After 10 hours of flying from the tropical heat to my cold northern home, I’m still trying to wrap my head around what happened in Cancun. For me this first direct experience with the UN process has been eye opening, frustrating, empowering, exhausting, and everything in between. And certainly the last 24 hours of the conference were a roller coaster of emotion.
As I sat in the plenary hall on Friday watching the final hours of the conference play out, I could feel the buzz of hope in the room, and the frustration, and sometimes mirth, about Bolivia’s unending protests through each plenary and working group session.
For civil society here, it’s been hard to follow exactly where the negotiations were going over the last two weeks, because so many of the sessions were only open to the Parties. And for me, even more so, given that I was only granted accreditation for the second week, and thus was significantly more isolated from the process and the NGO lobby efforts until last Monday. And so when texts were finally released Friday morning after considerable work and negotiation through a transparent and inclusive process directed by the COP’s President, Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, we were all pleasantly surprised to see elements in the text – such as language around 25-40% emissions reductions from 1990 levels by 2020, and limiting temperature rise to 1.5 C – that had been off the table since the creation of the Copenhagen Accord. Not that any of it was legally binding, but with such low expectations coming into the conference, nobody was expecting targets to be set or anything legally binding to come out of COP16.
In the plenary, country after country got up to say how happy they were with the process over the course of the COP, and share their deep respect for Espinosa; that they’d compromised a lot for the sake of the success of the UN process, but were very happy with the outcome; that they had achieved something important here in Cancun, but that there was still so much to do.
After Morales’ address to the plenary on Thursday, it was very clear that Bolivia was not satisfied with the lack of political will to accept elements from the Cochabamba Agreement; to do what was necessary to prevent further victims of climate change. He expressed that climate change was only one of the crises of capitalism, among the financial crisis, the food crisis and the energy crisis, and that market based solutions to climate change, such as REDD+, were only perpetuating the problem. And so on Friday night, Bolivia interjected at every opportunity: to complain of the absence of Kyoto second commitment period targets in the text – how can we know that we will in fact prevent the world from warming more than 2 or even 4 C when there aren’t even targets in the text?; about insufficient adaptation funding and the indication that this would probably be delivered through the World Bank; about technology transfer; about intellectual property rights; and ultimately about how the Cancun Agreement was not addressing or pledging enough to prevent creating more victims of climate change around the world. And while these are all points I wholeheartedly agree with, it felt strange in that closing plenary to watch Bolivia trying to block the progress that had been made, the reconciliation of countries and their renewed faith in the process, the excitement of the consensus that had been reached through days and days of negotiations, because the deal on the table wasn’t enough. That they wouldn’t concede.
But even those they tried to ally themselves with, such as the African Nations and the small island states, spoke up to say that while they respected and agreed with Bolivia, they still wanted to see the agreement go ahead, that they were supportive of the Cancun Agreement.
And then Espinosa gaveled through the decisions, noting Bolivia’s concerns, but passing the agreements through the working groups nonetheless. And we sat on the edge of our seats waiting to see if Bolivia would block in the CMP and COP where consensus was required, only to see Espinosa gavel through those as well. Despite their objections (“There is NO concensus”), she continued on, with support from the other nations. We were puzzled as she appeared to be redefining consensus (“The rule of consensus doesn’t mean unanimity, and even less the possiblity that a delegation can expect to impose a right of veto on the will that has been reached by so much work”). And in the end, the relief and jubilation at the agreement reached was palpable and electric.
But is this in fact a success of the process? Have they worked so hard at compromise only to lose sight of the dire and timely need for decisive and large-scale action? Should we be happy with this progress even if it falls dangerously short of what we need? And should we be happy that a nation that was speaking up for the victims of climate change, and demanding more from the process, was silenced? I don’t know.
Because even though the UNFCCC process feels flawed, it’s the best we have. So should we settle for the baby steps made through this process at the expense of not doing enough soon enough? Or should we demand more at the expense of derailing the process? Community solutions are the real solutions to climate change, but I can’t let go of my belief in the importance of agreement and shared vision at this international level.
So I’m leaving Cancun confused.
But I am also leaving Cancun hopeful.
Hopeful that good progress will be made over the next year leading up to COP17 in Durban so that many of the shortcomings of the Cancun Agreement will be overcome, and that the voices of the victims, of the people, of the communities will be heard. Hopeful that we will see a change in government in Canada that will finally result in timely and appropriate domestic action on climate change. And hopeful that I will succeed in sharing these experiences and the urgency of the climate crisis in my community in order to build a better future.