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Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010


Cancun has done its job

When it comes to international climate negotiations, anything that is not a clear-cut failure can be called a success. That is the best justification for the "Cancun Agreements," the deal reached after two weeks of multilateral talks held earlier this month. While key disputes were not resolved, the agreements sustain hopes that a real pact can be reached next year in the next round of negotiations. Ultimately, however, success depends on all countries recognizing that they are in this together and must each accept the burden of responding to global warning. Thus far, that political will remains beyond reach.

The Cancun talks followed the collapse at Copenhagen a year ago, a disastrous negotiation that foundered over disagreements over the responsibility of developing nations to do more to arrest climate change. Poorer countries demanded strict adherence to the Kyoto formula, agreed over a decade ago, which exempted those states from having to respond to a problem that was not of their making. That was a nonstarter for developed nations which consider that formula an unfair burden on their economies, difficult to tolerate in the best of times and completely unacceptable in today's troubled economy.

A new approach was needed and Cancun had to produce it. The failure of two consecutive negotiations would have effectively killed multilateral climate talks. Acknowledging that a real deal was still beyond their grasp, participants effectively lowered expectations to ensure that the meeting was a success.

Thus, representatives from 190 countries agreed on a framework that is a basis for moving forward and could yield a legally binding pact when they meet again next year in South Africa. The Cancun Agreements set a target to cut global emissions in half by 2050 and to restrict the global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times, with an option of restricting the increase to 1.5 degrees. Governments must also "identify a time for global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions."

In a key breakthrough, the text "anchors" carbon-reduction pledges of rich countries and emerging economies — a group that is responsible for more than 80 percent of global emissions. The wealthiest countries are urged to collectively cut their carbon emissions in 2020 by 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels, the minimum level believed by U.N. scientists sufficient to address the problem. To make it easier for poor nations to accept cuts, the agreement sets up a "Green Climate Fund" that will provide them with $100 billion a year by 2020. Among other things, it will help preserve rain forests, and facilitate those nations' adoption of monitoring and verification of their efforts to cut carbon emissions. It is a step — hesitant and tentative — toward binding commitments.

That is as good as it will get for now. Prime Minister Naoto Kan provided one of the most optimistic assessments, calling the outcome in Cancun a "very big result" and a "big step" in getting the U.S. and China together in a single international framework. Representatives from those two countries were more guarded. U.S. officials called the deal a "text, while not perfect . . . a basis for moving forward" while Chinese representatives applauded the demonstration of "political will to bring the meeting to a success."

Perhaps the most honest assessment came from the chief U.N. climate negotiator, Ms. Christiana Figueres, who concluded that "Cancun has done its job. The beacon of hope has been reignited and faith in the multilateral climate change process to deliver results has been restored." Or, as a leading climate scientist put it, the agreements reached in Cancun will not save the environment, but they do restore the credibility of the U.N. to get the job done.

While there were some angry holdouts — Bolivia officially opposed the deal, but the chair argued that consensus does not demand unanimity and therefore that opposition could not hold up a deal — most constituencies see the positive aspects of the deal. A Greenpeace representative applauded "substantial steps" that will move the process toward a binding agreement next year. Business group leaders were encouraged by reassurance given investors "that countries are committed to developing a low-carbon economy."

One big question mark hanging over the debate is the future of the Kyoto Protocol. Passed in 1997 and set to expire in 2012, that agreement obligates only wealthy nations to cut their carbon emissions — and some of the biggest emitters never ratified the agreement. As a result, it covers only 27 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and the emission reduction obligations do not include the world's largest emitters — China and the United States.

Japan, along with other nations, is against extension of the Kyoto framework, arguing that the selective application of its provisions is both unfair and ineffective. Indeed there seems to be a consensus around that position. But poorer nations continue to demand their exemption from the emission reduction obligations as their right, and some developed nations, such as the U.S., say that voluntary targets will be more effective (and that binding targets are unacceptable).

The Cancun deal only notes that a new agreement should "ensure that there is no gap between the first [which expires in 2012] and second commitment periods." To call that an agreement is another diplomatic fudge, but in today's atmosphere of lowered expectations, it is enough to be considered a success.

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