Cancun, compromise and a clash of ideologies

Although many of us may not have noticed, the Cancun round of climate negotiations ended early last month. After the public concern driven media circus of Copenhagen, diplomats must have been relieved to be left alone to negotiate in the background as they are accustomed to doing. What coverage there was depicts a summit ending with the sleep deprived relief of a last minute deal pushed through, leading to an unexpected general consensus. Diplomats, the UN and big environmental groups mostly seem to agree that the outcome is akin to a warm beer: not ideal, but better than no beer. At least by having a beer there is the possibility for that beer to be cold in future, if next year’s summit at Durban proves conducive to refrigeration.

Victory has been claimed on two fronts. Firstly, participants agreed on some concrete targets and initiatives to work on at home and bring to the next round. Key agreements include;

  • For the first time, nations agreed that ‘deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required according to science …. to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels’. Provisions are made to reduce this to 1.5 degrees based on scientific reappraisal.
  • The establishment of a Green Climate Fund to help developing nations adapt to climate change and develop cleaner economies.  Developed countries reiterated their commitment to mobilise $US100 billion per year for the fund by 2020 (although sources of funds still need to be agreed)
  • The conference agreed the framework for ‘REDD plus’: reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, whereby developed nations can pay developing nations to preserve forest.
  • Agreeing on a system of rules for measurement, verification and financing for emissions reduction and actions in line with countries committments. This includes basics for a scheme known as “international consultation and analysis” for ensuring transparency in developing-country emissions-cutting efforts, and provision for a task force to develop the scheme; thus ensuring that China in particular is unable to fudge the numbers.
  • Agree to list under the UNFCCC emissions targets developed during Copenhagen , forming a foundation for a far wider set of commitments than provided by the Kyoto agreement, that also includes the biggest emitters; the US and China.

Secondly, the conference has been heralded as a step forward for the political process itself- keeping alive the possibility for further progress, and vindicating the withering UNFCCC. Previously antagonistic countries were able to compromise and the head bashing between developed and developing nations was reduced to more of a gentle bumping. Faith in the process shaken by Copenhagen was restored, pledges made at that ill fated conference were cemented into the formal UN process, and we’re well on our jolly old way towards stronger action next year. Tally ho!

So if even environmental groups such as WWF are tentatively pleased, why was Evo Morales’ Bolivian delegation so obstinate during the talks, why have ALBA Nations and La Via Campesina condemned the summit, and why is Meena Raman of the Third World Network so concerned (see the vodcast below)?

A number of third world and indigenous leaders are concerned for several reasons. Firstly, as Cancun replaces Kyoto, the distinction between developing and developed nations will disappear. Activists such as Ramen are concerned that coupled with programs such as REDD, responsibility is being shifted from countries which are ultimately responsible for climate change to those poorer countries which have not reaped the benefits of industrialisation or contributed largely to the problem.

Secondly, as this article by Bill McKibben (founder of 350) points out; the bottom line is that the environment is non negotiable. The targets established at Copenhagen and solidified at Cancun are more representative of political rather than scientific reality. Of course, attempting to overcome any global issue comes with its political realities, something people failed to grasp at Copenhagen. Another political reality, however , is that patience is being stretched thin. As Christina Ora of the Solomon Islands said last year when she addressed delegates at U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen. “I was born in 1992. You have been negotiating all my life. You cannot tell us that you need more time,”.

Thirdly, the major issue raised by the Bolivian delegation is that by utilising market mechanisms and framing solutions to climate change within the current neoliberal philosophy, we are essentially missing the point. They argue that our current version of capitalism caused the problem, and cannot therefore provide us with a solution. They propose long term cultural change, brought about by such the introduction of such concepts as environmental rights.

So should we feel optimistic or pessimistic about Cancun?

There’s no simple answer, unfortunately. Both positions are valid, and in the contest of ideas for a future world, everything needs to go on the table. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the agreement at Cancun was reached despite Bolivia’s refusal to participate. But it’s just as important that they were there.

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