Evolutionary Progress in Cancún

This post also appears in National Journal's Cancún Insider blog.

CANCUN – We need a new paradigm – one that recognizes the importance of a binding treaty, but appreciates that getting there will take time. 

For 15 years, the primary thrust of the UNFCCC negotiations has been establishing and extending a legally binding regime: the Kyoto Protocol.  This preoccupation has probably precluded more modest steps within the UNFCCC. Worse, it has produced a perennial state of stalemate.

In a new report we are releasing today, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change calls for a more “evolutionary” approach. Looking at other multilateral regimes, the report shows how most have evolved gradually over time: incremental steps build parties’ confidence in the regime and one another, leading to a greater willingness to take on stronger obligations.

While the climate regime exhibits some of these evolutionary tendencies, the Kyoto Protocol represented a quick and dramatic step-change that, at the moment and for the foreseeable future, parties appear unable to sustain.

The solution is not to abandon the aim of a legally binding treaty.  Indeed, our report argues that parties should very clearly declare that their aim. But for now, they should focus instead on advancing the multilateral climate system through steps that strengthen support for developing countries, and strengthen transparency so countries are better able to assess whether others are fulfilling their pledges.

These incremental steps will promote stronger near-term action, build trust and confidence, and create a sturdier foundation for binding commitments down the road.

In a new policy brief, we outline the steps needed in Cancún to start us down this path. An evolutionary approach is no guarantee that nations will move fast or far enough to avert the worst consequences of climate change. But the alternative is continued deadlock and, quite possibly, the collapse of multilateral climate effort.

Elliot Diringer is Vice President for International Strategies