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Reflections on Cancun, Mexico, November 2010

Environment consultant Claire Parker’s view was that the expectations for COP 16 (Conference of the Parties to UNFCCC) were modest: it was universally recognised well before it started that reaching a global legally binding agreement that would include mitigation targets for developing as well as developed countries would be impossible. There were fears that even a modest but balanced package of decisions on issues which had progressed since Copenhagen could not be agreed. In the event, after two weeks of negotiations, the second involving ministers, the Cancun Agreements were adopted by consensus (not unanimity): all but one Party –Bolivia- agreeing to them.

These Agreements went some way to ‘anchor’ into the UN process the mitigation pledges made in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord by developed and developing countries. These pledges, if implemented, would still fall short of what is needed to limit global warming to 2⁰C above pre industrial-levels, although the Agreements re-affirmed the 2⁰C target and foresaw its review to possibly 1.5°C. There was an ‘emissions gap’ which Parties pledged to address.

The Agreements also foresee or establish, among others:

  • an ‘monitoring, verification and reporting’ (mrv) mechanism accompanied by an ‘international consultation and assessment’ (ica) procedure that should guarantee the robustness of mitigation actions taken by all Parties;
  • the REDD+ mechanism (reducing deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries);
  • an Adaptation Framework;
  • a Green Climate Fund to channel long-term finance of up to $100 bn by 2020 from developed to developing countries for adaptation and mitigation actions;
  • a technology transfer mechanism to assist developing countries to access low carbon technology

Most of these mechanisms and provisions still need to be worked out in detail. Legally binding mitigation targets remain the most difficult issue for Parties to agree upon. When a global agreement finally emerges (unlikely again at COP17 in 2011 Durban, South Africa) it will most probably not be modelled on the Kyoto Protocol: a top-down series of mitigation commitments to be implemented over a 5 year period (as advocated by the EU). It would more likely follow the approach favoured by the US: a pragmatic, bottom-up system of mitigation pledges that are binding nationally and accountable internationally.

Sir Crispin Tickell, former UK Ambassador to the UN, was an outsider at both the Copenhagen and Cancun conferences, and though not involved in negotiations between governments attended numerous meetings of interested parties around them. He found that Copenhagen was poorly organized or thought through, and far too optimistic from the start. At Cancun there were lower expectations, a more accommodating negotiating spirit and a stronger sense of diplomatic as well as scientific reality. Both were bedevilled by the artificial characterization between “developed” and “developing” countries which obscures the common interest in coping with common problems however different in each country.

The outsiders at both Copenhagen and Cancun, which included a range of scientists, mayors of major cities and interest groups of all kinds, had little doubt about what was needed. As the President of Mexico said at Cancun, the inertia of mistrust between governments was to some extent diminished. Let us hope that we do not need a catastrophe, climatic or otherwise, to spur those responsible into specific action, whether local, regional or global, when negotiators once more struggle with problems which will not go away.

Professor Mike Hulme, University of East Anglia, expressed his concern about pledges made at Cancun. ‘Much has been made of the financial pledges made by industrialised countries to support clean energy and climate adaptation initiatives in developing countries (‘Last-minute deal saves climate talks’ Nature, 468, 875, 2010), pledges amounting to $30bn by 2012 and $100bn by 2020. Yet if the history of previously ‘pledged’ financial flows from North to South is any guide, one cannot be optimistic about these new funds ever being realised. Nine years ago – also in Mexico (in Monterrey) – these same industrialised nations reaffirmed their commitment to the target of 0.7% of gross national income for Official Development Assistance (ODA), a target originally mandated by a 1970 UN general resolution. Over 40 years this agreement has never been honoured, its peak occurring in 1982 when ODA reached 0.36% of combined OECD gross national income. In 2009, ODA from OECD nations was languishing at just 0.31%. This annual funding shortfall in 2009 amounted to $155bn, substantially more than the Cancun pledge for 2020. And if one assumes an average annual growth rate of 2% for OECD economies then by 2020 a further $68bn of ODA would be ‘owed’ to developing countries. Even were the Cancun pledges realised by 2020, they would still only be offsetting half of the deficit in the long-promised ODA’.

Yet engineer, Dr Alison Cooke of the University of Cambridge, was encouraged to find that in the 16 years of COP history, only 4 times has the number of delegates exceeded 10,000. The attendance at COP16 in Cancun was approximately 15,000.

‘I quickly learned that the word “political” was a misnomer when applied to the ethos of the UN climate change conference. In recent times over 50% of the delegates are folk like me - from organisations that are already demonstrating that advances are being made in every sector, including technological/scientific solutions and commercial successes. The political thread is only part of the story. Indeed, at one event Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC with ultimate responsibility for the UN conference, impressed upon us that we were carrying the politicians along with our determination and enthusiasm and she pleaded with us not to slow down in our endeavours.

Quite the contrary! My pace has picked up after an inspirational COP16. I attended in order to encourage more countries to engage in the Future Climate project which facilitates the integration of national energy plans and, as a direct result, the number of countries interested doubled from 10 to 20.

Of particular note was the positive attitude shown by the Chinese delegation to listen and engage, not just with the Future Climate project, but with the essence of the COP16 vision. The attitude and sense of urgency from China were hugely encouraging’.