A Very Cancun Christmas Present To Savor

A Very Cancun Christmas Present To Savor

It was far more like Christmas in tropical Cancun than it was in snowy Copenhagen a year earlier, but did all that peace and good will really achieve anything? And will it carry over to the end of 2011 for COP17 in South Africa? Greg Picker and Fergus Green look closely at the likely outcomes for the developed and developing world, appropriately wearing their Santa hats and imbued with the Christmas spirit.

Greg Picker & Fergus Green Climate Spectator (21 December 2010):

In our previous reports in Climate Spectator on the Cancun Conference, we have argued that keen climate observers should consider not just the decisions made by the Conference of the Parties (COP), but also the “culture” of the UN climate negotiations and its evolution.  Now that reporting on the details of the Cancun outcome is winding down, it is an appropriate time to reflect on the broader trends at play in Cancun and what these portend.

We noted three areas where reform was both possible and necessary:

– Increased diffusion of negotiating blocs (shift away from monolithic coalitions of “developed” v “developing” countries to smaller groupings more reflective of their constituents’ interests);

– Moving from a “grand bargain” theory of negotiation in which “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” to a more progressive approach in which trust and cooperation is fostered through the gradual agreement and implementation of deals on particular issues; and

– A shift to a less combative and more cooperative modus vivendi among negotiators.

By these measures, the UNFCCC underwent significant cultural reform during Cancun. 

Was there a Christmas spirit in Cancun?

While peace and good will are worthy goals, they may be unachievable in the competitive environment of international climate change negotiations. But it was far more like Christmas in tropical Cancun than it was in snowy Copenhagen a year earlier.

The United States and China found effective ways of working together; not only was there are a marked decrease in bilateral sniping during press conferences, but there seems to have been a deliberate effort from both countries to demonstrate sensitivity to each other’s position.  While this newfound politeness may be more illusory than real, it did improve the public ambiance.

India moved from its self-appointed role as guardian of the developing countries and defender of the culture of “differentiated responsibilities” to be a more constructive negotiating force, finally recognising that it is in an ideal position to mediate between countries. As a major emitter (but not the biggest), a leading developing country (but not the most influential) and an important world player (but not yet a super-power) it is in a good position to shape debate and influence the outcome. By playing an active role in the search for compromise between countries, India began to fulfill its potential.

Lastly, the 27 countries (including Australia) that make up the Cartegena Dialogue – a group formed out of the bitterness of the Copenhagen outcomes – seem to have kept to their principles, namely that they will “openly discuss the rationale behind each other’s positions and to explore areas where convergence and enhanced joint action could emerge.” Several commentators in Cancun noted that the links that were established in the Dialogue were useful in working through issues and finding compromises during the negotiations.

Were negotiators willing to leave some presents under the tree?

One of the criticisms of the outcomes from Cancun (including by us) was that little was achieved about the most thorny issue – how much will countries reduce their emissions. This is thefundamental question and failure to substantively answer it must leave the majority of participants and observers unsatisfied.

Yet, the approach taken in Cancun was to focus on what is politically and technically possible.  The Cancun outcomes show for the first time in many years that negotiators can agree some things without needing to agree everything. This may be a useful development, as it allows momentum to build and for a package of decisions to be delivered over time, rather than requiring Father Christmas to have all of the pressies in the sleigh on one glorious morning.

Of course, it is essential that all issues are resolved and that countries can agree to necessary emission reductions. As we have argued elsewhere, we remain sceptical about whether the UNFCCC will be able to deliver that most important present of all.

Were negotiators naughty or nice?

By all accounts, countries tried hard to work together. There was a conscious group effort to avoid the disharmony of Copenhagen. Ensuring effective and open dialogue was clearly a priority for the Chair, who took the innovative approach (trialed by the Danes the year before) of pairing ministers from developing and developed countries to work together on particular issues and sharing the results of those dialogues with the broader group. It paid dividends.

While perhaps having enjoyed too much Christmas cheer, Jake Schmidt, a long time observer of the negotiations currently with the US Natural Resources Defense Council, said:

“Countries came to Cancun, with a desire to work together and find common ground … Countries pushed, nudged, and cajoled each other to move towards an agreement that matched their vision of success – in essence they negotiated. But in the final hours they also didn’t let this negotiation dynamic stop them from seeing the opportunity to move forward … [What emerged] was a resounding applause, many standing ovations, and … words of support from the big emitters, the most vulnerable, middle-income countries, the developed and developing world, and from all the different regions of the world.

But what about Tiny Tim?

The problem with this story is that everyone didn’t get what they wanted in their Christmas stocking. Bolivia, determined to be the red-nosed reindeer, repeatedly objected to the agreements. According to the consensus rule – as it was formerly understood – this should have been sufficient to block agreement. Yet, in an unprecedented decision, the Mexican Chair “noted” Bolivia’s stance and indicated that the agreement would stand.

Even more amazingly, the US representative indicated that “consensus” did not require unanimity, but merely a general level of agreement. This departure from precedent is astonishing given that a number of countries – particularly the US and Australia – have previously argued that consensus requires a lack of objection. On many occasions over the last decade, the US voiced its support to countries blocking agreement on an issue not because they agreed with those countries on the issue at hand, but because they supported the each country’s right to a veto.

It is not yet clear what this means. Presumably a more powerful country with a less odious political agenda (Brazil or Canada, rather than Bolivia, for example) would have been able to block agreement by itself. But what about, say, Singapore or Egypt? At the very least, the “Bolivian exception” signals an evolution of the effective, if not the formally endorsed, rules of procedure. 

The UNFCCC culture shifted in Cancun. Old norms were discarded, while new cultural mores were clearly detectable. Whether these New Year’s resolutions last throughout 2011 and survive COP17 in Durban, where political pressure and public interest are expected to be higher, remains to be seen.

Greg Picker is a consultant working on climate change issues and a former Australian climate change negotiator. Fergus Green is a climate change lawyer at Allens Arthur Robinson. The authors have written two papers on international climate policy for the Lowy Institute: Confronting the Crisis of International Climate Policy (with Warwick McKibbin, July 2010) and Comprehending Copenhagen (November 2009).

Source: www.climatespectator.com.au

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