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The road from Copenhagen to Cancún

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Issue date: 
3 March 2010
Publisher Name: 
Carbon Positive
Michael Zammit Cutajar
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Writing for Carbon Positive, Michael Zammit Cutajar,  who was Chair of the key UN negotiating group at Copenhagen on long-term cooperative action, assesses negotiating prospects in 2010 in the lead up to Mexico talks at the end of the year...

If Kyoto 1997 can be said to be the moment when mitigation met the market, Copenhagen 2009 marked the spot where climate change met geopolitics - Carbon Positive’s December 24 editorial hit this nail on the head.

An effective agreement to limit and reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases is not possible without the participation of the two super-emitters. Though US emissions per head are of another order of magnitude, both China and the USA now have comparable aggregate impacts on the atmosphere.  The “Copenhagen Accord” signals that neither is ready to place its mitigation efforts within quantified limits set by an international treaty.  The best they can offer at present is participation in a bottom-up system of pledges that are bound nationally and accountable internationally.  In that respect, one can say that the interests of the super-emitters converge.

In addition, it may be deduced that China used its clout - and its allies – in Copenhagen to safeguard the distinction between the respective responsibilities and obligations of developed and developing countries, to resist a US proposal to identify a separate category of developing countries with a large carbon footprint and to avoid mention of any quantified emission reduction goals for 2050.  It is also likely to have favoured omitting explicit reference to a legally binding outcome of the continuing negotiations under the Convention (conducted under the Bali Action Plan in the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action).

In assessing realistically the negotiating prospects for the near future, one has to take these fundamental positions as given, at least until the USA can return to the table backed by domestic legislation.

Must “success” at Cancún be legally bound?

Before Copenhagen, many commentators adopted a legally binding outcome – a “post-Kyoto treaty” - as their benchmark of success.  This reading ignored both the lack of political consensus on the legal form of the “agreed outcome” sought by the Bali Action Plan and the position of developing countries in favour of the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol post-2012.  The fact that a legally binding outcome was not achieved did not surprise insiders.

Mexico will host the next conference and has been mandated to work for its “success”. Now that the “Copenhagen Accord” is the backcloth for negotiation, should the same “legally binding” benchmark be applied to success at Cancún?

On the central issue of mitigation, it is likely that all that could be bound this year is the bottom-up, “pledge-and-analysis” scheme embodied in the Accord.  This gives scant comfort to the European Union and others whose aim it has been to secure a single legal instrument binding all major emitters to ambitious quantified objectives.  Nor is it encouraging for the many developing countries, notably African, least-developed and small island countries, whose post-2012 vision has been of a second commitment period for the Kyoto-bound developed countries alongside another legal instrument roping in the rest.  Moreover, according to recent analysis, the pledges appended to the Accord are consistent with 3°C global warming.

Consequently, it may be argued that it is better NOT to set the Accord in legal concrete this year, but to wait for an opportunity to codify a more ambitious mitigation regime consistent with the objective – endorsed by the Accord - of holding the global temperature increase below 2°C.

Well-funded instruments of cooperation

In this view, the aim for Cancún could be a set of decisions that would launch the new instruments of cooperation identified by the negotiations on “long-term cooperative action” and endorsed by the Accord – cooperation on adaptation, REDD-plus, capacity building, and technology development and transfer - while also strengthening mechanisms for transparency and accountability.
Without well-sourced and well-managed financial backing, however, instruments of cooperation are empty shells.  So the most intriguing substantive questions arising from the Accord this year may be those relating to the provision and mobilization of substantial funding by developed countries for developing countries.  The promised “fast-start” funding approaching USD 30 billion for 2010-2012 was a strong inducement for small, poor and vulnerable developing countries to accept the Accord; to what extent can this be robustly verified as “new and additional”?  Is it accepted that developed countries will make longer-term funding for those developing countries contingent on the scale and transparency of mitigation efforts by China and other emerging economies?   Is it only funding for adaptation that requires representative governance?  Such questions need to be answered through negotiation.

Whatever one’s view of a desirable outcome at Cancún, the transfusion of elements of the “Copenhagen Accord” into the formal UNFCCC negotiating process is the name of the game for 2010.  The rules of that game are not yet clear, nor, indeed, is the full meaning of the Accord itself – a “back of the envelope” text if ever there was one!  The scope for procedural manoeuvring remains great.  It can be countered by a drive from the new political leadership of the process for common interpretations, common understandings - for a shared political will among the Convention Parties to achieve constructive results.  Mexico, with its solid diplomatic experience in a bridging role between developing and developed countries and a strong political commitment to climate action by President Calderón, is well placed to take this lead.

Michael Zammit Cutajar chaired the Ad Hoc Working Groups on the Kyoto Protocol (2006) and on Long-term Cooperative Action (2009).  He was the first Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC (1995-2002).  These views are personal.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut