Closing Cancun – The Joys of Low Expectations

The optimists have it.  Cancun is officially a success.  But is it really worth a standing ovation?  In fact, this conference was a masterstroke of understated ambition.  The Mexican presidency is to be congratulated (truly, no sarcasm in this column) on a well-orchestrated event.

The relatively good news caught most commentators unawares, both journalists and negotiators themselves (although some of us have been determined to see the sunny side of Cancun for a while).  However, the truth is that this deal, if presented at Copenhagen last year, would still have represented a failure.

That it is being hailed as a success this time shows just how completely most people had given up on the whole process.  And it is really the UN process that is the winner here, not the climate.  Not yet.  There is enough in this deal to give negotiators just enough motivation to continue on to South Africa next year.

The main elements of the deal are essentially what I’d heard on Wednesday – REDD+, adaptation fund, technology transfer and some meaningful pledges of additional finance.  The REDD+ deal is part of the AWG-LCA text.  You”ll have to scroll down to page 13 to see it.  Despite the fact that the text was basically ‘oven-ready’ coming into Cancun, in the words of one Asian negotiator, the agreed version is substantially changed.  Most significantly, all safeguards are moved to an annex, which should concern all those who see REDD+ as an opportunity for fundamental forest governance reform, rather than just a carbon accounting tool.   As explained in a previous post, Bolivia’s objection to market systems was finessed by postponing the issue.  Saudi Arabia seems to have got some of its wishes fulfilled with carbon capture and storage as a policy option.

No agreement on LULUCF (forestry under the Kyoto Protocol), or on  a second period of the Kyoto Protocol itself, and Japan’s objections could have scuppered any deal at all, if it hadn’t been for some last minute headbanging, and an agreement on a registry for the actions of developing countries.  This is not to be understood as a precursor for China, India et al to take on actual emission reduction commitments, but it is more concrete emphasis on the ‘common‘ part of the phrase ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’.  As expected, no progress at all on new commitments for industrialized countries either

Leaving Cancun, I find myself agreeing with the more ardent watchdogs of this process.  We can breathe a sigh of relief.  But then take a deep breath in – this is the slimmest of lifelines.

Posted by Ben Vickers

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