Cancun: A reason for optimism?

Looking at a set of newspaper headlines earlier this week one might get the impression that nobody was quite sure whether progress had been made in Cancun or if it was another UN standoff. At least in the media clippings I had, the sense of achievement ranged from “Cancun Agreements put 193 nations on track to deal with climate change” through “Climate talks end with modest deal on emissions” to “Climate deal decades away as dysfunctional US delays cap”.

Certainly the various texts that were adopted, thanks to the diplomacy skill of the Mexican hosts, have moved the debate forward and opened up a number of new work streams. The next twelve months could see proposals for new market mechanisms, the design of a future structure to support technology transfer and the creation of a measurement, reporting and verification framework for emission reduction activities. But all of this is peripheral to the core issue of emission reduction targets, timetables and responsibility. In that regard the various texts are non specific and the issue has been largely deferred. So should we just be pessimistic about what is to come?

Much of what has been agreed has found its way out of the Copenhagen Accord and into the formal Convention by way of the AWG-LCA work stream. Importantly, the Cancun LCA Agreement, mirroring the 2009 Accord, does call for a reduction in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions so as to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2˚C and that parties should take urgent action to do this. There is even mention that 1.5˚C might be considered. But while both the Cancun LCA and KP texts urge, request and encourage both Annex I and non-Annex I parties to make reductions in pursuit of the temperature goal, neither attempt to clarify what is actually needed. This leaves the same problem going into Durban in twelve months time as was faced by delegates arriving in Cancun, i.e. what happens to the compliance based Kyoto Protocol which can only function with national targets?  Further, if it is not agreed how can there be a cooperative action agreement which in effect assumes (at least from the perspective of many developing countries) that most developed countries are covered under the Kyoto Protocol?

The fact that no real progress has been made on this question raises the spectre of failure in Durban which then results in the real collapse of the process. But there may be signs that a different outcome could prevail. Without wanting to clutch at straws, there are three areas of interest in the Cancun texts:

  1. Both the LCA and KP documents take note of the various Annex I Parties national reduction targets which arose from the post Copenhagen process and similarly the LCA text refers to the non-Annex I Parties NAMA pledges from the same process. Although indirectly, it does at least provide some additional linkage between these separate negotiations.
  2. As noted above there is considerable effort outlined within the LCA text to establish a number of work streams aimed at identifying and defining new mechanisms, tools and practices. Paragraph 83 of that text links the development of any new market mechanisms with the existing mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol.
  3. The LCA text invites the World Bank to serve as interim trustee of the Green Climate Fund, but subject to longer term review.

This paints the prospect of a very different way forward, but one which could have longer staying power than the entirely top down Kyoto structure. In this approach, the UNFCCC becomes the effective guardian of all the tools and practices required to manage carbon emissions under a variety of different circumstances. This includes the CDM, a Technology Mechanism and an MRV framework to name a few. It devolves the setting of targets and creation of NAMAs back to national governments but in the context of a clear science based global emissions pathway. The need to define a global 2050 target and a peak emission year is agreed in the LCA text which effectively offers a route to define that pathway (and maybe even offers the possibility of a pathway agreement at Rio+20 in 2012). Finally, it leaves the financing requirements to support all of this to the World Bank where the expertise and experience currently lies.

This is a much more devolved, less centrally managed approach and could also require new thinking on governance, but it may be more sustainable in the long term. None of this will be easy and many hurdles remain, but there is at least more room for optimism post Cancun than we all felt after Copenhagen.