Science in Society Archive

How the Cancun Conference Failed to Save the Climate

The Cancun conference may go down in history as the decisive turning point at which the burden of saving the climate was passed on developing countries, and WTO procedures was introduced into UN meetings Martin Khor

Mixed reactions

The Cancun conference on climate change ended in adopting a final text in the early hours of 11 December It was hailed by many for reviving the spirit of multilateralism in climate change agreements, as another collapse after the disastrous failure of the Copenhagen talks a year ago would have left the reputation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Convention (UNFCCC) truly in tatters.

Most of the delegations congratulated one another for agreeing to a document in Cancun.

But others accused this same Cancun text of falling far short, or even going backwards, in controlling greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

Japan dealt an early mortal blow

The Cancun conference suffered an early blow from Japan's announcement that it would never ever agree to another commitment under the Kyoto Protocol (the first commitment period for emission reductions ends in 2012, and the deadline for the second commitment period was to be agreed in Copenhagen last year).

The conference never recovered from that mortal blow. The final text failed to ensure the survival of the protocol, though it sets some terms of reference for continuing the talks on the second commitment period next year.

The Cancun meeting in fact made it more likely for the developed countries to shift from the Kyoto Protocol and its binding regime of emission reduction commitments, to a voluntary system in which each country only makes pledges on how much it will reduce its emissions.

The Cancun text also recognized the emission reduction targets that developed countries listed under the Copenhagen Accord. But these are overall such poor targets that many scientific reports warn that the developed countries by 2020 may decrease their emissions by only a little or even increase their level. The world is on track for a catastrophic temperature rise of 3 to 5 degrees.

Developed countries let off the hook but new obligations on developing countries

But even as it prepared the ground for the developed countries’ “great escape” from their commitments, the Cancun text introduced new obligations for developing countries.

They now have to put forward their plans and targets for climate mitigation, which are to be compiled in a document and later in registries.

It is a first step in a plan by developed countries (they have been quite open about it) to get developing countries to put their mitigation targets as commitments in national schedules, similar to the tariff schedules in the World Trade Organization.

The Cancun text also obliges developing countries to report on their national emissions every two years as well as on their climate actions and the results in terms of emission avoidance.

These reports are to be subjected to detailed scrutiny by other countries and international experts. The Cancun text in fact gives a lot of space to the details of these “measuring, reporting and verification” (MRV) procedures as well as “international consultations and analysis” (ICA).

These are all new obligations, and a great deal of time was spent in Cancun by the developed countries (especially the United States) to get the developing countries to agree to the details of MRV and ICA.

Many developing-country officials were increasingly worried in Cancun about how they are going to implement these new obligations, as a lot of people, skills and money will be needed.

In fact, the developing countries made a lot of concessions and sacrifices in Cancun, while the developed countries managed to have their obligations reduced or downgraded.

Cancun may be remembered in future as the place where the UNFCCC's climate regime was changed significantly, with developed countries being treated more and more leniently, towards the level of developing countries, while the developing countries are asked to increase their obligations to be more and more like developed countries.

The ground is being prepared for this new regime, which could then replace the Kyoto Protocol. Cancun was a milestone in this inversion of obligations.

Climate fund unspecified and IPR not mentioned

The Cancun conference also agreed on establishing a new global climate fund under the UNFCCC to help finance the mitigation and adaptation. A committee will be set up to design various aspects of the fund; but no decision was taken on how much money the fund will get.

A technology mechanism was also set up under the UNFCCC, with a policy-making committee, and a centre. However, the Cancun text avoided any mention of intellectual property rights (IPR), which have an influence over developing countries' access to and cost of technology.

The United States had insisted that there be no mention whatsoever of the IPR issue, and it got its way in Cancun.

WTO procedure Mexican style

The Cancun conference further distinguished itself in a questionable procedure, similar to the World Trade Organization (WTO), but not used in the United Nations, in which the host country Mexico organized small group meetings to discuss texts on the various issues, led by itself and a few Ministers it selected.

The final document was produced, not through the usual process of negotiations among delegations, but compiled by the Mexicans as the Chair of the meeting, and given to the delegates for only a few hours to consider, on a take it or leave it basis (no amendments allowed).

At the final plenary, Bolivia rejected the text, and its Ambassador, Pablo Solon, made a statement giving detailed reasons why. Despite there being no consensus on the text, the Mexican foreign minister declared the text was adopted, to which Bolivia lodged an objection.

The Mexican way of organizing the writing and later the adoption of the Cancun text raises a lot of questions about openness and inclusiveness and the future of UN procedures and practices.

The importation of WTO-style methods may in the immediate period lead to “efficiency” in producing an outcome, but it also carries the risk of conferences collapsing in disarray (as has happened in several WTO ministerial meetings), and in biases in the text, that usually favour developed countries.

When the dust settles after the Cancun conference, a careful analysis will find that its text may have given the multilateral climate system a shot in the arm and positive feelings among most participants because there was something to take home, but it also failed to save the planet from climate change and helped pass the burden onto developing countries.

From this low baseline level, much work needs to be done in 2011 to re-orientate the international system of cooperation to address theclimate crisis.

Martin Khor is the Executive Director of the South Centre. A slightly different version of this article was first published in The Star, Malaysia on 13 December 2010

Article first published 07/01/11

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