From Cancún to Durban: Changing the Paradigm?

Remarks by Elliot Diringer

International Dialogue: “Implementing Cancún Agreements”

Government of Mexico, Mexico City – March 22, 2011

Thank you, Minister Espinsoa, for the kind introduction, for the invitation to participate in today’s dialogue, and for the opportunity to share some thoughts this afternoon on behalf of the Pew Center.

I’d like to begin by taking a few moments to pay tribute to our host, the Mexican government, and to the extraordinary leadership Mexico has provided, and continues to provide, on the issue of climate change. Please believe me – I am not simply being polite. I am quite sincere in offering these words of thanks.

It has been my pleasure and privilege to work for many years with dedicated public servants like Fernando Tudela, who has labored tirelessly to advance this cause here at home and abroad; and, more recently, with relative newcomers like Ambassador de Alba, whose multilateral spirit and skill contributed in no small measure to the recent success in Cancún.

Of course these soldiers on the front lines would not have such success without the support and leadership of those at the top. Minister Espinsosa, I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to witness the clarity, composure and confidence with which you presided over the Cancún conference. And I must of course recognize the leadership of President Calderon, who has devoted the kind of personal and sustained attention to this issue that one hopes all world leaders will in time.

But what is especially gratifying to me is that Mexico’s leadership did not end in Cancún. The fact that we are here today, and the fact that Ministers are gathering here tomorrow, is testament to an enduring commitment to see that the promise and the possibilities of Cancún are indeed fulfilled.

The promise and the possibilities of Cancún – that is what I would like to speak about this afternoon. Over the years, as a journalist, as an official, and for 10 years now with the Pew Center, I’ve had the opportunity to follow and participate in the climate negotiations.

I’ve been there for the lows, and for the highs. And in my estimation, Cancún very definitely ranks among the high points in this long collective struggle.

By many measures – not least the needs of our planet – the outcome in Cancún was a modest one.  It by no means guarantees that we will meet our long-term goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees. Nor does it provide the degree of certainty the business community is looking for to help drive investment in the near term.

But measured against the years of stalemate that preceded it, Cancún was a major step forward. In fact, the Cancún Agreements represent the most tangible progress we’ve been able to achieve within the UN climate talks in nearly a decade. The challenge before us now is to build on Cancún – to keep moving forward – andto avoid the temptation to slip back into the squabbles that had kept us at an impasse for so many years.

This will not be easy. It requires a new way of thinking about the multilateral climate effort – a new mindset, a new paradigm. Cancún may have launched us in this new direction.  But it’s still too early to know. Depending on how we handle the decisions now before us, it may in the end prove just a momentary lapse of sanity in an otherwise dysfunctional process.

Let me explain what I mean by drawing on an analysis we undertook after Copenhagen. Most viewed Copenhagen as a failure because it did not produce a legally binding agreement.  At the Pew Center, we wanted to understand this so-called failure in a broader context; and we wanted to better understand the options for moving forward. We thought that, to do that, it would be instructive to look at the experiences of other multilateral regimes.  How did these regimes come into existence, and more to the point, how did they progress? We looked at other environmental agreements, the trade regime, human rights agreements, and others.

What we saw was that international regimes don’t generally emerge fully formed. No, most grow incrementally over time. They evolve. They expand in scope and in membership. They develop stronger institutions. They move from general, voluntary obligations to specific binding commitments. And all of this takes time.

In the case of climate change, the Framework Convention adopted in Rio in 1992 anticipated this type of incremental, evolutionary process. But soon after its entry into force, parties decided to accelerate the regime’s evolution. They launched a new round in 1995 that led just two years later to the Kyoto Protocol. This represented not an evolution, but a radical step-change, moving in one big leap from a largely voluntary framework to a legally binding system of targets and timetables. For 15 years now, since the start of the Kyoto negotiations, the primary aim of the international negotiations has been to establish, and then to extend, this legally binding regime.

Parties did succeed in establishing a binding regime, despite the withdrawal of the United States. And the Kyoto Protocol is without doubt a major achievement, on many levels. But as we all know, its impact has been limited. And the effort to extend or to expand this legally binding structure has been locked in a perennial stalemate for years. The political conditions simply are not there.

Looking first to the north, to my own country, the United States – I’m happy to get into particulars later if you would like, but for now let me just say this: Without stronger consensus for action at home, the United States cannot commit abroad – and that will take time.

But even apart from the situation in the U.S., the reality is that few if any of the developed countries will take new binding commitments unless China and the other major emerging economies do as well, which they insist they will not.

This is the circular conundrum we’ve been stuck in, literally, for years. And unfortunately, in our preoccupation with binding outcomes, we have largely overlooked other ways to strengthen the multilateral effort short of binding commitments. In effect, the mentality has been binding or nothing.

Given the political conditions – or lack thereof – it was of course entirely predictable that Copenhagen would fail to deliver a binding agreement.  But that does not mean Copenhagen was a failure. The Copenhagen Accord, while only a political agreement, and while not formally adopted by parties, reflected consensus among world leaders on most of the key issues before them. And it produced specific, quantified mitigation pledges from more than 80 countries – the first time, in fact, that such pledges were made by all of the world’s major economies, both developed and developing.

What’s more, Copenhagen helped set the stage for success in Cancún. I saw the issues in Cancun falling into two baskets. The first contained the legal issues – basically, anything at all relating to the question of binding commitments: whether countries would take binding commitments; which countries; when; in what form.  Included here, by implication, was the fate of the Kyoto Protocol. On all of these issues, countries were very far apart, as they have been for years, and there was very little chance of meaningful compromise. Japan was perhaps the most open in its refusal to take a new Kyoto target, but many if not most developed countries were in exactly the same place.

The second basket contained the operational issues – finance; measurement, reporting and verification; adaptation; technology and forestry. These are all things that were addressed to one degree or another in the Copenhagen Accord. What’s important to understand is that progress on these issues does not require any new legal agreement. Each of them can be advanced in tangible ways under the Convention and the Protocol by decisions of the parties. Which is exactly what was achieved in Cancún. The Cancún Agreements are a package of decisions by the parties. And what that package does, in large measure, is to import the essential elements of the Copenhagen Accord into the UN climate system and take initial steps to implement them.

What this represents is incremental progress – evolutionary progress – the kind of progress that had eluded us for years because we were so preoccupied with binding outcomes. So we were able to move forward in Cancún on this second basket – the operational issues. But we were able to do so – and this is an important point – only because parties were willing to put aside their differences on the first basket, the legal issues. For the moment at least, they were willing to move beyond binding or nothing.

Why? To what do we owe this success? I can think of a number of factors. First, I must again cite the leadership of our Mexican hosts. I honestly can’t think of a presidency that has done a better job preparing and managing the negotiations – all through the year, right up until the final moments.

I think a second reason for Cancún’s success was that the two big elephants in the room – the United States and China – were getting along better than they were a year earlier in Copenhagen.

But perhaps the strongest reason for Cancún’s success was the palpable sense among parties that the process itself was at stake. Another major failure would have been crippling if not fatal to the whole enterprise. So parties that before might have insisted on binding or nothing were willing to declare a package of incremental steps a major achievement – if for no other reason than to keep intact the process they desperately hope will deliver much more down the road.

There was, in other words, a much greater sense of realism in Cancún. Unlike the false expectations ginned up for Copenhagen – false expectations that inevitably doomed it to “failure” – everyone was more realistic about what actually could be achieved.

Can we count on this greater sense of realism going forward? We still have both baskets of issues – the operational and the legal. Will parties be prepared to make further progress on the one even if they can’t make progress on the other? That, I believe, is the critical issue for Durban.

The Cancún Agreements present us with an important opportunity – an opportunity for a more evolutionary path forward. What could that mean? It could mean a new, equitably managed climate fund, one that provides direct access for developing countries, and provides the kind of accountability that will help encourage developed countries to actually contribute the sums that are need. It could mean a stronger, more balanced system of transparency, so that all of the major economies are regularly reporting on their efforts, just as they do in the IMF, the World Bank, the Montreal Protocol and many other regimes, and everyone can see how everyone else is doing in fulfilling their pledges.

It could mean at long last a mechanism to deliver effective adaptation assistance to developing countries that are being forced to cope already with new hardships resulting from a problem they did not create. It could mean new mechanisms to help equip tropical countries to protect their forests, and to promote the deployment of low-carbon technologies. On all of these, the Cancún Agreements provide a first step, but only a first step. Completing the work program laid out in the Cancún Agreements is an enormous task, one that could easily occupy all the available negotiating time between now and Durban, and beyond as well.

I see plenty of reasons to invest the effort in this more evolutionary path forward. Let’s imagine for a moment that we fully implement the new elements agreed in Cancún, and that at the same time countries move forward with actions at home to implement their pledges. Where will this path take us? By mobilizing resources and increasing transparency, it will help strengthen action in the near term. It will help build confidence among parties – confidence in themselves, confidence in one another, and confidence in the regime itself.  And in so doing, it will help build a stronger foundation for binding commitments later on down the road.

But what about that second basket of issues – the legal Issues? I want to be clear on this point: I continue to believe that in the long run we will be best served by a fair, effective and binding agreement. That’s not because I believe a binding agreement is any guarantee of a country’s performance – Canada’s open flouting of the Kyoto Protocol is the obvious case in point.

At the end of the day, though, legal obligations do represent a higher level of commitment. On the whole, I believe, they provide countries with stronger confidence that others will do what they’ve promised. And with this greater sense of confidence and reciprocity, countries are more likely to put forward their strongest possible efforts. Which is truly what we need – our strongest possible efforts.

So for me, the question is not the desirability of binding outcomes. The question is what, if anything, countries are prepared to say about them at this stage. The way the issue was finessed in Cancún was essentially to sidestep it. The Cancun Agreements of course extend the perennial Kyoto negotiations, but otherwise they are without prejudice to the “prospects for, or the content of, a legally-binding outcome in the future.”

But sidestepping the issue will not be so easy in Durban. Any hope of avoiding a commitment gap under Kyoto requires agreement in Durban on a second commitment period. I, for one, believe that is no more likely in Durban than it was in Cancún. But some are not yet prepared to abandon that hope – or demand – however remote the odds of it being fulfilled.

So I believe that if we are to have any further progress in Durban on the operational side, the legal issues will again have to be finessed. This time, I think, the answer is to address them directly, even if only generally. Even if parties cannot agree on the form or the timing of a future legal agreement, they should be willing to declare unequivocally that it is in fact their intent to work toward legally binding outcomes. We should be clear that the phase begun in Cancún is not the endpoint. We are not locking ourselves into permanent pledge-and-review.  Rather, it is an evolutionary step toward a fair, effective and binding international framework.

We’ll have a better sense next month in Bangkok whether the realism of Cancún is likely to carry over to Durban. Are parties prepared for a new, more productive phase focused on the nuts and bolts of regime-building? Or will we revert to binding-or-nothing? Are some so attached to Kyoto that they are willing to forego further concrete progress? Or will they be open to a new paradigm? Only when we know the answers to those questions will we know whether the possibilities and the promise of Cancún can be realized.

These, I believe, are the choices before us. Making the right choices will require creativity, compromise and, above all, realism. I’d like to conclude by again thanking our hosts for the opportunity to share these thoughts with you, and by thanking you all for listening.