Saving the integrity of the multilateral process in climate negotiations, with an outcome agreed to by both the global North and the South, is perhaps the most significant gain from Cancun.

For several months now the oft-repeated litany was that little was expected of the climate negotiations at the 16th session of the Committee of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the associated Meeting of Parties of the Kyoto Protocol. In the event, the Cancun meet has thrown up some surprising lessons. It ended on a far more upbeat note than was anticipated even as late as midway through the two-week conference.

The main achievement of the Cancun meet has been, as UNFCCC secretary-general Christiana Figueres emphasised, to restore some degree of faith in the multilateral process. A good deal of the credit for securing a qualified positive outcome at Cancun must go to the Mexican presidency of the Committee of Parties in the person of Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa Cantellano. The overall transparent conduct of the negotiations, even during the final ministerial phase, was a far cry from the rude, ham-handed, and strong-arm tactics of the Danish presidency at Copenhagen last year. Although the official and non-official contingents of the developing countries were understandably worried about a repeat of Copenhagen in the final days, this was not really on the cards. As Ms. Espinoza pointed out at one of the informal plenary sessions, the name plate of every country was available outside the rooms where the facilitators, drawn from among the Ministers of various countries, were holding consultations on various sections of the text of the final outcome. Jairam Ramesh for India and Xie Zhenhua, leader of the Chinese delegation, were undoubtedly correct in calling on the Mexican president of COP 16 to congratulate her on the outcome.

It is certainly true that, given the current state of play in climate policies across many nations, such a multilateral outcome that has the approval of both the developed nations and the majority of developing nations falls short in many ways in terms of concrete, far-reaching solutions on the critical issues in global climate governance. Critical red lines that various countries and groups laid out even during the meeting at Cancun have been quietly modified. But the fact of agreement between the developed and developing nations is not insignificant – and to deny it would be to miss the critical feature of the climate issue as a global problem. To put it differently, the absence of an outcome at Cancun would have launched the multilateral process into uncharted waters with the risk, and its incalculable consequences, that the process itself would be scuttled or rendered effectively non-operational.

Cancun was also marked by a relatively self-confident approach from the large developing countries, particularly China and India. China had a strong campaign to project what it was already committed to in its domestic climate agenda, which the large U.S. contingent had little to counter with except for erudite discussions on climate policy by its NGOs. India had a much more muted presence (perhaps even staid in style), apart from the media-savvy Jairam Ramesh, but nevertheless there was much interest in its policies and attitudes.

The nature of the final outcome was also determined by the fact that the recession-hit developed countries had little to offer. The United States in particular came to Cancun with empty pockets, unable to go beyond hand wringing by its NGOs over the state of its domestic politics. Japan and the Russian Federation distinguished themselves with a querulous obstructionism that was mitigated towards the end. The European Union was relatively better but was not above the temptation to launch an abortive, and briefly worrying, attempt in collaboration with the small island states (the so-called AOSIS grouping) and some others (including, surprisingly, South Africa) to try and corner India and China. Their proposal for a decision calling for a legally binding instrument to be adopted at COP 17 next year was countered by India and China pointing out that it was unreasonable to demand a legally binding outcome without any idea of what such an outcome would contain.

It was also evident at Cancun that the smaller developing nations that make up the bulk of the G77 and China grouping have a sense of feeling squeezed in the middle – between the big developed nations on the one hand and the large developing economies on the other. It is true that many of the G77 respond with more alacrity to blocking Indian and Chinese proposals, locking the discussions down to bland generalities, than to countering the positions of the developed nations on issues such as a global emissions reduction goal or that of a global peaking year. Others like the island states fall for the ploy of portraying China and India as equally responsible for the climate crisis and seeking solutions that ignore the development needs of these large nations. On the other hand, China and India also need to reach out much more effectively to these nations amidst the twists and turns of the negotiations. They must carry them along without creating tensions that will weaken the trust factor in the G77.

The concrete positives in the final Cancun decision are limited. The numbers on a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol are still missing. There is only the assurance to “aim” to ensure that there will be no gap between the first and second commitment periods of the protocol and a general appeal to the developed countries to raise the quantum of their emissions reduction commitments, in line with the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But the pet project of the developed countries — the formulation if global goals for emissions reduction — has been firmly linked to considerations of equity in formulating these goals. There has been advance in areas such as adaptation and technology transfer; there are specific recommendations with some give and take marking progress in the contested area of monitoring, reporting, and verification.

The full import of the Cancun decisions will need further careful evaluation. There is substantial work to be done in the future. What is clear is that a legally binding outcome that meets the demand of equity as well as the need for truly combating climate change will not be easily achieved.

It would be a pity if the post-Cancun domestic climate policy debate in India were to be confined to the somewhat misplaced fireworks regarding Jairam Ramesh's statement at Cancun that all countries must accept “binding commitments in some appropriate legal form.” Given the wide latitude of meaning in the official Indian interpretation of “appropriate legal form,” it is clear that the statement has given away little of substance, while responding to the concerns of the small island states that provoked this statement. But the plain truth is that even if the developed countries were to miraculously cease their emissions by the end of this decade, developing countries would still need to eventually accept legally binding commitments to ensure that temperature increase above pre-industrial levels stays below 2° Centigrade.

The Kyoto Protocol is critically important in ensuring that developed countries take the lead in emissions reduction and must continue. But the protocol has also fed the complacent view that developing countries need not do anything at all. A climate policy perspective for India cannot be fashioned overnight; it needs careful preparation and extensive discussion. A domestic consensus in climate policy needs to be more carefully constructed if India is to go to Durban next year with the right mix of firmness and flexibility.

The outstanding lesson of Cancun, if there is indeed such a single one, is that it is the wisdom of the developing countries, and in particular the leadership of China and India, in articulating a way forward in a united way that will carry significant weight in achieving more at Durban next year. For its part, South Africa, in its presidency at COP 17, will need to rise above the distractions imposed by the developed countries in order to go significantly beyond the limitations that were perhaps inevitable at Cancun.

(Dr. T. Jayaraman is Professor at the Centre for Science, Technology and Society, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He was at Cancun as a speaker at a side-event, a seminar on equity and climate change, sponsored by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India.)

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