This is a re-post from Politico by CAP’s John D. Podesta and Andrew Light.
The United Nations climate summit’s Cancun Agreements were a critical step toward an effective compact to fight global warming after many years of disappointing climate meetings. But why did Cancun work where Copenhagen failed? Three factors helped the notoriously difficult negotiating process.
First, the Cancun Agreements had a good foundation in the Copenhagen Accord, which emerged from last year’s climate summit.
What many forget is that the Copenhagen Accord was designed to be a political agreement advancing an agenda for a final legal agreement. But when the Copenhagen Accord was born “” thanks to President Barack Obama and the leaders of the biggest carbon emitters in the developing world “” it proved an unsteady delivery. Five countries out of 193 withheld consent, so the document was never an official U.N. decision under the consensus rules that govern these meetings. As a result, several parties walked back their agreement over the summer. Many refused to acknowledge the accord as a point of departure for further negotiations.
The Mexican hosts of the Cancun climate summit, led by Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa, did two critical things: First, they gave the substance of the Copenhagen text the U.N.’s full imprimatur, and they expanded the original six thin pages to 30 dense pages of programmatic language.
The result is a set of building blocks that can serve as the foundation for a complete climate treaty. Most important, the parties agreed to limit emissions from deforestation “” equal to all carbon emissions from global transportation. Addressing deforestation is key to success in forging a global agreement.
They also agreed to guidelines requiring all parties to develop a national plan to adapt to the climate change already occurring and to rules for the transfer of technology from rich to poor countries, to assist with adoption of low-carbon development pathways.
Moreover, the parties created a Green Climate Fund “” which can gather and dispense global resources, as well as leverage private capital “” to make this package a reality.
Second, the expectations for Cancun were lower than for Copenhagen “” making it possible to reach a decision.
One of Copenhagen’s biggest handicaps was the expectation that it would be a final climate treaty. When the parties failed to deliver, the political agreement that was achieved was labeled a failure.
So the pact’s very real achievements “” like establishing targets for climate finance and compelling parties representing more than 80 percent of global emissions to register their reduction goals “” went largely unrecognized or were dismissed.
That mistake was not made in Cancun. Rather than raising expectations by bringing more than 100 world leaders to christen a global pact, a lower-profile affair, with relatively few heads of state, produced a far more substantive outcome. The Mexicans, surprisingly, got practically everything they put on the table at the start “” something almost no one expected them to achieve.
Unfortunately, the Cancun Agreements have instead been pronounced a “modest success.” While they advance the climate agenda, they do not solve the problem by locking in reductions from the world’s major carbon polluters sufficient to achieve the agreement’s goals of limiting temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels.
But if the assembled parties had been asked to increase their national commitments in a binding treaty in Cancun, the meeting certainly would have failed “” and we would be left with another year of starting over. Instead, we have a substantive agreement that requires the parties to address this problem next year in Durban, South Africa, advancing a stepwise solution.
Third, Espinosa and her team were able to find a way past one of the core sources of the deadlock that has hampered the U.N. climate body since its inception: the consensus rule that gives all parties an effective veto over any agreement.
Through a technicality in the meetings’ rules, a chairman or chairwoman has discretionary authority to set aside some objections “” though this option has rarely been used in the name of procedural integrity. But at 3 a.m. one day, when only Bolivia stood in the way of success at Cancun, insisting that its opposition to the agreements should be sufficient to end the meeting with no outcome, Espinosa gaveled away the negotiator’s objection. “Of course, I do note your opinion,” Espinosa said. “And if there is no other opinion, this text is approved.”
What made this possible was that Espinosa had the full support of the room. Working closely with the new U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change executive secretary, Christiana Figueres, the Mexican foreign secretary outflanked the Bolivians by running a process so open and transparent that all the other parties felt their interests sufficiently represented in the negotiated text. By doing so, Espinosa demonstrated that the real threat to the integrity of the U.N. climate body is not a divergence from the rules but the intransigence of some of the parties.
As a result, we now have an agreement on critical areas of carbon mitigation and adaption to climate change. While not yet solving the global warming problem, Cancun advances substantive areas of agreement “” and vindicates a process that many were ready to abandon.
— John D. Podesta is president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress. Andrew Light is associate director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.