Climate: 5 Lessons from the U.N. Cancún Climate Summit

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After the disappointment of Copenhagen and a year when the viability of the UNFCC was repeatedly called into question, the world has its first new legal agreement on climate change in years. The deal is modest—there are no new binding pledges to cut carbon emissions, no hard figures in climate aid and some of the most difficult decisions, like the fate of Kyoto Protocol, have been punted to next year. But for the first time the world has a legal instrument that commits both developed and developing nations—including major emerging economies like China—to take climate action that will be transparent and measurable on the international stage. “Obviously this package is not going to solve climate change itself,” said an exhausted Todd Stern, the U.S. climate envoy, at a 5:30 AM press conference on Saturday. “But it is an important step forward.”

That it is, though it leaves much more to do. But the Cancun Agreements, as they’re called, go beyond the politics of climate change. Here are five lessons from Cancun that should be kept in mind as we all head home:

1.Multilateralism Isn’t Quite Dead Yet: In the wake of last year’s Copenhagen Summit—which began and ended in disarray—there was no shortage of voices calling for an end to the U.N. climate system. The politics of the UNFCCC—demanding total consensus, dividing countries into strict developed and developing categories that had less and less meaning as carbon emissions skyrocketed from nations like China—seemed counterproductive for the age of global warming. A few small developing countries could stop progress cold, and negotiations were poisoned by paranoia and suspicion. Given that a relatively small number of large nations—the U.S., the Europeans, India, China, Brazil—were responsible for most of the carbon emissions on the planet, it seemed that the future for climate talks lay in more manageable institutions, like the G-20.

But the U.N. process might still have some life yet. Thanks in part to transparent oversight by the host country Mexico—recognized by the countless standing ovations Espinosa received during the last sessions—negotiations at Cancun were carried out in a relatively productive and open way. There were no walkouts, and just about every country other than Bolivia seemed to leave reasonably happy. But more important might be the precedent set by Espinosa’s actions in those final hours. By refusing to bend to Bolivia’s procedural objections, the UNFCCC broke the need for total consensus and began to evolve towards a more democratic—and more effective—international body. The Cancun Agreements didn’t save the planet, but they may have saved the U.N. climate process—at least for now.

2.China Can Negotiate: It was a telling juxtaposition. On Friday, as the Norwegians awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiabao, China reacted with fury. Beijing pressured other nations to stay away from the ceremony, blasted the Norwegians with criticism straight out of the Cultural Revolution and even built a wall in front of Liu’s apartment building, to ensure that foreign TV crews couldn’t capture images of his wife under house arrest. This was not China’s best face, to say the least, and it came after a series of frustrating American negotiations with Beijing over its currency and economic policies.

Yet here in Cancun the Chinese negotiated relatively graciously and were apparently willing to make compromises—a marked contrast to last year in Copenhagen, when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao snubbed President Obama and nearly torpedoed the Copenhagen Accord. The top objective for the U.S. was to win a document that guaranteed international transparency for China’s domestic climate actions, and anchored those actions—and those of other major developing nations—in a legal instrument that put developed and developing nations on a complementary level. Stern and his team largely succeeded, and China, while bargaining hard, ultimately chose not to stand in the way. “You saw China taking a very positive tone here,” says Barbara Finamore, China program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They don’t want to be blamed for the failure of Cancun.”

3.You Needed the Shock of Copenhagen to Get Compromise in Cancun: Pity poor Connie Hedegaard. The former Danish minister for climate and energy—and now European commissioner on climate—hosted the 2009 Copenhagen summit, and she had to sit here in Cancun as delegate after delegate contrasted the positive atmosphere of this year’s conference with the general chaos of last year. From the relief of the attendees here you would have thought Copenhagen had been Guantanamo in December. (It kind of was, but colder.)

But the Copenhagen summit was such a difficult negotiation in part because the U.S. came in insisting things needed to change. Developed nations would no longer be expected to take on all the carbon cuts—large developing countries, including global top carbon emitter China, would have to play a complementary role. That went against years of UNFCCC dogma going back to the Kyoto Protocol, and developing nations resisted it fiercely. But the Copenhagen Accord, however fractured, did set the basis for that shift in climate politics, and the biggest achievement in Cancun was the legal formalization of that new order. “Substantiatively, [Cancun] begins to flesh out many of the Copenhagen Accord’s details,” wrote Michael Levi, a climate expert for the Council on Foreign Relations, in a blog post Saturday. “Politically, it takes what was a toxic agreement and obtains much more solid buy-in from the most important parties.” But that never would have happened if Copenhagen hadn’t bulldozed the way.

4.Forests Will Be the Low-Hanging Fruit for Climate: One of the benefits of the post-Copenhagen realism is the dawning comprehension there will be no single “big-bang” deal for climate change. The politics are simply too complex and the problem itself too wicked for any one treaty to solve it. In the future we’ll instead see multiple organizations tackling different strands of the problem in a parallel fashion—yes, the UNFCC will play its role, but so will the World Bank on climate finance, or the G-20 on carbon mitigation. That’s more effective, and it prevents climate action as a whole from being bogged down if one stream clogs.

One of the first beneficiaries of this new diversified approach will be tropical forests. Deforestation is responsible for 12-17% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year, and the loss of forests in countries like Brazil and Indonesia threatens biodiversity and the hundreds of millions of people who depend on the rainforest. For a few years now there has been a growing movement to make trees part of global climate action through Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD), which rewards tropical countries for the carbon value of their standing forests. It’s a popular scheme, but deeper divisions in climate politics have always held it back. But the Cancun Agreements are the first official recognition of REDD in a U.N. climate deal, and will help unify the piecemeal pilot projects that have already been launched around the world. “This is a watershed for the world’s forests,” says Andrew Deutz, director of international government relations for the Nature Conservancy.

5.Don’t Get Carried Away: In the midst of his filibustering, Bolivia’s Pablo Solon actually made some good points. The climate pledges in the Cancun Agreements—tying back to the same ones made in Cancun—aren’t anywhere near enough to prevent the world from likely reaching dangerous levels of warming. (The United Nations Environment Programme, in a report released at the beginning of the Cancun summit, noted that even if all the Copenhagen pledges were actually realized, the world would only reach 60% of the cuts needed to keep warming below 2 C.) Nor is there much in the way of hard figures in the agreement. The deal establishes a Green Climate Fund designed to channel money to developing nations for adaptation and carbon mitigation, but while rich countries have promised $100 billion a year by 2020, there’s no detail on where that money will come from.

Look at the Cancun Agreements half-empty, in fact, and you can conclude that the reason they passed is because most of the hardest choices were finessed and kicked down the road. That includes the fate of the Kyoto Protocol. Developing countries insisted—and continue to insist—that developed nations take on new carbon cuts under Kyoto after the first commitment period ends in 2012, but Japan, Russia, Canada and Australia were all vocally opposed here. (The U.S., of course, isn’t a party to Kyoto, another sore point.) That debate, which could have scuttled talks in Cancun, was punted to next year’s summit in Durban, South Africa. But that will be in December 2011, and there won’t be any more wiggle room. “Kyoto is the question that no one can answer at this stage,” the E.U.’s Hedegaard said at the end of the summit. Climate diplomats should feel good about Cancun, but the debate over Kyoto could still overshadow all that they accomplished here.