Cancun: What will our climate legacy be?

Kiribati President: “Whoever thinks they are more vulnerable than we are, they can swap countries.”

It’s crunch time in Cancun, and with one day left — and a possible extension into Saturday in emergency session — delegates are scrambling for some closure. CAP’s Susan Lyon has the story.Thursday’s plenary, hosted by President Felipe Calderon of Mexico, convened heads of state and negotiators to address the fateful question: in “the struggle against climate change, what should our legacy be?’” Entitled ‘Keeping high our long-term ambitions against climate change,’ this was the second COP 16 dialogue session with heads of state and government.

The panel provided many examples of the progress we can and need to make even in the absence of an all-encompassing climate treaty, as well as a grave reminder that for many nations — Kiribati, Tuvulu, and Samoa, and many others — this is truly a matter of life and death. Robert Zoellick, World Bank President, kicked off the head of state dialogue by urging progress over perfection. Even in the presence of high political barriers to an international agreement, he argued, “let’s make progress where and when we can.”

Progress now can especially be made, delegates urged, in the following ways:

  • Expanding energy efficiency tools and renewables around the world
  • Strengthening and defining the adaptation agenda
  • Pursuing REDD+ (“It will be a travesty if it doesn’t move forward,” Zoellick remarked)
  • Using pilot projects and then diffusing successful technologies much faster
  • Building in feedback and monitoring systems (e.g. to gain accurate measurements in avoiding deforestation)

As always, speakers urged that a carbon pricing signal is one of the most essential things that can be done to mitigate the effects of climate change, to bring markets and the private sector into the game. But “given the multidimensional nature of this challenge, it’s absolutely critical that governments integrate the work of various ministries.” To this end, heads of state urged mainstreaming climate considerations into policy-making at all levels: in risk insurance; in flood zone planning and mapping; in coastal development projects and so on.


The theme of the session, and increasingly of COP 16 as a whole, seemed to be, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Small island nations immediately pointed out that, in their case, the ‘good’ is very simple: their survival. Samoa in particular urged “country owned and country led” sustainable development and the replenishing of funds for climate aid, while President Anote Tong of Kiribati, low-lying home to 100,000 [see image above] gravely expressed it as a matter of survival, saying it is likely already too late for his soon-to-be-submerged nation:

Whoever thinks they are more vulnerable than we are, they can swap countries.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon also spoke urgently to the need for action now with an elaborate plane crash analogy, as detailed by the Wonk Room here: “Whether the guilt lies with those in the tourist class or those sitting up front in first class, the plane continues to go down.” We are wasting time “squabbling” that we should be spending on deploying new clean energy initiatives.

However grim, this dialogue truly mirrors the negotiating shift CAP has already observed in Cancun at this year’s COP 16. The CAP column ‘Bottom Up in Cancun’ argues that a shift from top-down to bottom-up climate measures that’s occurring at this week’s climate conference wont’ necessarily derail the chance for a binding international treaty and in the end could advance the same agenda we would see from such a treaty. The “balanced package” of single decisions that the negotiators are working on finalizing today could “break the climate logjam” through its emerging focus on clean energy deployment, local level action, and climate finance.

The full agenda for COP 16 in Cancun, Mexico can be found here (pdf).

Susan Lyon of CAP’s Energy Opportunity team.