventory requirements, but recognizes a clear distinction between supported and unsupported mitigation actions, confines the review of information to the non-threatening realm of technical experts, and excludes a discussion on the “appropriateness” of domestic policies and measures. In addition, the Cancun Agreements establish a Green Climate Fund, a Technology Mechanism and an Adaptation Framework, fulfilling the promise of the Copenhagen Accord.

The Cancun Agreements represent the best of what can be hoped for at this stage. While the mitigation text is inadequate and perplexing, it mirrors the permanent flux the international community is in due to US climate intransigence. On other aspects, Cancun delivered incremental progress. And, after Copenhagen, even incremental progress in the climate negotiations is hailed as a historic achievement.