Cancun Success or Failure – Compared to What?

Cancun was not a surprise. Nor was it a failure. This much is easy to say.

But was it a success? This is a more difficult question. I used to have an irritating friend. Every time you made a strong, implausibly simple claim – something like “Cancun was a success” – he would reply “Compared to what?” It was a pedantic device, but it worked well enough. It made you think, which, I suppose, is why it was irritating.

Compared to what the science demands, Cancun was obviously a failure. The Climate Tracker crew made that clear in an evaluation filed before most people even got home – if the pledges in the Cancun Agreements are delivered upon, but only just barely, the result would be at least 3.2C of warming, and possibly far more – the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere would be about 650 ppm in 2100.

Why then wasn’t Cancun a failure? Because, just maybe, it will put us onto a better road. Because it was so meticulously (though undemocratically) managed that, even in the face of immense discord and multi-polarity, it produced a weak – though still substantive – agreement. Because we’ve lived to fight another day, and the UN-based multilateral climate negotiations have been relegitimized, at least for the moment. Which is why most of the assembled NGOs, citing a pre-meeting study by UK think tank E3G, decided that the Cancun outcome met the qualifications for the “Lifeline scenario”:

“Skilful diplomacy led by the Mexican Presidency provides just enough substance to move the process forward; and does not compromise environmental integrity of reaching a global deal in the future… This scenario provides sufficient movement on key issues and rolls the negotiation process forwards another year, but must contain a high degree of trust and confidence to prevent moving back into Zombie.”

The Zombie scenario, suffice it to say, would have been worse.

As for the “high degree of trust and confidence,” the jury is still out. For one thing, the Agreements go a long way towards locking in a 2020 financial support target of $100 billion per annum. But this, believe it or not, is a ridiculously small sum that has absolutely no relationship to the likely costs of emergency climate transition. Moreover, the signs point to a future in which, despite the severity of the climate crisis, the wealthy world muddles forward by way of funding strategies in which small offers of public finance are padded out with loans, repurposed and non-additional “aid,” and of course a great deal of private (profit seeking) money.

And there’s an even deeper concern, that, in the words of the South Centre’s Martin Khor, “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, reaching a level like that developing countries, while the developing countries are asked to increase their obligations to be more and more like developed countries.” Nor is this a perverse reading of the Agreements, which for all their surface complexity are built upon simple and frightening truths: The Kyoto Protocol is passing away, there’s not yet anything global on the table to replace it, and the battle to ensure that the coming global accord is actually a fair one – that it ensures developmental justice around the world – has barely been joined.

There’s much to be said about the flaws in the Cancun Agreements, and about their adoption. The difficulty is that, in the last instance, these flaws do not argue that the Agreements were a mistake. This is because, finally, the case for the defense rests on appeals to realism, and such appeals cannot be refuted in any simple way. The reason that so many people are celebrating the Agreements is because they believe that, setting aside the details, they capture the only agreement that was possible. The euphoria of the last plenary, in other words, was actually desperation. The details, beyond the basic requirement to keep the future open, were entirely secondary.

What, then, of the strong and inspiring agreement we need? The one that will establish trust, and build momentum, and allow us some real measure of honest hope? Here the most useful answer is perhaps a call to arms, and a warning: The climate movement since Copenhagen has spend altogether too much time calling for the protection of the Kyoto Protocol, and altogether too little explaining why that protection is so critical.

Which is to say that Kyoto, alone on the negotiating table, represents the obligations of the wealthy world, obligations that must be affirmed if we’re to lay the foundations of a fair global climate regime. And that de-emphasizing this admittedly difficult aspect of the Kyoto storyline was always unwise. Doing so opened space for analytic opportunists (see for example the boys at the Breakthrough Institute) to argue that Kyoto deserves its inevitable death, and, critically, it established a fatally downsized public political agenda.

Now we get another chance. Now there will be a new round of negotiations, one that grinds though another exhausting year of inter-national meetings and culminates, in December of 2011, in Durban, South Africa, where we’ll have our next big chance for a meaningful breakthrough. There’s a lot to say about Durban, but there will be time to say it later. For the moment, just keep in mind that, after Cancun, we’re closer, and perhaps much closer, to the debate we should have had twenty years ago. The one that begins by asking what would be fair enough to actually work.

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