December 13, 2010

After Cancun, UN Negotiations Process Holding Steady

The United Nations climate change negotiations wrapped up after a late night session Friday that took deliberations into the early hours Saturday morning. John Broder, writing for The New York Times on Saturday, had a pithy description to sum up the Cancun conference: it “began with modest aims and ended early Saturday with modest achievements.”

Indeed, there were modest achievements made with the “Cancun Agreements,” from an agreement to setup a new fund to help the world’s poorest nations adapt to climate change, research centers that will facilitate the transfer of green energy technology, to a framework that will help provide compensation for forest preservation. Of course, one of the most significant achievements perhaps was the fact that there was an outcome at all, a shot in the arm for the UN negotiations process that had been seen as moribund since the failed Copenhagen conference last December. “While the measures adopted here may have scant near-term impact on the warming of the planet,” Broder wrote in the Times on Saturday, “the international process for dealing with the issue got a significant vote of confidence.”

Not surprisingly, Mexico successfully established itself as the new leader on climate change, a goal that the Mexican delegation and President Felipe Calderon had set for the country in advance of the Cancun conference. Mexico showed remarkable leadership by brokering an agreement that made clear tradeoffs that were palatable to the negotiating body. According to The Washington Post on Sunday, “Mexico was able to pull off what the president of the Center for Clean Air Policy, Ned Helme, called a negotiating ‘tour de force’ by asking delegates what was most important to them and what they could compromise on.”  What is more, Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa continued to push the agreement forward, despite clear objections from Bolivia's U.N. ambassador, Pablo Solon, who criticized the package as too weak. “We were feeling very uncomfortable, because Bolivia is a very close friend to the Mexican people,” Espinosa told the Post. “We share a lot with Bolivia. Both countries have many indigenous peoples. We both have forests. So being so far apart was difficult for us.”

I wrote the week before last on the blog that Mexico’s ability to lead in Cancun was going to hinge on its perception as a credible broker, which it could prove by demonstrating that it has skin in the game when it comes to a binding international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (even though that wasn’t on the table in Cancun). And I think what Mexico has done is demonstrated that it is a credible leader on climate change. But perhaps what it signals more broadly is that the UN climate change negotiations process can work if there is a credible leader at the helm. Imagine the credibility and diplomatic clout that the American climate change negotiating team would have in Durban, South Africa next year if Congress passed a capable and forceful energy and climate change bill in the spring that signaled to the rest of the world that the United States was ready to lead the charge to tackle the global climate crisis. Talk about a negotiating “tour de force” that could be.  

While Cancun was successful in reinforcing the emissions reduction commitments made by countries in Copenhagen last year, as well as fleshing out other key aspects of the Copenhagen Accord, the real challenge of getting a binding agreement by countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is still elusive. The prospects for extending the current Kyoto Protocol – which is set to expire in 2012 – seemed dim when Japan and Russia refused to extend it because the United States, China, and India are not bound by the treaty.

Yet the prospects that a binding agreement could be forged through the UN negotiating process have been strengthened. I am a little more optimistic today than I was last week that the world may make real progress in the run up to and in Durban, South Africa next year. But I’m still cautious. The United States has a clear opportunity to lead in those negotiations next year and strengthen the outcome, but U.S. credibility has been beset by our inability to pass domestic legislation that is consistent with our stated international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The rest of the world knows that whatever the United States agrees to has to be approved by Congress, and, not surprisingly, much of the world is not convinced that the United States can match its international commitments with domestic action. Congress has an opportunity to confound that skepticism by passing energy and climate change legislation that will support the rhetoric our international negotiations are using. So let’s get to it and set the tone early for next year’s Durban conference.

This Week’s Events

Today at noon, head over to CSIS for Clear Gold: Water as a Strategic Resource in the Middle East.

On Tuesday at 9:30 AM at the Carnegie Endowment, don’t miss Security and Development in Fragile States. Then at 11 AM, visit the Embassy of Bangladesh for Save Our Planet Earth from Global Warming and Climate Change. Of course, at 12:30 PM, don’t forget to visit CNAS at the Newseum for the release of our recent report, Responsible Transition: Securing U.S. Interests in Afghanistan Beyond 2011.

On Wednesday at 9:30 AM, CSIS will have a huge event on minerals, Rare Earth Elements: Geology, Geography and Geopolitics.

On Thursday at 9:30 AM, SAIS will host the EIA for U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) Release of the Updated Energy Outlook to 2035. Then at noon, head to the Wilson Center for The First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review: Strengthening America's Role in the 21st Century.

Have a great week everyone!

Photo: Mexican President Felipe Calderon addresses the Conference of the Parties on the final day of the Cancun climate change conference. Courtesy of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.