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Published January 11, 2011, 01:22 PM

Cancun climate conference did its job

TOKYO — When it comes to international climate negotiations, anything that is not a clear-cut failure can be called a success.

TOKYO — When it comes to international climate negotiations, anything that is not a clear-cut failure can be called a success.

That is the best justification for the “Cancun Agreements,” the deal reached after two weeks of multilateral talks held earlier in December in Cancun, Mexico.

While key disputes were not resolved, the agreements sustain hopes that a real pact can be reached in 2011 in the next round of negotiations.

Shared responsibility

Ultimately, however, success depends on all countries recognizing that they are in this together and must each accept the burden of responding to global warning.

Thus far, that political will remains beyond reach.

The Cancun talks followed the collapse in Copenhagen, Demark, in 2009, a disastrous negotiation that foundered over disagreements over the responsibility of developing nations to do more to arrest climate change.

Poorer countries demanded strict adherence to the Kyoto formula, agreed to more than a decade ago, which exempted those states from having to respond to a problem that was not of their making. That was a nonstarter for developed nations, which consider that formula an unfair burden on their economies, difficult to tolerate in the best of times and completely unacceptable in today’s troubled economy.

Producing a new approach

A new approach was needed and Cancun had to produce it. The failure of two consecutive negotiations effectively would have killed multilateral climate talks.

Acknowledging that a real deal still was beyond their grasp, participants effectively lowered expectations to ensure that the meeting was a success.

Perhaps the most honest assessment came from the chief U.N. climate negotiator, Christiana Figueres, who concluded that, “Cancun has done its job. The beacon of hope has been reignited and faith in the multilateral climate change process to deliver results has been restored.”

As a leading climate scientist put it, the agreements reached in Cancun will not save the environment, but they do restore the credibility of the U.N. to get the job done.

Outstanding issues

One big question mark hanging over the debate is the future of the Kyoto Protocol.

Passed in 1997 and set to expire in 2012, that agreement obligates only wealthy nations to cut their carbon emissions — and some of the biggest emitters never ratified the agreement.

As a result, it covers only 27 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and the emission reduction obligations do not include the world’s largest emitters — China and the United States.

The Cancun deal only notes that a new agreement should “ensure that there is no gap between the first (which expires in 2012) and second commitment periods.”

To call that an agreement is another diplomatic fudge, but in today’s atmosphere of lowered expectations, it is enough to be considered a success.