Post-Cancún reflections

Guest post by Patrick Schroeder, International Advisor of China Association for NGO Cooperation (CANGO) and China Civil Climate Action Network (CCAN)

The so-called “Cancún Agreements” – a compromise between the parties at the end of the two-week Cancún climate conference – were decided in the early morning of December 11.   However, not every party was willing to compromise. As Pablo Solón –the ambassador for Bolivia, the only country opposing the decisions – noted repeatedly, there was no consensus for adopting these outcomes. In the end, Bolivia’s objections were “gaveled over”, first by the twoworking-group chairs and then by the Mexican COP president Patricia Espinosa. Since then, Bolivia has decided to take the issue to the International Court of Justice on the grounds that the United Nations’ rule of consensus was violated.

The UN’s legitimacy traditionally comes from the fact it is the only global forum that guarantees universal participation, gives equal voice to all countries and has procedural fairness. However, the failure to deliver at Copenhagen changed this. By producing the Cancún Agreements, the UN seems to have reaffirmed its legitimacy in terms of being able to deliver outcomes. In comparison to Copenhagen, the overall process and tone of the Cancún conference was indeed far better – it was more transparent, much more inclusive – and crisis was successfully averted at the end. The Cancún Agreements were praised by media and many NGOs for having restored faith in multilateralism and creating a pathway towards a comprehensive deal in South Africa next year.

But the violation of the consensus rule based on unanimity has given rise to heated discussions. Bolivia has been criticised for having unrealistic levels of ambition, but it does have a point in rejecting a bad deal – the reasons it brought forward for not accepting the outcomes should be taken seriously, since the substance of the texts are inadequate to fulfill UNFCCC’s main goals of preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system and ensuring global equity. Backed by the outcomes of the Cochabamba conference, Bolivia’s position stands for environmental integrity and represents indigenous people and marginalised groups, which are mostly overlooked in the negotiations. The UN climate process therefore can expect to further lose credibility with groups in the global south. 

China’s NGOs

Cancun also saw the further emergence of Chinese NGOs, not only as observers but also as active participants. In their exchanges with international NGO networks, Chinese NGOs are beginning to find their place among global civil society.

Chinese NGOs prepared a position paper on climate change, but several people at the conference noted how close it was to the Chinese government’s position. Some even suggested that Chinese NGOs were a mouthpiece of the government. However, this misunderstands the complexity of the evolving relationship between Chinese NGOs and government. For example, a joint agreement on Long-term Cooperative Action between Chinese and US NGOs – which urged their governments “to seek common ground and cooperate responsibly with all countries in order to pursue timely, effective and lasting solutions to climate change for current and future generations on our planet” – was a positive move in the light of the US-China face-offs that disrupted negotiations in Copenhagen and Tianjin. 

Toward COP17

Many observers called the outcome of Cancún a “lifeline scenario”: neither a breakthrough, nor a failure, but a set of decisions that allow the process to continue until next year when the negotiations continue in Durban, South Africa. But at least three difficult political issues have not yet been tackled: 

First, the enormous gap between the cuts required by science and the pledges made in Copenhagen: the current pledges would result in global warming ofbetween 2.6 to 4 degrees Celsius.   

Second, the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol: the first commitment period expires at the end of 2012 and Japan has explicitly opposed its extension. 

Third, the danger that the “pledge-and-review” approach to setting targets is consolidated next year in Durban, which will have consequences for equitable effort-sharing. 

In short, Cancún temporarily restored the faith in the multilateral process, but the conflict between what is politically possible and what science requires to ensure environmental integrity and avoid dangerous climate change is still unresolved. While the expectations for Cancún had been lowered, for Durban they need to be significantly increased.