Tag Archives: Cancun Agreements

A Challenge for Climate Negotiators, and an Opportunity for Scholars

As I have written in many previous essays at this blog, the challenges standing in the way of an effective international climate change agreement are numerous and severe.  It is also true that the prospects for a truly meaningful deal may be better now than at any time in the past decade or more.  That is the theme of a new article I’ve co-authored with my Harvard Kennedy School colleague, Joseph Aldy.  The article, “Climate Negotiators Create an Opportunity for Scholars,” was published in the August 31st edition of Science.

Changes emerged gradually from the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate in 2009, the Copenhagen Accord (2009), the Cancun Agreements (2010), and – most important – the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (2011).  Together these have now increased the likelihood that the ongoing negotiations can move beyond the debilitating Annex I/non-Annex I dichotomy of the Berlin Mandate (1995), as codified in the Kyoto Protocol (1997); and instead develop a comprehensive legal regime for implementation in 2020 that includes all key countries, based upon a more nuanced and effective interpretation of the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” from the original United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992).

In our Science article, Joe Aldy and I trace this history and describe several potential international climate policy architectures that could be consistent with the process and principles laid out in both the Durban Platform and the UNFCCC.  Our article is very brief, and so rather than trying to summarize it here, I encourage you to follow this link to read the essay in its entirety.

The negotiating teams are now tasked under the Durban Platform with identifying a new comprehensive policy architecture by 2015 (for 2020 implementation).  The negotiators are therefore hungry for new ideas, in particular for outside-the-box thinking.  This presents an important opportunity for researchers in universities, think tanks, and advocacy groups around the world.

The Platform Opens a Window: An Unambiguous Consequence of the Durban Climate Talks

In my previous essay – following the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which adjourned on December 11, 2011 – I offered my assessment of the Durban climate negotiations, addressing the frequently-posed question of whether the talks had “succeeded.”  I took note of three major outcomes from the negotiations:  (1) elaboration on several components of the Cancun Agreements; (2) a second five-year commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol; and (3) a non-binding agreement to reach an agreement by 2015 that will bring all countries under the same legal regime by 2020.  My conclusion was that this package – in total – represented something of a “half-full glass of water,” that is, an outcome that could be judged successful or not, depending upon one’s perspective.

However, something I did not discuss last month is that this third provision ­– the “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” – has opened an important window.  To explain what I mean requires a brief review of some key points from twenty years of history of international climate negotiations.

The Rio Earth Summit (1992)

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, adopted at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (the first “Earth Summit”) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, contains what was to become a crucial passage.  The first “principle” in Article 3 of the Convention reads as follows:  “The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.” [emphasis added]  The countries considered to be “developed country Parties” were listed in an appendix to the 1992 Convention ­– Annex I.

The phrase – common but differentiated responsibilities – has been repeated countless numbers of times since 1992, but what does it really mean?  The official answer was provided three years after the Earth Summit by the first decision adopted by the first Conference of the Parties (COP-1) of the U.N. Framework Convention, in Berlin, Germany, April 7, 1995 ­­– the Berlin Mandate.

The Berlin Mandate (1995)

The Berlin Mandate interpreted the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” as:

(1) launching a process to commit (by 1997) the Annex I countries to quantified greenhouse gas emissions reductions within specified time periods (targets and timetables); and

(2) stating unambiguously that the process should “not introduce any new commitments for Parties not included in Annex I.”

Thus, the Berlin Mandate established the dichotomous distinction whereby the Annex I countries are to take on emissions-reductions responsibilities, and the non-Annex I countries are to have no such responsibilities whatsoever.

The Kyoto Protocol (1997)

It was in direct response to this Mandate that the U.S. Senate subsequently passed unanimously (95-0) the Byrd-Hagel Resolution in August of 1997 (Senate Resolution 98, 105th Congress, 1st Session) stating that:

“It is the sense of the Senate that the United States should not be a signatory to any protocol to, or other agreement regarding, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992, at negotiations in Kyoto in December 1997, or thereafter, which would mandate new commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the Annex I Parties, unless the protocol or other agreement also mandates new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties within the same compliance period.”

So, in a very real sense, the Berlin Mandate brought about sustained bi-partisan opposition in the United States to the international climate regime and the Kyoto Protocol.  This sealed the Protocol’s fate in terms of ever being ratified by the U.S. Senate.  President Clinton did not submit the Protocol to the Senate for ratification, nor would Al Gore have done so had he been elected to succeed Clinton.  Likewise, Senator John Kerry was explicit about his opposition to Kyoto when he ran for President against George W. Bush, and President Bush was subsequently more than explicit about his lack of support for the Protocol and, for that matter, the UNFCCC process.  When Barack Obama ran against John McCain for President in 2008, one thing on which they agreed was their opposition to the Kyoto Protocol.

Beyond those decisive impacts on U.S. climate politics, the Berlin Mandate had wide-ranging and worldwide normative consequences, because it became the anchor that prevented and has – until very recently – continued to prevent real progress in international climate negotiations.  With 50 non-Annex I countries having greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries, the distinction is clearly out of whack.  But, more important than that, this dichotomous distinction means that:

(a) half of global emissions soon will be from nations without constraints;

(b) the world’s largest emitter – China – is unconstrained;

(c) aggregate compliance costs are driven up to be four times their cost-effective level, because many opportunities for low-cost emissions abatement in emerging economies are taken off the table; and

(d) an institutional structure is perpetuated that makes change and progress virtually impossible.

Fast Forward to Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010)

The dichotomous Annex I/non-Annex I distinction remained a central – indeed, the central – feature of international climate negotiations ever since COP-1 in Berlin in 1995.  Then, at COP-15 in 2009, there were hints of possible change.

The Copenhagen Accord (2009) and the Cancun Agreements (2010) began a process of blurring the Annex I/non-Annex I distinction.  However, this blurring was only in the context of the interim pledge-and-review system established at COP-15 in Copenhagen and certified at COP-16 in Cancun, not in the context of an eventual successor to the Kyoto Protocol.  Thus, the Berlin Mandate retained its centrality.

Finally, We Arrive in Durban (2011)

The third of the three outcomes of the December 2011 talks in Durban, South Africa, which I mentioned at the beginning of this essay – the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action – completely eliminates the Annex I/non-Annex I (or industrialized/developing country) distinction.  In the Durban Platform, the delegates reached a non-binding agreement to reach an agreement by 2015 that will bring all countries under the same legal regime by 2020.  That’s a strange and confusing sentence, but it’s what happened, and it’s potentially important.

Rather than adopting the Annex I/non-Annex I (or industrialized/developing country) distinction, the Durban Platform focuses instead on the (admittedly non-binding) pledge to create a system of greenhouse gas reductions including all Parties (that is, all key countries) by 2015 that will come into force (after ratification) by 2020.  Nowhere in the text of the decision will one find phrases such as “Annex I,” “common but differentiated responsibilities,” “distributional equity,” “historical responsibility,” all of which had long since become code words for targets for the richest countries and blank checks for all others.

A Dramatic Departure

Thus, in a dramatic departure from some seventeen years of U.N. hosted international negotiations on climate change, the 17th Conference of the Parties in Durban turned away from the Annex I/non-Annex I distinction, which had been the centerpiece of international climate policy and negotiations since it was adopted at the 1st Conference of the Parties in Berlin in 1995.

Because of this, the international law scholar, Daniel Bodansky, has labeled “the Durban Platform a complete departure from the Berlin Mandate.”  Likewise, Indian professor of international law, Lavanya Rajamani says that Durban delivered a “new process and with it, a clean slate on differentiation.”  And Elliot Diringer of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, finds the overall Durban deal to be “delicately poised between two eras – the fading age of Kyoto, and a new phase … with developed and developing countries presumably on a more equal footing.”

This is of vast potential importance, but – of course – only “potential” importance, because just as it was the Kyoto Protocol’s numerical targets and timetables that fulfilled the Berlin Mandate’s promise, it remains for the delegates to the UNFCCC to meet this Durban mandate with a new post-Kyoto agreement by 2015 (to come into force by 2020).  Only time will tell whether the Durban Platform delivers on its promise, or turns out to be another “Bali Roadmap,” leading nowhere.

So, with such uncertainty, what’s the “unambiguous consequence” of Durban that I refer to in the title of this essay?

An Unambiguous Outcome:  The Platform Opens a Window

The Durban Platform – by replacing the Berlin Mandate – has opened an important window.  It is this.  The national delegations from around the world now have a challenging task before them:  to identify a new international climate policy architecture that is consistent with the process, pathway, and principles laid out in the Durban Platform, namely to find a way to include all key countries (such as the 20 largest national and regional economies that together account for upwards of 80% of global carbon dioxide emissions) in a structure that brings about meaningful emissions reductions on an appropriate timetable at acceptable cost.

Having broken the old mold, a new one must be forged.  There is a mandate for change.  Governments around the world now need fresh, outside-of-the-box ideas from the best thinkers, and they need those ideas over the next few years.  This is a time for new proposals for future international climate policy architecture, not for incremental adjustments to the old pathway.  I trust that this call will be heard by a diverse set of universities, think tanks, and – for that matter – advocacy and interest groups around the world.  With 48 research initiatives in Australia, China, Europe, India, Japan, and the United States, the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements is prepared to contribute to this effort.  Please stay tuned.

Why Cancun Trumped Copenhagen

As we begin the year 2011, a look back at 2010 confirms that the greatest environmental achievement of the past year was the success that was achieved at the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-16) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Cancun, Mexico, in early December.  I wrote about this in some detail in my December 13th essay, “What Happened (and Why): An Assessment of the Cancun Agreements.”

The challenges awaiting delegates later this year (December, 2011) at COP-17 in Durban, South Africa, will be tremendous, particularly in regard to trying to negotiate the massive divide that exists between most Annex I countries and virtually all non-Annex I countries on the fate of a second (post-2012) commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol.

However, on this first day of 2011, it may be helpful to reflect again on the recent success in Cancun, and ask – in particular – why it occurred, because understanding that could provide some valuable lessons for the organizers and hosts of COP-17 in Durban.  This was the question I addressed in a brief December 20th Op-Ed in The Christian Science Monitor, and so rather than attempting to summarize or expand it, I simply reproduce it below.

The Christian Science Monitor

Why Cancun trumped Copenhagen: Warmer relations on rising temperatures

By Robert N. Stavins
December 20, 2010

Boston —

After the modest results of the climate change talks in Copenhagen a little more than a year ago, expectations were low for the follow-up negotiations in Cancun last month. Gloom-and-doom predictions dominated.

But a funny thing happened on the way to that much-anticipated failure: During two intense weeks of discussions in the Mexican resort that wrapped up at 3 AM on Dec. 12, the world’s governments quietly achieved consensus on a set of substantive steps forward. And equally important, the participants showed encouraging signs of learning to navigate through the unproductive squabbling between developed and developing countries that derailed the Copenhagen talks.

Unprecedented first steps

The tangible advances were noteworthy: The Cancun Agreements set emissions mitigation targets for some 80 countries, including all the major economies. That means that the world’s largest emitters, among them China, the United States, the European Union, India, and Brazil, have now signed up for targets and actions to reduce emissions by 2020.

The participating countries also agreed – for the first time in an official United Nations accord – to keep temperature increases below a global average of 2 degrees Celsius. Yes, that goal is no more stringent than the one set out in Copenhagen, but this time, the participating nations formally accepted the goals; a year earlier, they merely “noted” them, without adopting the accord.

Other provisions establish a “Green Climate Fund” to finance steps to limit and adapt to climate change, and designate the World Bank as interim trustee, over the objections of many developing countries. And new initiatives will protect tropical forests, and find ways to transfer clean energy technology to poorer countries.

The Cancun Agreements on their own are clearly not sufficient to keep temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius, but they are a valuable step forward in the difficult process of constructing a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action.

Small steps vs. global accords

The progress was as much about changing the mindset of how to tackle climate disruption. Significantly, the Cancun agreement blurs the distinction between industrialized and developing countries – a vital step to break through the rich-poor divide that has held up progress for years. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol assigned emission targets only to the 40 countries thought to be part of the industrialized world, which left the more than 140 nations of the developing world without any commitments. But today, more than 50 of those so-called developing countries have higher per capita income than the poorest of the countries with emission-reduction responsibilities under Kyoto.

Implicitly, the process in Cancun also recognizes that smaller, practical steps – some of which are occurring outside the United Nations climate process – are going to be more easily achievable, and thus more effective, than holding out for some overarching thunderclap in a global accord.

The parallel processes of multilateral discussions on climate change policy, including the G20 meetings and the Major Economies Forum, have been useful. For the first time at Cancun, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, under the new leadership of Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, offered a positive and pragmatic approach toward embracing these parallel processes.

Fixing the past (and future)

The Kyoto Protocol, which essentially expires at the end of 2012, is fundamentally flawed, especially in dividing the world into competing economic camps. At Cancun, it was encouraging to hear fewer people holding out for a commitment to another phase of the Kyoto Protocol. It was politically impossible to spike the idea of extending the Kyoto agreement entirely, but at least it was punted to the next gathering in Durban, South Africa, a year from now. Otherwise, the Cancun meeting could have collapsed amid acrimony and recriminations.

Usefully, the Cancun Agreements recognize directly and explicitly two key principles:

1) All countries must recognize their historic emissions (read, the industrialized world); and

2) All countries are responsible for their future emissions (think of those with fast-growing emerging economies).

This also helps move beyond the old Kyoto divide.

A better dialogue

An essential goal in Cancun was for the parties to maintain sensible expectations and develop effective plans. That they met this challenge owes in good measure to the careful and methodical planning by the Mexican government, and to the tremendous skill of Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa in presiding over the talks.

For example, at a critical moment she took note of objections from Bolivia and a few other leftist states, and then ruled that the support of the 193 other countries meant that consensus had been achieved and the Cancun Agreements had been adopted. She pointed out that “consensus does not mean unanimity.” Compare that with Copenhagen, where the Danish prime minister allowed objections by five small countries to derail the talks.

Mexico’s adept leadership also made sure smaller countries were able to contribute fully and join any meetings they wanted, avoiding the sense of exclusivity that alienated some parties in Copenhagen. That’s a sign that Mexico is one of the key “bridging states” that have credibility in both worlds. Another is South Korea. They will need to play key roles going forward.

It’s also vital to note that China and the United States set a civil, productive tone, in contrast to the Copenhagen finger-pointing. From the sidelines in Cancun, I can vouch for the tremendous increase in openness of members of the Chinese delegation.

The acceptance of the Cancun Agreements suggests that the international community may now recognize that incremental steps in the right direction are better than acrimonious debates over unachievable targets.