At Cancún, a New Pragmatism in Climate Policy

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Gerardo Garcia / Reuters

Canadian protesters at the venue of climate-change talks in Cancún on Dec. 10, 2010

In the end, it came down to Bolivia. The South American country — whose President Evo Morales was one of the few world leaders to attend this meeting — had raised angry objections throughout the two-week-long U.N. climate-change summit in Cancún, Mexico. On Friday night, with the draft texts of an agreement prepared and every other nation ready for a deal, Bolivia wouldn't budge. "We reject this document," Bolivia's U.N. Ambassador Pablo Solon told the assembled representatives of more than 190 nations at the final plenary session, "and therefore there is no consensus for its adoption."

That spelled trouble, because the rules of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — the body to guide global-warming action — require decisionmaking by consensus. That gives an effective veto to even a single obstinate country: a handful of holdouts blocked adoption at last year's summit of the Copenhagen Accord, a last-minute agreement brokered by President Barack Obama. "Showdown at the Bolivian pass coming up soon," tweeted Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who followed the negotiations.

Unlike last year, however, Bolivia was isolated in its opposition, virtually friendless in the plenary hall. Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, the tough diplomat who presided over the summit negotiations, held firm, gaveling through Bolivia's objections no matter how often Solon raised his voice to speak. In the end, with no other opposition in the hall and sleepless diplomats desperate to end hours of round-the-clock negotiations, Espinosa declared the process finished. "The major results of this meeting will be issued as the Cancún Agreements," she said, to a standing ovation in the plenary hall. "This is a new era of international cooperation in climate change."

A year after the disappointment of Copenhagen had prompted many to question the viability of the UNFCCC, the world had its first new legal agreement on climate change in years. The deal is modest: there are no new binding pledges to cut carbon emissions, no hard figures in climate aid, and some of the most difficult decisions, like the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, have been deferred to next year. But for the first time, the world has a legal instrument that commits both developed and developing nations — including major emerging economies like China — to take climate action that will be transparent and measurable.

"Obviously this package is not going to solve climate change itself," said an exhausted Todd Stern, the U.S. climate envoy, at a 5:30 a.m. press conference on Saturday. "But it is an important step forward."

That it is, although it leaves much more to do. But the Cancún Agreements go beyond the politics of climate change. Here are five lessons from Cancún that should be kept in mind as those who attended the summit all head home:

Multilateralism Isn't Quite Dead Yet
The disarray at Copenhagen prompted many calls for abandoning the UNFCCC's dysfunctional consensus model. A few small developing countries could stop all progress, and negotiations were poisoned by paranoia and suspicion. Given that a relatively small number of large nations — the U.S., European countries, India, China, Brazil — were responsible for most of the carbon emissions on the planet, it seemed that the future for climate talks lies in more manageable institutions, like the G-20.

But the U.N. process might still have some life yet. Thanks in part to the oversight by the host country, Mexico — acclaimed for its transparency and focus — negotiations at Cancún were relatively productive. There were no walkouts, and just about every country other than Bolivia left reasonably happy. More important might be the precedent set by Espinosa's actions in those final hours. By refusing to bend to Bolivia's procedural objections, the UNFCCC broke the habit of seeing "consensus" as meaning total unanimity, and began to evolve toward a more democratic and more effective body. The Cancún Agreements didn't save the planet, but they may have saved the U.N. climate process — at least for now.

China Can Negotiate
The juxtaposition was telling: On Friday, as the Norwegians awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, Beijing pressured other nations to stay away from the ceremony, blasted the Norwegians in language straight out of the Cultural Revolution and even built a wall blocking TV cameras' view of the apartment building where Liu's wife is under house arrest. That was not China's best face, to say the least.

Yet, in Cancún the Chinese negotiated relatively graciously and were apparently willing to make compromises — a marked contrast to last year in Copenhagen, when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao snubbed President Obama and nearly torpedoed the Copenhagen Accord. The top objective for the U.S. was to achieve a document that guaranteed international transparency for China's domestic climate actions, and that anchored those actions — and those of other major developing nations — in a legal instrument that put developed and developing nations on a complementary level. Stern and his team largely succeeded, and China, while bargaining hard, ultimately chose not to stand in the way. "You saw China taking a very positive tone here," says Barbara Finamore, China program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They don't want to be blamed for the failure of Cancún."

The Shock of Copenhagen Prompted Compromise in Cancún
Pity poor Connie Hedegaard. The former Danish Minister for Climate and Energy, now European Commissioner on Climate, had to sit through delegate after delegate contrasting the positive atmosphere in Cancún with the 2009 summit she hosted in Copenhagen. But the difficulties at Copenhagen arose in part because of the U.S. insisting that global carbon-output realities required changing the Kyoto approach of putting the burden of emissions cuts mostly on the developed countries, and largely exempting developing countries including China, today's largest carbon emitter. Developing nations pushed back fiercely. But the Copenhagen Accord, however fractured, did set the basis for that shift in climate politics, and the biggest achievement in Cancún was the legal formalization of that new order. "Substantively, [Cancún] begins to flesh out many of the Copenhagen Accord's details," wrote Michael Levi, a climate expert for the Council on Foreign Relations, in a blog post Saturday. "Politically, it takes what was a toxic agreement and obtains much more solid buy-in from the most important parties." But that never would have happened if Copenhagen hadn't bulldozed the way.

Forests Are the Low-Hanging Fruit of Climate Policy
The hallmark of post-Copenhagen realism is the recognition that there will be no single grand-bargain deal on climate change. The politics are simply too complex and the problem itself too wicked to be solved in a single pact. Instead, we're more likely to see multiple organizations tackling different strands of the problem in a parallel fashion — yes, the UNFCCC will play its role, but so will the World Bank or the G-20, focusing on different elements of policy. That's more effective, and it prevents climate action as a whole from being bogged down if one stream clogs.

One of the first beneficiaries of this new pragmatism will be tropical forests. Deforestation is responsible for 12% to 17% of global greenhouse-gas emissions each year, and the loss of forests in countries like Brazil and Indonesia threatens biodiversity and the hundreds of millions of people who depend on the rain forest. For a few years now, there has been a growing movement to make trees part of global climate action through Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), which rewards tropical countries for the carbon value of their standing forests. It's a popular scheme, but other divisions in climate politics have always held it back. The Cancún Agreements are the first official recognition of REDD in a U.N. climate deal and will help unify the piecemeal pilot projects that have already been launched around the world. "This is a watershed for the world's forests," says Andrew Deutz, director of international government relations for the Nature Conservancy.

Don't Get Carried Away
In the midst of his filibustering, Bolivia's Solon actually made some good points. The climate pledges in the Cancún Agreements aren't anywhere near enough to prevent the world from reaching dangerous levels of warming. (The U.N. Environment Programme, in a report released at Cancún, noted that even if all the Copenhagen pledges were actually realized, the world would reach only 60% of the cuts needed to keep warming below 2°C.) Nor is there much in the way of hard figures in the agreement. The deal establishes a Green Climate Fund designed to channel money to developing nations for adaptation and carbon mitigation, but while rich countries have promised $100 billion a year by 2020, there's no detail on where that money will come from.

View the Cancún Agreements as half-empty, in fact, and you can conclude that the reason they passed is because most of the hardest choices were finessed and kicked down the road. That includes the fate of the Kyoto Protocol. Developing countries continue to insist that developed nations take on new carbon cuts under Kyoto after the first commitment period ends in 2012, but Japan, Russia, Canada and Australia were strongly opposed. (The U.S., of course, isn't a party to Kyoto, another sore point.) That debate, which could have scuttled talks in Cancún, was punted to next year's summit in Durban, South Africa. But that will be in December 2011, and there won't be any more wiggle room. "Kyoto is the question that no one can answer at this stage," the E.U.'s Hedegaard said at the end of the summit. Climate diplomats should feel good about Cancún, but the debate over Kyoto could still overshadow all they accomplished there.