Conflicted over Consensus and Climate Change in Cancún

Written by: Thea Whitman

The excitement in the room where the final climate negotiations took place late into the night was palpable, but it was hard to let myself be fully swept away by it all.

The deal seemed to come out of nowhere after a week of negotiations that seemed to be plodding, and verging on regressing, particularly with Japan’s open rejection of the Kyoto Protocol’s continuation at the outset of the conference. However, it didn’t come out of nowhere the same way the Copenhagen Accord did one year ago – in closed backroom negotiations of a select group of parties.  This year, it was a heroic effort of diplomacy and openness on behalf of the Mexican hosts and almost all negotiating parties that produced the “Cancún Agreements“.

The one country that stood apart from this process and refused to put on the party hat was Bolivia, raining on the negotiations’ parade each step of the way Friday night, as negotiations proceeded through the end-game protocols and processes – or at least that’s what the vibe in the room clearly indicated. When the Bolivian negotiator, after rhyming off a long list of complaints with the agreement under the Kyoto Protocol track, paused at, “and next, technology transfer,” to take a sip of water, one actually heard a knowing “here we go again” groan come from the audience, and there was a similar reaction each time the Bolivian negotiator spoke that night. To be honest, I found it kind of disrespectful, and confusing. Confusing, because Bolivia was standing up and saying things that, for the most part, we stand for: the need to limit warming to 1.5°C, calling developed countries out on the ~9Gt gap in their ambition under the Copenhagen Accord and its stated goal of limiting warming to below 2°C, and the need to protect indigenous peoples’ rights while we protect forests. What was it about this night that provoked this response, when, it seemed to me, that any other night, these statements would be getting enthusiastic applause? Indeed, when Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales spoke during the high-level segment (for over 25 minutes, rather than the recommended 3, by the way), he was very well-received by the crowd. I’m struggling myself to find the answers, and to decide how I feel about the Cancún Agreements.

I’ve heard a few arguments, and it’s hard to make sense of them without a stronger understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes. From one angle, Bolivia fiercely stands by its principles, now strongly tied to the Cochabamba declaration, and simply will not accept an agreement that violates them. From another, Bolivia is pushing for the emergence of the ALBA bloc of countries as a new political power, and is using the international forum of the UNFCCC as a platform on which to do it. The fact that of the countries Bolivia is claiming to protect – the least developed countries, the small island developing states – not one rejected the agreements, and openly said as much during the plenary, makes it more complicated. The confirmation of the arm-twisting that went on behind the scenes of last year’s apparent widespread agreement on the Copenhagen Accord makes this agreement still harder to assess (although the process was definitely more open this year).

What was the motivating factor inducing Bolivia to stand up against the rest of the world at the climate change negotiations? I can’t answer that, but I can definitely tell you it felt pretty weird to have the decisions “gavelled through,” even as Bolivia openly declared there was no consensus, to roaring, triumphant applause. Technically, the parties to the UNFCCC have never agreed to the official decision-making process they will follow, with an ill-defined “consensus” approach having been the norm so far. This, the US negotiator helpfully clarified Friday night, has really been something more like “general agreement” to date, and a number of countries emphasized that “consensus” doesn’t mean giving one party a veto vote. What does this decision mean for the UNFCCC process going forward, though? How many countries does it take to break consensus? Or, perhaps, how powerful does one country have to be to break consensus on its own? I think the ramifications of this weekend’s decisions are going to be significant for the UN process, and, thus, have mixed feelings about the outcome.

What is the outcome of the Cancún Agreements? They are far from being sufficient in and of themselves, but there are many important steps made toward progress. For those who wanted the Kyoto Protocol to live to see another day, and for all the Canadians at home who called and pressured our government to stand aside and keep the Kyoto Protocol alive – success. But for those who wanted an agreement where developed countries take on strong mitigation targets and commit to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol or even a goal for global emissions by 2050 – disappointment. For those who wanted deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) in developing countries addressed – success. But for those who wanted to see explicit protection of indigenous peoples’ rights or market mechanisms excluded from REDD+ mechanisms and those who hoped for some important improvements to forest carbon accounting standards in developed countries – disappointment. For those who wanted to see the Green Climate Fund activated with strong board and Transitional Committee representation from developing countries – success. But for those who wanted the sources of this finance established – disappointment.

Most importantly, though, for those who wanted to sustain the UN process as the pre-eminent forum for negotiating climate change, the Cancún Agreements were a success, but it remains to be seen at what expense this success was achieved. If Bolivia had succeeded in taking down the process, blocking any agreement coming out of Cancún, which is what would have happened had they had their way in the plenary Friday night, it is certain that the UN process would have taken a very hard hit – maybe even a fatal one. As the sole process that is explicitly inclusive of almost all countries in the world, including those which are going to be hit the hardest by climate change, and those least responsible for causing it, it is so important that the UNFCCC be sustained and legitimized. But if in sustaining it, we have established a precedent under which those very voices can be officially marginalized or dismissed, have we destroyed what we sought to save? It is impossible for me to say at this point – as Maggie said, only time will tell.

I can tell you that I feel way less hopeless, crushed, and burnt-out than I did last year after Copenhagen. The feeling is perhaps more similar to how I felt after Poznan, another designated “stepping stone” conference. But have we just set ourselves up for a Copenhagen repeat one or two years from now, though? I desperately hope not, because we simply cannot afford another Copenhagen.



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