Regaining Confidence in UN-Led Climate Negotiations (2010-2011)

Cancun: Pledge and Review Paradigm in Cancun Agreement

After Copenhagen, climate negotiations entered a stage of uncertainty, as four years of negotiations had not resulted in a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and even if the Copenhagen Accord had been adopted by COP-15, it would not have included quantified emission reduction commitments for countries.[1] Another uncertainty was about the UNFCCC as central framework for negotiating an international climate regime. Reaching consensus among over 190 countries had become increasingly difficult, which was demonstrated during the final hours in Copenhagen when a few developing countries blocked the agreement.

The year after Copenhagen was used to address this uncertainty in two ways. One the one hand, countries seemed to accept that a worldwide policy regime with quantified commitments for major emitting countries was not feasible and turned their attention towards an approach which centred around the concept of low-emission development strategies (UNFCCC 2011, p. 3, para 6). This concept had already been discussed at COP-15, among others, based on proposals by the EU and the Republic of Korea that developing countries prepare plans for low-emission growth (UNFCCC 2009b) to enable them to pursue greenhouse gas emission reduction and economic development at the same time. It was a pragmatic way to broaden the group of developed and developing countries that would agree on undertaking greenhouse gas emission reduction measures, without the need to make them adopt legally binding commitments.

The uncertainty regarding the role of the UNFCCC was mitigated by the progress made during the negotiations in CancUn, especially with a view to openness of the talks and the assurance of the Mexican Minister Espinosa, who presided the COP in CancUn, that they had not prepared a ‘Mexican’ text. Negotiations in CancUn took place on the basis of prepared texts by the AWG-LCA and AWG-KP. The process was therefore more inclusive than in Copenhagen. A second reason why the UNFCCC remained the central body for climate negotiations was the decision of Ms Espinosa not to allow Bolivia to block the CancUn Agreements during the final plenary session of the COP. Bolivia raised several concerns about the final text and argued that therefore no consensus could be reached. Ms Espinosa replied that consensus did not mean that one country had the right to veto an agreement that all other countries agreed on (IISD 2010, p. 28). The Cancun Agreements were thus adopted which re-positioned the UNFCCC as the main body to address climate change internationally.

Prior to the negotiations in Cancfin (November-December 2010), expectations for significant progress has still been rather low and there had been an ongoing debate on the validity, viability and importance of the Copenhagen Accord (Taminiau 2010-2011, pp. 5-8). With the Cancun Agreements, the main elements of the Copenhagen Accord were adopted into the UNFCCC process (PCGCC

  • 2010):
    • • An outline of a phased approach to strengthen efforts by developing countries to realise measures for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation of land (REDD+), thereby recognising the importance of deforestation and land degradation as a source of greenhouse gas emissions.
    • • The creation of a Technology Mechanism to support international technology transfer, especially to developing countries, with a political arm, the Technology Executive Committee (TEC), and an operational arm, the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN).

For the first time in an adopted UNFCCC decision, the Cancun Agreements contained a longer term target to keep global average temperature rise below 2 °C compared to pre-industrial times levels. In addition, the Cancun Agreements also emphasised the need to establish a process to define a date for global greenhouse gas emissions to peak and to establish a global emission reduction goal for 2050 (UNFCCC 2011, p. 3, para 6). Additionally, the text contained a phrase that the above long-term goal should be strengthened should scientific evidence show the need for limiting the temperature rise to 1.5 °C only (UNFCCC 2011, p. 3, para 4).

Generally, the Cancun Agreements were positively received by countries. According to U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern, the result of COP-16 was “fundamentally consistent with US objectives” (US Department of State 2010) as it enabled a broader group of counties to pledge their climate change measures, on a voluntary basis. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration was facing an increasingly difficult domestic situation, as, due to elections in November 2010, the Republican Party had gained control of the House of Representatives, which made the passage of climate legislation virtually impossible (Carson and Roman 2010). Obviously, these domestic problems had an impact on what the US negotiators could agree at international negotiation sessions.

As became already clear during the final hours of negotiations in Copenhagen, the interaction between China and the USA remained crucial for successful negotiation outcomes. At a meeting in Tianjin, earlier in 2010, both countries had openly disagreed on the next steps for climate policy (Watts 2010), but they managed to reach agreement at Canchn (PCGCC 2010). An important topic on which both countries had disagreed was whether and how to monitor, report on and verify (MRV) countries’ compliance with their pledges. Several countries, including the USA, proposed that such an MRV process should be external (carried out by other countries), while developing countries, with China, objected to this as they preferred domestic reviews and argued that with closer embedding of climate measures in domestic development planning, countries had stronger incentives to comply with their climate pledges. The situation was rescued by a proposal by India to organise an International Consultation and Analysis (ICA) for climate plans of all countries responsible for at least 1 % of greenhouse gas emissions (Taminiau 20102011). The ICA proposal was ‘softer’ as it was not formulated as an instrument to identify non-compliance, but as an instrument to support countries in achieving their pledged contribution. ICA was not included in the Canchn Agreements text, but helped overcome critical obstacles in the MRV discussion.

The main issue in the debate between US and Chinese negotiators remained the risk of asymmetry between developed countries with commitments and emerging economies without commitments. US negotiators continued to underline that the USA would only be willing to adopt legally binding commitments under a future climate policy regime if such commitments would also apply to rapidly growing developing countries (US Department of State 2010). During 2009-2010, China had pledged to reduce the country’s carbon intensity by 40-45 % by 2020 below 2005 levels (emissions per unit of gross domestic product), but, with the G-77 countries, refused to adopt binding emission reduction commitments for developing countries (referring to the UNFCCC principle of common but differentiated responsibilities) (Hallding and Jurisoo 2010).

Finally, with respect to a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, the Canchn negotiations provided little hope. As argued above, the negotiations took place along two different tracks: one about a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol with only countries which had ratified the protocol (AWG-KP), and one about longer term climate collaboration, with all countries (AWG-LCA). Most attention was paid to the second track (as it included the USA) and it remained an open question whether the outcome of this track would be a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol or another legal document. Especially the EU, supported by developing countries, tried to also keep the Kyoto Protocol meaningful with attempts to form ‘coalitions of the willing’ (Tangen 2010) with countries committing themselves to a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. However, in CancUn hopes for such coalitions diminished when Japan, Canada and Russia stated that they would not enter into a second commitment period (Goldenberg 2010; Vidal 2010). Since the group of countries with quantified commitments during the first commitment period of the protocol (2008-2012) accounted for less than a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions (as this group did not contain the USA after its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001), these countries felt that the protocol had lost its effectiveness in terms of addressing climate change (compared to when it was adopted in 1997).

After the failure to reach agreement in Copenhagen, the Cancun Agreements brought renewed optimism to the negotiations and confidence in the UNFCCC process. Nevertheless, important negotiation topics remained on the table, the most important of which was to decide on the legal format for international climate change policy action. Discussions since Copenhagen and the text of the CancUn Agreements with a vision on low emission development strategies had shown a trend in favour of domestic bottom-up climate actions (embedding climate change mitigation and adaptation actions in national development planning) over international top-down action. As a result, it appeared much more likely that a follow-up climate policy framework would be in the form of a domestic pledge and review framework, accompanied by UN-level arrangements for adaptation, technology transfer, capacity building, and finance.

  • [1] In paragraphs 4 and 5 of the Copenhagen Accord, it was only stated that Annex I Parties(developed countries) committed to quantified economy-wide emissions targets for the year 2020,which they had to propose themselves by 31 January 2010. For non-Annex I Parties (developingcountries), the formulation avoided the word ‘committed’; instead it was stated that non-Annex IParties “will implement mitigation actions”.
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