09 Dec [Can-cun or Can’t-Cun? [That [is [not]] [might be] the Question]]
The climate negotiations were cast as a choice last year between Hopenhagen or Nopenhagen, and this year between Can-Cun or Can’t-Cun. John Ashton, the senior negotiator from the UK Foreign Office, told me yesterday that he sees four possible outcomes here: momentum, a lifeline, zombie-hood, or collapse. Since no one wishes to push the negotiations over the brink (on the theory that any process is better than no process) – or at least is willing to take the blame for doing so – collapse seems unlikely. Conversely, given the divergence of views between developed and developing countries about the fundamental architecture of the regime (should we continue in a Kyoto world with a “firewall” between developed and developing countries, or develop a common regime albeit with different substantive commitments?), few expect the meeting to create significant momentum. So the middle two options seem most likely. Pessimistically, Cancun will adopt a set of “nothing-burger” decisions, which continue “the process” but lead nowhere. Optimistically, it will adopt decisions that create a pathway forward.
For many, the zombie outcome would be even worse than total collapse. Better to declare the patient dead and begin to explore other options than to have it continue to lumber along from one meeting to the next. But even a somnolent process may have ancillary benefits. For one thing, the annual meetings of the UNFCCC help bring together a huge array of people working on climate change issues for two weeks of information exchange and networking. Often, these activities are seen as a sideshow – but increasingly, they may represent the real show, which produce a value added. In Cancun, the venues are so dispersed that most of the private sector groups have held their events far away from the official conference site. So it is possible that they would continue even if the UNFCCC process collapsed. Nevertheless, one gets the impression that without the official conference, there would not be the same level of private sector interest.
The optimistic scenario leads to the question: If Cancun is to produce a lifeline (or even more optimistically, momentum), a life-line or momentum towards what? Most people, I think, would answer: towards a legally-binding agreement. Within the climate world, treaties still appear to be the holy grail. One of the main criticisms of the Copenhagen Accord was that it was only a political agreement. Nevertheless, there appears to be a growing acceptance of the view that non-legal arrangements can be valuable as well. For one thing, a non-legal regime can become operational immediately, without the need to await ratifications; in addition, a non-legal agreement may allow countries to make more ambitious pledges (although by lowering the costs of violation and thereby reducing the credibility of the commitments). In any event, given the difficulties of reaching a legal agreement either on a Kyoto Protocol second commitment period or a new protocol under the UNFCCC, there is increasing recognition that non-binding decisions may at least be a useful way-station in the longer-term evolution of the regime.
Cancun is likely to call for another year of intensive meetings, leading to next year’s conference in Durban. But these intersessional meetings are unlikely to be productive until states can agree on what they are trying to negotiate — a set of concrete decisions or a new legal agreement. In the development of the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol, an intensive negotiating schedule was useful because states were committed to reaching an agreement. They were engaged in a serious process of negotiations, which required significant time. The fundamental difference now is that states don’t agree on what they should be trying to do. Developing countries would like developed countries to agree to a second commitment period under Kyoto; many of the countries with Kyoto target would like a comprehensive new legal agreement that includes the other big emitters, and some would like simply a set of COP decisions on specific issues such as finance, adaptation, and MRV (which in essence would operationalize the Copenhagen Accord). Without basic agreement on what they are trying are trying to negotiate, there is little willingness to engage in serious negotiations.
The Cancun meeting thus faces a choice. Given the lack of agreement about legal form, it could focus on negotiating a series of operational decisions on finance, MRV, and mitigation pledges, which move the ball forward, while leaving for another day the question of future legal agreements. Or it could adopt a decision that achieves a perfect state of equipoise, neither committing to, nor foreclosing, a second Kyoto commitment period, an additional legal instrument, or a non-binding regime. But while the latter outcome would keep the UNFCCC process on life support, it would provide, at best, a pretty weak lifeline. Unless the climate change regime can agree on a direction and begin moving there, its epitaph might read: It died leaving all of its options on the table.