The Cancun Climate Change Agreement

Expectations for the meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Cancun, from November 29 to December 10, could not have been lower. Most sober observers were merely hopeful that the UNFCCC would not collapse after another year without substantive progress in climate negotiations. As it turned out, the incredibly low expectations were significantly exceeded. Still, the UNFCCC?s ambitious goal of averting dangerous climate change is far from secure.

The meeting in Copenhagen last year ended in disappointment, although the diplomatic sad face was given an extreme makeover in the form of the Copenhagen Accord, which was merely ?taken note of??not formally accepted?by the parties of the UNFCCC. The Accord issued a schedule of voluntary national commitments to CO2 reductions, affirmed the goal of limiting warming to 2°C, and promised $30 billion in annual funding for developing countries beginning in 2012, rising to $100 billion starting in 2020. All of these elements and significantly more are in the document accepted in Cancun this Saturday.

The Cancun agreement affirms the 2°C warming limit, while also scheduling a review to begin in 2013 to consider lowering the limit to 1.5°C. The latter is advocated by the Alliance of Small Island States, many of whose members face inundation from rising seas, as well as by some drought-prone African states. But the lower goal seems hopelessly unrealistic. The earth has already warmed about 0.8°C since pre-industrial times, and the mainstream scientific consensus is that the effect of past emissions on the slowly warming seas will eventually produce warming of at least 1.4°C, regardless of additional emissions reductions. In fact, we should be worried that given current pledges under the Copenhagen Accord, the 2°C limit is likely to be fudged. The United Nations Environmental Programme issued a report in November finding that the most likely global warming scenarios under the Copenhagen pledges are in the range of 2.5°C to 5°C. As long as countries merely bring their domestically negotiated decisions to the international forum, they are more likely to succumb to domestic pressure regarding the costs of mitigation than to honor in an equitable manner international norms regarding the avoidance of dangerous climate change. The best example of this problem is unfortunately the United States.

A MAJOR dispute prior to Cancun concerned whether developing countries would be subject to the requirement of monitoring, reporting, and verifying their emissions reductions. China had led the opposition against this proposal on the grounds that it was inconsistent with respect for national sovereignty. This is a particularly lame argument. Because climate change comprises a massive global and intergenerational externality problem, some of the traditional prerogatives of states simply must yield in order to reduce the problem. What is more, in the context of these deliberations the issue was whether parties should accept a proposal for monitoring; any such acceptance would itself be an exercise of state sovereignty. Remarkably, India broke ranks with the states that supported the Chinese position and proposed compromise language that was helpful in overcoming the impasse. The compromise requires ?a process for international consultations and analysis of biennial reports…in a manner that is non-intrusive, non-punitive and respectful of national sovereignty…to increase transparency of mitigation actions and their effects…? The tiptoeing, remember, is about transparency regarding voluntary commitments! The compromise simply requires an audit regarding whether developing countries are keeping their promises.

The worries of the developing countries would be much more reasonable if they were directed not toward fears of being audited, but toward the content of mitigation burdens. They have a very strong argument that the weak emissions reduction pledges of the industrialized countries should not require the developing and least developed countries to pick up the slack in order to ensure that ambitious warming limits are met. Such a requirement would undermine rapid economic growth and poverty-alleviating development, which are recognized in the Cancun document as ?the first and overriding priorities? of developing states. In order both to permit such development and to meet the temperature goal, industrialized states will have to ramp up their Copenhagen commitments sooner and not later. This continues to bedevil efforts to achieve a comprehensive mitigation agreement. The 2012 meeting in Durban will be the last chance do this before the Kyoto Protocol expires.

THERE WAS progress in Cancun concerning emissions caused by deforestation, which amount to about 20 percent of all annual emissions. The document alludes to ?the provision of adequate and predictable support, including financial resources and technical and technological support to developing country Parties? that advance plans, subject to reporting and monitoring requirements, to reduce emissions from forest degradation and to engage in sustainable management of forests. But neither the incentives for such stewardship nor the sources of support are delineated. Only subsequent events will determine whether this is a solid legal basis for the development of an appropriate program for reducing emissions through conservation and reforestation or a hopelessly vague treaty platitude.

In light of the limited progress made on mitigation, it is probably not surprising, and certainly appropriate, that the first substantive section of the Cancun document deals with adaptation to climate change. Here there seems to be real progress. The document establishes the Cancun Adaptation Framework for the provision of technical support and the sharing of information. The document also includes a mechanism to encourage technology development and transfer to developing countries, and a commitment to capacity-building in these countries.

The Copenhagen promise of funding now has an institutional basis in the agreement in Cancun, in the form of a Green Climate Fund under the trusteeship of the World Bank. As important as this development is, the details of financing remain sketchy. The Fund will supposedly draw from ?a wide variety of sources, public and private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources,? but it does not lay obligations on anyone to contribute. Even if the Fund reaches the funding levels it hopes to, there will still be a question of opportunity costs. Funding for the Green Climate Fund might divert some of the insufficient resources that are currently directed toward development assistance.

The Cancun meeting was an unqualified success in one regard. It provided renewed confidence in the UNFCCC process. The fiasco in Copenhagen last year led some to discuss replacing the UNFCCC with alternative multilateral forums?such as the G20?in order to make progress in dealing with climate change. This is a losing bet. The major problems in the UNFCCC have to do with the foot-dragging of the industrialized countries and the jealous guarding of the development agenda by the rapidly developing countries, crystallized in the disputes between the world?s two largest emitters, the United States and China. But, because of their combined emissions, these two parties must be part of any international negotiation process that hopes to make substantial reductions in emissions. The problems of the UNFCCC process would simply be reproduced in another forum that includes both developed and rapidly developing states.

Additionally, there are two important virtues to the UNFCCC process. First, it provides opportunities for diplomatic pressure on both industrialized and rapidly developing countries, pressure that can yield results. For example, according to newspaper reports, in Cancun a coalition of island states and African countries voiced their displeasure with China?s intransigence with respect to verification. This seems to have had the effect of moving China to accept the Indian compromise. Second, the legal framework of the UNFCCC is a rich source of norms, to which those concerned with global warming can appeal to make reasonable arguments about the aims of climate change policy. To forgo that would be to lose a shared set of values for guiding policy.

It is, however, far from clear that the UNFCCC process will succeed in its aim of preventing dangerous climate change. So much depends upon the good behavior of its parties, not least the United States.

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