The Cancun Setup: One year after Copenhagen, and counting

The first thing to say about the climate negotiations – meeting soon in sunny Mexico – is that they’re teetering at the edge of what, back in the day, we used to call a “legitimation crisis.”  On every side, folks are eager to suggest that the negotiations have become a waste of time.  It’s gotten to the point that people are apologizing for going to Cancun, as if it were bad for their image to be seen at the climate talks.

Which, actually, is an odd turn of events.  Because if ever a moment was critical, it’s this one, midway through the cycle of negotiations (Copenhagen 2009, Cancun 2010, South Africa 2011) that will determine the shape and direction of the post-Kyoto climate regime.  What happens now matters, particularly because, all else being equal, the eventual end of the economic crisis will be accompanied by another rapid rise in global emissions.  The only way to avoid that rise, and many others, is to escape the logic of the business-as-usual world.  Despite the coming low-carbon energy revolution, we can’t expect to make that escape without systems of global cooperation, burden sharing and accountability to help us along, systems that can only be rooted in a fair multilateral accord.  Which is to say that the climate talks may not be fun, and may not even be the main event, but there’s no real hope without them.

Copenhagen, unfortunately, was a grave disappointment, and was quickly followed by a cascade of others: the “Climategate” fiasco, the failure of the beltway realists to deliver a US climate bill, an explosion of denialist populism on the American right, and, of course, the midterm American elections.  Even worse, from the point of view of the climate talks – the success of which depends, in the last instance, on international cost sharing – is the emergence, in Europe as well as the US, of an Austerity Panic Party that pretends, amidst unprecedented inequality and unprecedented wealth, that the North is bankrupt.  The point of the pretense?  To project a story of the future in which declining “foreign aid” is as inevitable as the decimation of domestic social services.

The discouraging pace of the international talks, in other words, is anything but unique.  Right now, nothing is working particularly well.  The US, in particular, is a model of dysfunction, and an eager player in the international “blame game,” which is now in full swing.  Nor is this a simple “climate problem.”  The truth is that the climate challenge is bound tightly to a larger political crisis, and that neither is likely to be resolved without the other.  So, to be clear – there is no “deadlock” in the global negotiations.  Nor is there a “North / South impasse.”  What we’re seeing, rather, is a political and governance disaster of the first order, and despite its many critical international dimensions, it’s a disaster that is centered in the wealthy world.

And the winner is…

In the United States, China bashing is much in vogue.  Recently, China has developed a taste for bashing back.  After a recent climate meeting in Tianjin, one of its senior negotiators compared the US to a pig preening itself in a mirror.  It was perhaps an undiplomatic comment, but it’s hard to deny that the US makes a tempting target.  If there were an international climate-spoiler sweepstakes, the US would have to be the presumptive winner.  It’s the US that knocked the Kyoto Protocol down to near irrelevance, and the US which led the Copenhagen charge to abandon top-down emissions targets in favor of a bottom-up process of voluntary “pledge and review.”  It’s the US, in the person of Obama’s climate chief Todd Stern, that insisted on a “new paradigm for climate diplomacy,” one that rejects a “Berlin Wall between developed and developing countries” and asserts instead a world in which the developed countries are no longer presumed to bear the overarching, if inconvenient, obligations of the rich and the responsible.  Or even the limited pragmatic obligations of flexibility, in the face of the “innovative finance” proposals (ranging from the auctioning of emissions entitlements to an “aviation levy” to the “Robin Hood Tax”) that, at this point, look to be our best way forward.

Is this too harsh?  Perhaps.  There are extenuating circumstances in today’s America, where the “tea party” – a corporate-funded creature of self-satisfied, self-destructive, flat-earth libertarianism – has emerged to oppose even climate science, let alone international solidarity.  It’s an heartily unwelcome development, and it almost makes a good excuse.  Moreover, there’s plenty of competition for the role of the world’s leading climate spoiler.  Look past the US to the rest of the usual suspects.  The Saudis (and, hell, the entire global carbon cartel), the Russians (who haven’t yet fully digested the world-historic heat wave that just ravaged their country), and the World Bank (you want coal with that?) are still around, and largely unreformed.  There’s the usual symbiotic crew of denialists and disoriented reporters (with their usual convenient failure to understand, let alone explain, the South’s position).  There are the Chinese, who, it must be said, are playing more than one set of cards.  There are the endless ranked phalanxes of corporate opportunists.  And, as always, there are the subtle Europeans, who until recently proposed to strengthen their emission-reduction target (from 20% to 30% below 1990 levels in 2020) while, at the same time, defending emissions-accounting loopholes designed to render such strengthening almost meaningless.

They’ve given up on the 30%, at least for now.  The loopholes remain.

Issues abound, and it’s hard to know who to forgive for what.  The global climate wish list is after all long and extremely daunting.  Just for starters it includes science-based targets, a democratically-governed global climate fund, a fair-shares global effort-sharing system, an honestly scaled and funded adaptation framework, technology and investment cooperation on a grand and global scale, a strategy for finessing intellectual property and trade disputes, a forestry and land-use agreement that’s both pro-poor and effective, the closing of the accounting loopholes, and national low- and zero-carbon development plans all around.

And this isn’t even a comprehensive list!  So it’s probably fortunate that, coming up to Cancun, the focus is on a small set of key issues, which must be at least provisionally resolved before the bigger problems can move onto the stage.  Which is to say that what we really need – an open and creative debate about the architecture of global climate justice – is not on the Cancun agenda.  What is on the agenda is “fast-start finance,” and finance in general, and the linked issue of transparency.  And, inevitably, the Kyoto Protocol.  And the obvious fact that the climate talks can only play their appointed role if the North’s negotiators rise, somehow, to the occasion.

The North’s move

Recall that Copenhagen ended with a shaky, acrimonious, and altogether unsatisfying political deal – the Copenhagen Accord – wherein most (but not all!) countries, industrialized and developing, agreed to openly publish their emission-reduction pledges and actions.  This in itself wasn’t a bad idea.  The problem was rather that, in Copenhagen, the move towards transparency came packaged with the repudiation, particularly by the US, of legally-binding targets and timetables.  And that the Accord was immediately (and predictably) used to take the spotlight off the North’s long recognized obligation (enshrined in 1992’s Framework Convention, 1997’s Kyoto Protocol and 2007’s Bali Action Plan) to “take the lead.”  This is a long story, but it’s one worth recalling, especially if you hope to get beyond the China bashing and posed pessimism that have come to dominate international climate coverage.

The bottom line here, one rarely explained, is that the so-called “North / South impasse” will not be broken until the North begins to meet its obligations, or, at the very least, to keep its promises.  Which is exactly why talk of a “North / South impasse” implies a false, non-existent symmetry.  The southern elites, to be sure, are hardly above criticism – they have badly mixed loyalties, and like elites everywhere they are often short-sighted and self-interested.  And with the financial crisis fading into a crisis of trade and development that neither the US nor the Chinese care to honestly face, there’s plenty of criticism to go around.  Still, and particularly when it comes to climate, it remains the North’s move.  No amount of “balance” is going to change this fundamental reality.

An interim deal?

The hope in Cancun is an interim deal, one that would change the tone, encourage statesmanship, and maybe, just maybe, set us up for a more meaningful breakthrough in December of 2011 in South Africa, when the next milestone climate meeting is scheduled to take place.  Whose fault will it be if such an interim deal fails to materialize?  That, dear reader, is the question that all good climate watchers must now prepare to answer.

What’s on the table?  Basically, “finance for transparency.”  Which is to say, for the North, delivering on its Copenhagen promise to provide $30 billion in “new and additional” fast-start finance designed to support mitigation and adaptation in the South, and to establish a working modicum of trust.  The South, in turn, would agree to a significant measure of transparency.  India has already signaled that it’s willing to accept a “facilitative process for transparency and accountability,” and Brazil and China have expressed “cautious support” for such an approach.  Which is not surprising.  Transparency is a natural tradeoff for the developing world, which is already doing a great deal, particularly when its efforts are measured against its relatively limited wealth and capability.

What would this transparency entail?  Leaving aside the details, both wealthy and developing countries would publish low-carbon transition plans, and package those plans into manageable strategies, and provide clear visibility into their efforts to shift to new kinds of development paths.  Measurement, reporting and verification; these are the keywords, and this “MRV” would not be restricted to actions that are “supported” by international finance and technology.  It would apply as well to the support itself – the wealthy world’s often obscure and corrupt channels and devices – and as quickly as possible it would apply to “unsupported” actions.  The goal – essential to any cooperative strategy for rapid global transformation – would be to make it possible for everyone to tell what everyone else is doing.  Or not doing.

The transparency problem is not a small one.  Verification is a charged and intrusive process in which industrial secrecy and state sovereignty are both at risk.  But the deeper issue, now as always, is the South’s fear that the climate transition will mean the end of its dreams of development.  That, even as the ice melts and the storms rage, endless negotiations will unfold into a trap, a narrowing series of gambits and tradeoffs in which the powerful North shifts the burdens of transition to the weaker, and far less culpable, South.  In this context, transparency means lost flexibility, and thus risk.  Nor is this a paranoid view of the situation.  The recent positions of the US – which seems to have taken its domestic travails as license for bluster and aggressiveness – have done much to make it credible, and to exacerbate distrust.

Finance proves the point.  It’s now clear that the finance pledge made in the Copenhagen Accord – “to provide new and additional resources, including forestry and investments through international institutions, approaching USD 30 billion for the period 2010 – 2012 with balanced allocation between adaptation and mitigation” – is not going to be met anytime soon.  There are many key words in this passage, but attend for the moment to “new and additional,” because many of the pledges that have thus far been tendered are, in the scrupulous words of the World Resource Institute, “restated or renamed commitments already made in the past.” Most, moreover, are intended for mitigation projects, with a mere USD 3 billion earmarked for adaptation.  And they are slated to be delivered, if indeed they are, though bilateral channels and multilateral agencies (like the World Bank) which the North controls, in ways that are anything but transparent and straightforward.

In the longer term, the forecast is more of the same.  This, at least, is the easiest conclusion to draw from the just-released final report of the Secretary General’s High-level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing, which explores options for raising $100 billion annually, starting in 2020.  Here, too, is a story that fails to inspire confidence.  For one thing, the $100 billion figure is entirely arbitrary, with absolutely no relationship to the likely costs of a rapid global climate transition.  For another, the most promising ideas for innovative global finance have been stonewalled by northern functionaries who, with deadly consistency, remain enthralled to the habits of neoliberalism.  Which is to say that realism-as-usual is still the order of the day, and that, despite the severity of the climate crisis, the wealthy world continues to proceed by way of limited funding options in which small offers of public finance are padded out with loans, repurposed and non-additional assistance that was already in the “aid” pipeline, and of course a great deal of private (profit seeking) money.

Will the South eventually accept such an offer?  Who’s to say?  But here’s a question: should it?  Should it if by so doing it accepts a future in which the high-minded aspirations that launched the climate talks back in 1992, aspirations that echo in the UN Framework Convention’s invocation of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities,” are set aside in the interests of short-term northern realpolitic?  Many people will say that the South has no choice.  But what if the consequence is a muddle of inadequate policies that, while better than nothing, still fall tragically short of both moral and scientific necessity?


Consider finally the Kyoto Protocol, the fate of which remains strangely, and strongly, explosive.  But why?  We could answer glibly, and many do – as if the South’s refusal to accede to bare-knuckled northern bargaining was unambiguously a product of Third-Worldist inflexibility.  Or, perhaps more usefully, we could ask why so many of our dearest comrades – delegates and activists alike – continue to aggressively defend Kyoto, and this despite its manifest, even absurd, inadequacy.

The answer, perhaps, is that the Kyoto Protocol, almost alone on the negotiating table, represents the obligations of the wealthy world.  And that, to many eyes, this trumps even its rude, unscalable, architecture.  Nor is this difficult to understand.  These years now, from Copenhagen on, mark a time of decision, and it’s one we simply can’t afford to get stupidly wrong.  We can’t, in particular, follow America’s Todd Stern, casting aside Kyoto’s blunt recognition of the North / South division with rough talk of an obsolete “Berlin Wall.”  To do so would be to cast aside reality.  It would not be statesmanship, or even realism; it would be abdication.

It’s time to place new bets.  Mine is that, at Cancun, the lines will be starkly drawn.  That the logic of pledge and review will be widely seen as collective suicide.  That the negotiating halls will simmer with better ideas.  And that, despite all, there will be a drive towards compromise and face saving.  Whether it will succeed I do not know.

I have hopes too.  That we’ll manage a recovery in which emissions do not immediately accelerate.  That the finance problem (which could, actually, be solved) will at least be faced, coldly and dead on.  That the rules of a new game will become increasingly discernible, a game of building blocks and momentum in which the obligations of the rich and the responsible can be openly and productively debated.  That we’ll wake soon in a world where calls for extremely rapid global emission reductions are no longer invitations to despair.

It’s still possible.  And by the way, Cancun will not be boring.

– Tom Athanasiou (Nov 16, 2010)

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