Climate: Some Last Thoughts on the Cancún Summit

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I’m back from Cancún, and I miss the weather there, if not the all-night hours of the assignment. You can read a longer version of my analysis of the conference over here, which includes some details on the last-minute drama as Bolivia tried to block adoption of the Cancún Agreements, only to be deftly overruled by Mexico. Juliet Eilperin and William Booth of the Washington Post have a good analysis of the summit, as does Richard Black of the BBC and Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones. Incidentally, it was remarkable—or perhaps not—how much smaller the media contingent was for Cancún compared to last year’s Copenhagen Summit, especially from the U.S., although the cooler spotlight may have actually helped diplomats get something done.

NGOs were pretty happy in the immediate wake of the agreements—see Jake Schmidt of the Natural Resources Defense Council—although that was partially the result of the very low expectations going into the meeting, and a little bit of sleep deprivation. (When Bolivian Ambassador Pablo Solon started filibustering Friday night, we were all preparing ourselves for the talks to go another 24 hours.) As Schmidt writes, the meeting did create the foundation for a new era of climate diplomacy, one where major developing nations are beginning to recognize their need to contribute to carbon cutting. It was also welcome to see India play a major role as a mediator between the U.S. and China, with Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh emerging as a key figure. As Fiona Harvey of the Financial Times writes today, Cancún did represent real progress.

Still, the hardest parts of building a binding climate agreement were punted into the future, and there’s no guarantee they’ll be solved yet. Shadowing the talks was the unacknowledged fact that the U.S. is going backwards on climate and energy, with no chance of legislation and a Republican House whose science committee will be led by an 87-year-old who isn’t sure whether we face global warming or “global freezing.” The Cancún Agreements still contain talk of $100 billion in climate financing for developing nations by 2020, but I have no idea where that money will come from in America, where there currently is no private carbon market generating funds, and where foreign aid will surely face serious cuts.

More to the point, there is little to nothing in the Cancún Agreements on the basic issue of climate change: technological innovation. As usual, Andrew Revkin of Dot Earth said it first and best, but Cancún didn’t address the need to vastly scale up energy research and innovation. (There’s a lot of talk about the need for “technology transfer” to developing countries, but little on actually improving the technology we have.) The U.N. may not be the right place for that kind of work, but at the very least there should be clear statements in the texts circulated at the summit calling for advanced energy research. (Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations weighs in on this too, noting that talks about technology at these events tend to be focused on the debate over intellectual property rights to the exclusion of all else.)

If you’re particularly interested in this subject  and live in the Washington, DC area, check out the Energy Innovation 2010 Conference held on December 15 at the National Press Club. I’ll be there moderating a great panel on innovation policy, along with people considerably smarter than me.