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Opinion: Cancun summit hints at future institutional architecture

The Cancun climate deal put an end to the defeatism of large UN summits and shows they are the fairest way to decide on global warming issues. But smaller meetings could help summits move faster, writes Fariborz Zelli.

Negotiators at the Cancun summit

Talks at big summits are important, as are smaller meetings

It could have been worse at the global climate policy building site. The Cancun summit closed at the weekend, having made considerable advances. Although, like the Copenhagen summit before it, Cancun failed to give birth to a binding treaty, the negotiators were able to agree on a number of aspects and adopt a large package of decisions.

They include a new attempt to extend or even to find a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in two years. As part of this negotiating timetable each industrialized country will submit a strategy for its low-carbon development. Moreover, the financial promises made in Copenhagen were finally carved in stone.

By 2012 the developing countries will first receive $30 billion (23 billion euros) to support their climate efforts. By 2020 as much as $100 billion is to be mobilized each year. To this end, the industrialized and developing countries intend to spend the next few months negotiating on a sizeable climate fund with a fair distribution of votes.

The delegates also set up a mechanism for disseminating climate-friendly technologies and a new framework program for planning and implementing adaptation to climate change. Some important conceptual and methodological compromises were also reached on reducing emissions from deforestation and capacity-building in developing countries.

Realistic negotiations

People standing around candles set up to look like a map of the Earth

Summits can't avoid the good for the perfect, some observers said

The surprisingly long list of results is the outcome of a new-found objectivity in the climate talks. The lesson learnt from the failure of the Copenhagen summit in December 2009 has given rise to a more realistic negotiating culture that turns the procedure hitherto applied on its head. In 1997 a highly abstract treaty was painfully agreed in Kyoto and then improved in years of laborious haggling over the details. In Cancun exactly the opposite happened: concrete decisions were given precedence, the "grand design" left for another day. Progress was made by the building-block system: Where agreements could be reached, they were reached. Little time was spent waiting for compromises on more contentious issues. Again, little progress was made in the main debate towards imposing a target for the reduction of their greenhouse gas emissions on all the industrialized countries, but at least that ponderous and morally charged debate no longer stood in the way of other decisions.

So much unfinished business is unlikely to spark unbridled euphoria. Given the urgency of the problem of global warming, a gradual climate policy is still not enough. Yet, compared to the obituaries of recent months, the UN climate negotiations this time proved to be surprisingly robust and resolute. Quite a few observers had previously declared the overblown and overtaxed climate summit to be part of the problem. As a practicable alternative they extolled smaller, multilateral arenas, together with a stronger focus on national climate strategies. Such arenas include the G20 summit, the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate initiated by Washington and the growing number of technology partnerships.

But would such a mix of multilateral and national approaches, in other words an institutional patchwork outside the confines of the UN negotiations, really be more effective? A large number of external fora, with their smaller members and clearer agendas, are undoubtedly more manageable than a climate summit with a packed agenda and, currently, 194 contracting parties. In the smaller circle of the G20 or the G8+5 talks it has indeed been possible for some important initiatives on climate policy to be taken. Last year, for example, there was the joint declaration to limit average global warming to 2 degree Celsius compared with pre-industrial levels. Such arenas also provide continuing opportunities for the greater involvement of laggards, especially the United States, which has never ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

Small voices stay unheard

A conference participant checks a mailbox at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun

Small states are often only represented at the big climate summits

The possible disadvantages are, of course, no less significant. First, industrialized and emerging countries are on their own in these smaller fora. Least developed countries and small island states, both particularly hard hit by global warming, are not invited. Their interests, and especially support for their efforts to adapt to climate change, are barely considered in these arenas. Second, adjacent, but unconnected, national greenhouse gas targets are no substitute for a common guideline and coordinated action. Even if all the assurances given so far for 2020 are added together, the industrialized countries will still exceed the level set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by a massive 9 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide.

What form, then, should the future international climate architecture take? And how are the latest summit results to be interpreted in this respect? The legacy of Copenhagen was an end of utopia: global negotiations are no surprise packet from which an all-embracing treaty to rescue the climate can be conjured. And they have long since ceased to be the only arena in which international climate policy is made. The legacy of Cancun should be an end to defeatism: the UN climate summits are not a waste of time. As they are the fairest and most important decision-making fora for combating global warming, there is no substitute for them.

People laying on the beach spelling out the world hope

There is hope for the environment, but also a lot of work to be done

Must move beyond piecemeal approach

However, escaping the spiral of summit hysteria on the one hand and summit skepticism on the other is not a solution in itself. What will be needed at the next rounds of negotiations is a vision that looks well beyond the current piecemeal approach and the coexistence of various fora. In short, the aim must be balance and a division of labor. The global negotiations should continue to set the framework for international climate policy in the future - and so serve as the point of reference and source of legitimacy for other arenas and national policies. This extends to all aspects which require a fair and universal basis of understandings, standards and conditions, such as global targets for greenhouse gas emissions, joint guidelines for financing instruments and an overarching compliance mechanism.

At the same time, many technical points and details can be taken up more quickly and more competently in smaller fora. The existing partnerships for the dissemination of technologies should be joined by regional agreements on adaptation to the consequences of climate change. The various arenas must, of course, be coordinated more closely with the UN process. Cooperation agreements with the Climate Secretariat would be one way of optimizing the distribution of tasks and also ensuring commitment to common principles. Finally, the coordination of different climate policies might be achieved at national level, on the spot in other words, rather than burdening the global negotiations with the task.

The Cancun summit has supplied some important building blocks for this improved division of labor among the various institutions - no more but no less, either. The aim must now be to join the parts together so that climate policy does not remain a permanent building site.

Author: Dr. Fariborz Zelli, Researcher at Department "Environmental Policy and Management of Natural Resources“, German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)

Editor: Sean Sinico

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