Can the Durban Climate Negotiations Succeed?

Two weeks of international climate negotiations begin today in Durban, South Africa.  These are the Seventeenth Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  The key challenge at this point is to maintain the process of building a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action, not necessarily some notion of immediate, highly-visible triumph. In other words, the answer to the question of whether the Durban climate negotiations can succeed depends — not surprisingly — on how one defines “success.”

Let’s Place the Climate Negotiations in Perspective

Why do I say (repeatedly, year after year) that the best goal for the climate talks is to make progress on a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action, not some notion of immediate triumph?  The reason is that the often-stated cliche about the American baseball season — that it’s a marathon, not a sprint — applies even more so to international climate change policy.  Why?

First, the focus of scientists (and policy makers) should be on stabilizing concentrations at acceptable levels by 2050 and beyond, because it is the accumulated stock of greenhouse gas emissions — not the flow of emissions in any year — that are linked with climate consequences.

Second, the cost-effective path for stabilizing concentrations involves a gradual ramp-up in target severity, to avoid rendering large parts of the capital stock prematurely obsolete.

Third, massive technological change is the key to the needed transition from reliance on carbon-intensive fossil fuels to more climate-friendly energy sources.  Long-term price signals (most likely from government policies) will be needed to inspire such technological change.

Fourth and finally, the creation of long-lasting international institutions is central to addressing this global challenge.

For all of these reasons, international climate negotiations will be an ongoing process, not a single task with a clear end-point.  Indeed, we should not be surprised that they proceed much as international trade talks do, that is, with progress only over the long term, building institutions (the GATT, the WTO), yet moving forward in fits and starts, at times seeming to move backward, but with progress in the long term.

So, the bottom-line is that a sensible goal for the international negotiations in Durban is progress on a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action, not some notion of immediate “success.”  This does not mean that there should be anything other than a sense of urgency associated with the work at hand, because it is important.  But it does mean that we should keep our eyes on the prize.

How Can the Durban Negotiators Keep their Eyes on the Prize?

The keys to success — real, as opposed to symbolic success — in Durban depend upon four imperatives.

1.  Embrace Parallel Processes

The UNFCCC process must embrace the parallel processes that are carrying out multilateral discussions (and in some cases, negotiations) on climate change policy:  the Major Economies Forum or MEF (a multilateral venue for discussions – but not negotiations – outside of the UNFCCC, initiated under a different name by the George W. Bush administration in the United States, and continued under a new name by the Obama administration, for the purpose of bringing together the most important emitting countries for candid and constructive discussion and debate); the G20 (periodic meetings of the finance ministers – and sometimes heads of government – of the twenty largest economies in the world); and various other multilateral and bilateral organizations and discussions.

The previous leadership of the UNFCCC seemed to view the MEF, the G20, and most other non-UNFCCC forums as competition – indeed, as a threat.  Fortunately, the UNFCCC’s new leadership under Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres (appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May of 2010) has displayed a considerably more positive and pragmatic attitude toward these parallel processes.  That’s a positive sign.

2.  Consolidate Negotiation Tracks

There are now three major, parallel processes operative:  first, the UNFCCC’s KP track (negotiating national targets for a possible second commitment period – post-2012 – for the Kyoto Protocol); second, the LCA track (the UNFCCC’s negotiation track for Long-term Cooperative Action, that is, a future international agreement of undefined nature); and third, the Cancun Agreements from COP-16 a year ago (based upon the Copenhagen Accord, negotiated and noted at COP-15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December, 2009).  Consolidating these three tracks into two tracks (or better yet, one track) would be another significant step forward.

The primary way for this to happen would be for the LCA negotiations to focus on the ongoing work of putting more meat on the bones of the Cancun Agreements, which — along with the Copenhagen Accord — marked an important step forward by blurring for the first time (although not eliminating) the unproductive and utterly obsolete distinction in the Kyoto Protocol between Annex I and non-Annex I countries.  (Note that more than 50 non-Annex I countries have greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries.)

In particular, the UNFCCC principle of  “common but differentiated responsibilities” could be made meaningful through the dual principles that:  all countries recognize their historic emissions (read, the industrialized world); and all countries are responsible for their future emissions (think of the rapidly-growing, large, emerging economies of China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, and South Africa).

As I’ve said before, this would represent a great leap beyond what has become the “QWERTY keyboard” (that is, unproductive path dependence) of international climate policy:  the distinction in the Kyoto Protocol between the small set of Annex I countries with quantitative targets, and the majority of countries in the world with no responsibilities.  A variety of policy architectures — including but not limited to the Cancun Agreements — could build on these dual principles and make them operational, beginning to bridge the massive political divide that exists between the industrialized and the developing world.

At the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements — a multi-national initiative with some 35 research projects in Australia, China, Europe, India, Japan, and the United States — we have developed a variety of architectural proposals that could make these dual principles operational.  (See, for example:  “Global Climate Policy Architecture and Political Feasibility: Specific Formulas and Emission Targets to Attain 460 PPM CO2 Concentrations” by Valentina Bosetti and Jeffrey Frankel; and “Three Key Elements of Post-2012 International Climate Policy Architecture” by Sheila M. Olmstead and Robert N. Stavins.)

3.  Make Progress on Narrow, Focused Agreements

A third area of success at the Durban negotiations could be realized by some productive steps with specific, narrow agreements, such as on REDD+ (Reduced Deforestation and Forest Degradation, plus enhancement of forest carbon stocks).  Other areas where talks are moving forward, although somewhat more slowly, are finance and technology, particularly in the context of adding meat to the bones of the Cancun Agreements.

4.  Maintain Sensible Expectations

Finally, it is important to go into these annual negotiations with sensible expectations and thereby effective plans.  As I said at the outset, negotiations in this domain are an ongoing process, not a single task with a clear end-point.  The most sensible goal for Durban is progress on a sound foundation for meaningful long-term action, not some notion of immediate triumph.  The key question is not what Durban accomplishes in the short-term, but whether it helps put the world in a better position five, ten, and twenty years from now in regard to an effective long-term path of action to address the threat of global climate change.

Wait, What About the Kyoto Protocol?

Those who follow these international negotiations closely — including my colleagues on the ground in Durban — are no doubt wondering why I haven’t said something about the 900-pound gorilla in the closet:  the fact that the Kyoto Protocol’s first (and so far only) commitment period runs from 2008 through 2012, and so a decision needs to be reached on a possible second (post-2012) commitment period for the Protocol.

Yes, in addition to the LCA (Cancun) track, the Kyoto Protocol (KP) track of negotiations remains.  A decision regarding a possible extension (and presumably an enhancement) of the Kyoto Protocol’s emission-reduction targets for the industrialized (Annex I) countries has been punted annually to the next set of negotiations — from Bali in 2007, to Poznan in 2008, to Copenhagen in 2009, to Cancun in 2010, and now to Durban in 2011.  It can’t be delayed any longer, because the necessary process of ratification by individual nations would itself take at least a year to complete.

Keeping the Kyoto Protocol going (and with more stringent targets for the Annex I countries) is very important to the non-Annex I countries, sometimes referred to — inaccurately — as the developing countries.  I don’t blame them.  An approach that provides benefits (reduced climate damages, as well as financial transfers) for the non-Annex I countries without their incurring any costs is surely an attractive route for those nations.

Is a Second Commitment Period for the Kyoto Protocol Feasible?

Putting aside the possible merits of a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, we can ask simply whether it’s in the cards:  is it feasible?

Japan, Russia, and Canada have formally announced that they will not take up targets in a second commitment period.  Australia, despite its recent domestic climate policy action, seems unlikely to make a significant commitment.  Is Europe (plus New Zealand) on its own credible or feasible?  Maybe yes, maybe no.

The “yes” part of the answer comes from the fact that Europe has already committed itself to serious emissions reductions through the year 2020 under the European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS).  This will go forward — barring a change of heart by the EU — with or without a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol.  That said, Europe’s compliance costs under the EU ETS will be much less than otherwise if offsets continue to be made available from non-Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).  This might suggest that the EU has a significant motivation to keep the Kyoto Protocol going.

But international law scholars — such as Professor Daniel Bodansky of Arizona State University‘s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law — maintain that the Kyoto Protocol (and its CDM) continues as an institution of law whether or not a second commitment period is put in place.  Hence, it’s conceivable that the EU could have its cake and eat it too:  an ongoing Kyoto Protocol without a second commitment period.  And the political pressure on Brussels from the EU’s member states — and from European businesses — might make it difficult for the EU to sign up for a new series of commitments given the obvious absence in such an arrangement of the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and — of course — China and the other emerging economies.

A Forecast

This highly contentious issue of a possible second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol may come to dominate the talks in Durban.  This would be unfortunate, because it would simultaneously reduce the likelihood of the negotiators making progress on a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action.  It would probably also have the effect of producing some drama in the form of highly-charged debates, and possible threats by some delegations to walk out of the negotiations.  For this reason, despite the weather, Durban may come to resemble Copenhagen more than Cancun.

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Further Reading

The Harvard Project on Climate Agreements has pulled together an archive of relevant publications, which we call “The Durban Branch” of our climate library.  We hope it will be helpful for those gathered in Durban or watching from afar.

Also, a number of previous essays I have written and posted at this blog will be of interest to those who wish to follow developments at the Seventeenth Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban.  Here are links, in reverse chronological order:

Canada’s Step Away From the Kyoto Protocol Can Be a Constructive Step Forward

A Wave of the Future: International Linkage of National Climate Change Policies

Why Cancun Trumped Copenhagen

What Happened (and Why): An Assessment of the Cancun Agreements

Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun

Three Pillars of a New Climate Pact

Can Countries Cut Carbon Emissions Without Hurting Economic Growth?

Approaching Copenhagen with a Portfolio of Domestic Commitments

Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen

Only Private Sector Can Meet Finance Demands of Developing Countries

Chaos and Uncertainty in Copenhagen?

What Hath Copenhagen Wrought? A Preliminary Assessment of the Copenhagen Accord

Another Copenhagen Outcome: Serious Questions About the Best Institutional Path Forward

Opportunities and Ironies: Climate Policy in Tokyo, Seoul, Brussels, and Washington

Canada’s Step Away From the Kyoto Protocol Can Be a Constructive Step Forward

Canada confirmed this week that it will not take on a target under an extension of the Kyoto Protocol following the completion of the first commitment period, 2008-2012.  Given that Canada is likely to miss by a wide margin its current target under the first commitment period, this decision may not be surprising, but it is nevertheless important.  More striking, it may actually turn out to be a positive and constructive step forward in the drive to address global climate change through meaningful international cooperation.  Why do I say that?

The Current Situation

The Kyoto Protocol, which essentially expires at the end of 2012, divides the world into two competing economic camps.  Emission reductions are required for only the small set of “Annex I countries” (essentially those nations that used to be thought of as comprising the industrialized world).  Such reductions will not reduce global emissions, and whatever is achieved would be at excessive cost, because of having left so many countries and so many low-cost emissions-reduction opportunities off the table.  Furthermore, that dichotomous distinction is by no means fair:  more than 50 non-Annex I countries now have higher per capita incomes than the poorest of the Annex I countries.  (I have written about this and other issues surrounding the Kyoto Protocol in the past:  Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun; Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen; Three Pillars of a New Climate Pact).

The United States did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and has made it clear that it will not take on a target under a second commitment period.  The U.S. position continues to be that a considerably broader agreement is necessary – one that includes commitments not only from the Annex I (industrialized) countries, but also from the key emerging economies, such as China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, and South Africa.

For much the same reason, Russia and Japan announced last year that they would not take on post-2012 commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.  Further, it is unlikely that Australia will take on such a commitment under Kyoto, essentially leaving the European Union on its own.

On the other hand, the Kyoto Protocol is enthusiastically embraced by the non-Annex I countries (sometimes inaccurately characterized as the “developing countries”), because it holds out the promise of emissions reductions by the wealthiest nations without any responsibilities (costs) borne by others, including the emerging economies.

The Path from Copenhagen to Cancun to Durban

Year after year, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has failed to reach agreement on a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol.  Most recently, in December, 2010, the issue was punted from the annual conference held in Cancun, Mexico, to the next conference, scheduled for December, 2011, in Durban, South Africa.

Because Durban provides the last opportunity to set up post-2012 targets (with time remaining for national ratification actions), it has been anticipated that the negotiations in Durban will re-ignite the divisiveness and recriminations that highlighted the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009 – with verbal hostilities between Annex I countries and non-Annex I countries dominating the discussions at the expense of any other considerations or meaningful actions.

A Positive and Constructive Step Forward

 

The decision just announced at meetings in Bonn, Germany, by the Canadian delegation that Canada will not take on a target in a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol can be a very constructive step forward.  This is because it greatly reduces the risk that this year’s annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties in Durban will be dominated by acrimonious debates about a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol.

On the contrary, this announcement should encourage the non-Annex I (“developing”) countries, which have been insisting on a second commitment period, to begin to accept the reality that with the United States, Japan, Russia, and now Canada on record as not endorsing a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, it is infeasible for the European Union to go it alone.  (Indeed, one might suspect that Australia and most European nations are privately pleased by Canada’s announcement.)

The reality is that the world will be better off by focusing on sensible alternatives under the Long-Term Cooperative Action track of the UN negotiations and by “getting real” about post-Kyoto international climate policy architecture for the long term, such as by putting some additional meat on the Cancun Agreements and by considering any supplemental and sensible architectures the various parties wish to discuss.  (For previous posts on the Cancun Agreements, see:  Why Cancun Trumped Copenhagen; What Happened (and Why):  An Assessment of the Cancun Agreements; Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun.  For descriptions of a wide range of potential global climate policy architectures — ranging from top-down to bottom-up — see the diverse publications of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.)

Next Steps

At Cancun, it was encouraging to hear fewer people holding out for a commitment to another phase of the Kyoto Protocol, but it was politically impossible to spike the idea of extending the Kyoto agreement entirely.  Instead, it was punted to the next gathering in Durban.  Otherwise, the Cancun meeting could have collapsed amid acrimony and recriminations reminiscent of Copenhagen.

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).  In important ways, this helps move beyond the old Kyoto divide.

The acceptance of the Cancun Agreements last December suggested that the international community may have begun to recognize that incremental steps in the right direction are better than acrimonious debates over unachievable targets.  Canada’s announcement should help advance that recognition, and can thereby lead to vastly more productive talks this year in Durban.

What Happened (and Why): An Assessment of the Cancun Agreements

The international climate negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, have concluded, and despite the gloom-and-doom predictions that dominated the weeks and months leading up to Cancun, the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-16) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) must be judged a success.  It represents a set of modest steps forward.  Nothing more should be expected from this process.

As I said in my November 19th essay – Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun – the key challenge was to continue the process of constructing a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action (not necessarily some notion of immediate, highly-visible triumph).  This was accomplished in Cancun.

The Cancun Agreements – as the two key documents (“Outcome of the AWG-LCA” and “Outcome of the AWG-KP”) are called – do just what was needed, namely build on the structure of the Copenhagen Accord with a balanced package that takes meaningful steps toward implementing the key elements of the Accord.  The delegates in Cancun succeeded in writing and adopting an agreement that assembles pledges of greenhouse gas (GHG) cuts by all of the world’s major economies, launches a fund to help the most vulnerable countries, and avoids some political landmines that could have blown up the talks, namely decisions on the (highly uncertain) future of the Kyoto Protocol.

I begin by assessing the key elements of the Cancun Agreements.  Then I examine whether the incremental steps forward represented by the Agreements should really be characterized as a success.  And finally I ask why the negotiations in Cancun led to the outcome they did.

Assessing the Key Elements of the Cancun Agreements

First, the Cancun Agreements provide emission mitigation targets and actions (submitted under the Copenhagen Accord) for approximately 80 countries – including, importantly, all of the major economies. In this way, the Agreements codify pledges by the world’s largest emitters – including China, the United States, the European Union, India, and Brazil – to various targets and actions to reduce emissions by 2020.  The distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I countries is blurred even more in the Cancun Agreements than it was in the Copenhagen Accord – another step in the right direction!

Also, for the first time, countries agreed – under an official UN agreement – to keep temperature increases below a global average of 2 degrees Celsius.  It brings these aspirations, as well as the emission pledges of individual countries, into the formal UN process for the first time, essentially by adopting the Copenhagen Accord one year after it was “noted” at COP-15.  (There’s also an abundance of politically-correct and in some cases downright silly window dressing in the Cancun Agreements, including repetitive references to various interpretations of the UNFCCC’s principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” as well as some discussion of examining a 1.5 C target.)

However, despite even the 2 degree (450 ppm concentration) aspirational target, the Agreements are no more stringent that the collection of submissions made under last year’s Copenhagen Accord.  But, as Michael Levi (Council on Foreign Relations) has pointed out, the Cancun Agreement “should be applauded not because it solves everything, but because it chooses not to.” As my colleagues and I have repeatedly emphasized in our work within the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, many of the most important initiatives for addressing climate change will occur outside of the United Nations process (despite the centrality of that process).

Second, the Agreements elaborate on the mechanisms for monitoring and verification that were laid out in last year’s Accord.  Importantly, these now include “international consultation and analysis” of developing country mitigation actions.  Countries will report their GHG inventories to an independent panel of experts, which will monitor and verify reports of emissions cuts and actions.

Third, the Agreements establish a so-called Green Climate Fund to deliver financing for mitigation and adaptation. Importantly, the Agreements name the World Bank as the interim trustee of the Fund, despite objections from many developing countries, and create an oversight board, half of which consists of donor nation representatives.  In addition, the Agreements establish a goal by developed countries to mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020 to support mitigation and adaptation in developing countries, a funding target which would include public and private resources (that is, carbon markets and private finance), bilateral and multilateral flows, as well as the Green Climate Fund.

Whether the resources ever grow to the size laid out in Copenhagen and Cancun will depend upon the individual actions of the wealthy nations of the world.  However, it’s interesting that the section in the Cancun Agreements on adaptation comes before the section on mitigation.  Things have come a long way since the days when economists were virtually alone in calling for attention to adaptation (along with mitigation).  I recall when economists were therefore accused of throwing in the towel, and not caring about the environment!

Fourth, the Agreements advance initiatives on tropical forest protection (or, in UN parlance, Reduced Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD+), by taking the next steps toward establishing a program in which the wealthy countries can help prevent deforestation in poor countries, possibly working through market mechanisms (despite exhortations from Bolivia and other leftist and left-leaning countries to keep the reach of “global capitalism” out of the policy mix).

Fifth, the Cancun Agreements establish a structure to assess the needs and policies for the transfer to developing countries of technologies for clean energy and adaptation to climate change, and a – as yet undefined – Climate Technology Center and Network to construct a global network to match technology suppliers with technology needs.

In addition, the Agreements endorse an ongoing role for the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and other “market-based mechanisms;” indicate that carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects should be eligible for carbon credits in the CDM; and offer some special recognition of the situations of the Central and Eastern European countries (previously known in UN parlance as “parties undergoing transition to a market economy”) and Turkey, all of which are Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol, but decidedly poorer than the other members of that group of industrialized nations.

That’s the 32-page Cancun Agreements in a nutshell.  As a member of one of the leading national delegations said to me in Cancun a few hours after the talks had concluded, “It’s incremental progress, but progress nonetheless.”

Are Such Incremental Steps Really a Success?

Recall from my November 19th essay that the best goal for the Cancun climate talks was to make real progress on a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action.  I said that because of some fundamental scientific and economic realities, which I will not repeat here.  In that previous essay, I also described “What Would Constitute Real Progress in Cancun” A quick comparison of my criteria from November 19th and the Cancun Agreements of December 11th tells me that the outcome of Cancun should be judged a success.

My first criterion of success was that the UNFCCC should embrace the parallel processes that are carrying out multilateral discussions on climate change policy:  the Major Economies Forum or MEF (a multilateral venue for discussions – but not negotiations – among the most important emitting countries); the G20 (periodic meetings of the finance ministers – and sometimes heads of government – of the twenty largest economies in the world); and various other multilateral and bilateral organizations and discussions.  Although the previous leadership of the UNFCCC seemed to view the MEF, the G20, and most other non-UNFCCC forums as competition – indeed, as a threat, the UNFCCC’s new leadership under Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres displays a positive and pragmatic attitude toward these parallel processes.

My second criterion was that the three major negotiating tracks be consolidated.  These tracks were:  first, the UNFCCC’s KP track (negotiating national targets for a possible second commitment period – post-2012 – for the Kyoto Protocol); second, the LCA track (the UNFCCC’s negotiation track for Long-term Cooperative Action, that is, a future international agreement of undefined nature); and third, the Copenhagen Accord, negotiated and noted at COP-15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December, 2009.

Permit me, please, to quote from my November 19th essay:

Consolidating these three tracks into two tracks (or better yet, one track) would be another significant step forward.  One way this could happen would be for the LCA negotiations to take as their point of departure the existing Copenhagen Accord, which itself marked an important step forward by blurring for the first time (although not eliminating) the unproductive and utterly obsolete distinction in the Kyoto Protocol between Annex I and non-Annex I countries.  (Note that more than 50 non-Annex I countries now have greater per capita income than the poorest of the Annex I countries.)

This is precisely what has happened.  The Cancun Agreements – the product of the LCA-track negotiations – build directly, explicitly, and comprehensively on the Copenhagen Accord.  The two tracks have become one.

Alas, the KP track remains, and a decision on a potential second commitment period (post-2012) for the Kyoto Protocol has been punted to COP-17 in Durban, South Africa, in December, 2011.  It is difficult to picture a meaningful – or any – second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, with the United States out of that picture, and with Japan and Russia having stated unequivocally that they will not take up another set of targets, and with Australia and Canada also unlikely to participate.  But note that this issue will have to be confronted in Durban a year from now.  With the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol ending in 2012, COP-17 will provide the last opportunity for punting that contentious issue.

If you agree with my view – which I have written about in many previous blog posts – that the Kyoto Protocol is fundamentally flawed and that the Protocol’s dichotomous distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I countries is the heavy anchor that slows meaningful progress on international climate policy, then you will not consider it bad news that a second commitment period for the Protocol is looking less and less likely.  On the other hand, you will, in that case, share my disappointment that the issue has been punted (recognizing, however, that had it not been punted, the Cancun meetings could have collapsed amidst acrimony and recriminations).

I also wrote in my November 19th post:

The UNFCCC principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” could be made meaningful through the dual principles that:  all countries recognize their historic emissions (read, the industrialized world); and all countries are responsible for their future emissions (think of those rapidly-growing emerging economies).

The Cancun Agreements do this by recognizing directly and explicitly these dual principles.  This can represent the next step in a movement beyond what has become the “QWERTY keyboard” (that is, unproductive path dependence) of international climate policy:  the distinction in the Kyoto Protocol between the small set of Annex I countries with quantitative targets, and the majority of countries in the world with no responsibilities.

A variety of policy architectures can build on these dual principles and make them operational, bridging the political divide which exists between the industrialized and the developing world.  (At the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, we have developed a variety of architectural proposals that could make these dual principles operational.  See, for example:  “Global Climate Policy Architecture and Political Feasibility: Specific Formulas and Emission Targets to Attain 460 PPM CO2 Concentrations” by Valentina Bosetti and Jeffrey Frankel; and “Three Key Elements of Post-2012 International Climate Policy Architecture” by Sheila M. Olmstead and Robert N. Stavins.)

My third criterion for success was movement forward with specific, narrow agreements, such as on:  REDD+ (Reduced Deforestation and Forest Degradation, plus enhancement of forest carbon stocks); finance; and technology.  Such movement forward has, in fact, occurred in all three domains in the Cancun Agreements, as I described above.

My fourth criterion for success was keyed to whether the parties to the Cancun meetings could maintain sensible expectations and thereby develop effective plans.  This they have done.  The key question was not what Cancun accomplishes in the short-term, but whether it helps put the world in a better position five, ten, and twenty years from now in regard to an effective long-term path of action to address the threat of global climate change.

Despite the fact that some advocacy groups – and for that matter, some nations – are no doubt disappointed with the outcome of Cancun, I think it is fair to say that this final criterion for success was satisfied:  the Cancun Agreements can help put the world on a path toward an effective long-term plan of meaningful action.

Why Did Cancun Succeed?

If you agree with my assessment of success in Cancun, then a reasonable question to ask is why did the Cancun talks produce this successful outcome, particularly in contrast with what many people consider a less successful outcome of the Copenhagen talks last year.  To address this question, let me expand on some points made in an insightful essay by Elliot Diringer, Vice President for International Strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

First, the Mexican government through careful and methodical planning over the past year prepared itself well, and displayed tremendous skill in presiding over the talks. Reflect, if you will, on the brilliant way in which Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs, Patricia Espinosa, who served as President of COP-16, took note of the objections of Bolivia (and, at times, several other leftist and left-leaning Latin American countries, known collectively as the ALBA states), and then simply ruled that the support of 193 other countries meant that “consensus” had been achieved and the Cancun Agreements had been adopted by the Conference.  At a critical moment, Ms. Espinosa noted that “consensus does not mean unanimity,” and that was that!

Compare this with the unfortunate chairing of COP-15 in Copenhagen by Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who allowed the objections by a similar same small set of five relatively unimportant countries (Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Venezuela) to derail those talks, which hence “noted,” but did not adopt the Copenhagen Accord in December, 2009.

The Mexicans were also adept at facilitating small groups of countries to meet to advance productive negotiations, but made sure that any countries could join those meetings if they wanted.  Hence, negotiations moved forward, but without the sense of exclusivity that alienated so many small (and some large) countries in Copenhagen.

The key role played by the Mexican leadership is consistent with the notion of Mexico as one of a small number of “bridging states,” which can play particularly important roles in this process because of their credibility in the two worlds that engage in divisive debates in the United Nations:  the developed world and the developing world.  We have examined this in our recent Harvard Project on Climate Agreements Issue Brief, Institutions for International Climate GovernanceMexico, along with Korea, are members of the OECD, but are also non-Annex I countries under the Kyoto Protocol.  This gives Mexico — and gave Minister Espinosa — a degree of credibility across the diverse constituencies in the UNFCCC that was simply not enjoyed by Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen at COP-15 last year.

Second, China and the United States set the tone for many other countries by dealing with each other with civility, if not always with understanding.  This contrasts with the tone that dominated in and after Copenhagen, when finger-pointing at Copenhagen between these two giants of the international stage led to a blame-game in the months after the Copenhagen talks.

As Elliot Diringer wrote, they may have recognized that “the best way to avoid blame was to avoid failure.”  Beyond this, although the credit must go to both countries, the change from last year in the conduct of the Chinese delegation was striking.  It appeared, as Coral Davenport wrote in The National Journal, that the Chinese were on a “charm offensive.”  Working in Cancun on behalf of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, I can personally vouch for the tremendous increase from previous years in the openness of members of the official Chinese delegation, as well as the many Chinese members of civil society who attended the Cancun meetings.

Third, a worry hovered over the Cancun meetings that an outcome perceived to be failure would lead to the demise of the UN process itself.  Since many nations (in particular, developing countries, which made up the vast majority of the 194 countries present in Cancun) very much want the United Nations and the UNFCCC to remain the core of international negotiations on climate change, that implicit threat provided a strong incentive for many countries to make sure that the Cancun talks did not “fail.”

Fourth, under the pragmatic leadership of UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, realism may have finally eclipsed idealism in these international negotiations. Many observers have noted that many delegations – and probably most civil society NGO participants – at the previous COPs have misled themselves into thinking that ambitious cuts in greenhouse gases (GHGs) were forthcoming that could guarantee achievement of the 450 ppm/2 degrees C cap.

The acceptance of the Cancun Agreements suggests that the international diplomatic community may now recognize that incremental steps in the right direction are better than acrimonious debates over unachievable targets.  This harkens back to what I characterized prior to COP-16 as the key challenge facing the negotiators:  to continue the process of constructing a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action.  In my view, this was accomplished in Cancun.

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Further Reading

In a new blog post, Trevor Houser (Peterson Institute for International Economics) argues that the surest way to kill the progress made in the Cancun Agreements is to try to turn them into a legally-binding treaty at COP-17 next year in Durban, South Africa.

For a nice table showing the correspondence of respective elements of the Cancun Agreements and the Copenhagen Accord, see the commentary on the Cancun climate negotiations by Sarah Ladislaw of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

And for a detailed description of the major elements of the Cancun Agreements, I recommend the summary prepared by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Some previous essays I have written and posted at this blog may be of interest to those who are interested in the Cancun Agreements.  Here are links, in reverse chronological order:

Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun

Opportunities and Ironies: Climate Policy in Tokyo, Seoul, Brussels, and Washington

Another Copenhagen Outcome: Serious Questions About the Best Institutional Path Forward

What Hath Copenhagen Wrought? A Preliminary Assessment of the Copenhagen Accord

Chaos and Uncertainty in Copenhagen?

Only Private Sector Can Meet Finance Demands of Developing Countries

Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen

Approaching Copenhagen with a Portfolio of Domestic Commitments

Can Countries Cut Carbon Emissions Without Hurting Economic Growth?

Three Pillars of a New Climate Pact

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