Spotlight Cancún: The Road to Rio

Kelly Sims Gallagher, Guest Blogger
Another in a series from the Triple Crisis Blog and the Real Climate Economics Blog on the Cancún Climate Summit. This piece was previously posted by the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy (CIERP).

What to make of the new Cancun Agreements?  Those lauding the agreement seem to be relieved there was any agreement at all. UN Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres declared, “Faith in the multilateral climate process has been restored.” But, the agreement itself does little except make more concrete many of the provisions already agreed to in last year’s Copenhagen Accord by enshrining these agreements in a formal decision of the Conference of Parties.  In fact, the multilateral process seems hardly improved, and most of the difficult decisions were deferred to the future.

The main headline was Japan’s announcement that unless the United States and China were to engage in Kyoto, under no circumstances would it agree to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol. This outing of the elephant in the room was roundly criticized by most, but it was refreshingly honest and straightforward.  This is the key issue on the table, which was avoided with masterful diplomacy and the Cancun agreement to “defer” discussions on the Kyoto Protocol into the future.

Negotiators grind on in the same worn tracks.  The Mexican Presidency was spooked by the ghost of Copenhagen and determined to have a “country-driven” process, providing only facilitation exemplified by the Mexican Foreign Minister’s repeated statements that there was “no hidden text, no secret text”.  But, the process needs a leader.  Who will be the world leader who will shoulder the responsibility to mediate among major emitters, and those countries most likely to be impacted by climate change?  I nominate former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a leader who has demonstrated the ability to profoundly change his own position in these international negotiations, who has also ushered an ambitious package of domestic policies in Brazil, and who will help host the Rio+20 meeting in 2012.

The Cancun process was extremely diffuse and disorderly.  Often there were literally dozens of parallel contact groups, informal negotiations, and plenary sessions being held in tandem.  Because there were so many concurrent streams of negotiations and no obvious centralized text and process, most negotiators were confused about what was going on, much less be able to productively link and trade off across issues. NGOs continued to be plentiful, but few were able to productively engage with negotiators in order to provide good ideas or to flag potential problems in the texts.

The United States and China were remarkably quiet and conciliatory. One senses they were both simply trying to get through COP16 without disaster striking or being singled out as barriers to agreement. These two countries still do not appear to be seriously and directly negotiating with each other. One interesting and revealing “mistake” occurred when a senior Chinese negotiator was misquoted when he was reported to have signaled China’s willingness to make “binding” its voluntary carbon intensity decline target.  This erroneous announcement briefly infused the negotiations with false hope and optimism, and goes to show how important China and the United States are to achieving a breakthrough in the international negotiations. Sino-U.S. bilateral negotiations are the real work to be done in the international arena, and we should not expect much until these countries arrive at a common solution. The road to COP17 in Durban or, more likely, an agreement in Rio+20 must go through Beijing and Washington.

Kelly Sims Gallagher is Director of  the Energy, Climate, and Innovation program at CIERP and Associate Professor of Energy and Environmental Policy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.