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Cancun talks: moving slowly, but in the right direction

Climate talks in Cancun are moving forward very slowly, but in the right direction. That’s in a nutshell what facilitators reported at the informal stock-taking meeting convened by COP16 president Patricia Espinosa. The informal reporting ended at 10 pm and delegates resumed negotiations immediately after. Most negotiators expressed a “qualified optimism” about the possibilities of reaching a good result.

There is a slim chance that a game breaker would suddenly emerge out of these 11 days of intense informal negotiations. But chances are higher that they’ll move a few steps forward in the right direction, although failing to deliver a comprehensive deal.

Conflicting interests permeate all aspects of what is under negotiation in Cancun. The tougher issues can only be solved politically. All the technical groundwork has been done. The options are all on the table. But political decisions are made at home, not by delegates on a two-week multilateral meeting. In other words, an effective deal in Cancun would depend on domestic political decisions that were not made. We will hardly get a substantive accord in Cancun. Is it a failure? Not necessarily. Cancun has already given good results.

First we should look at what did Copenhagen achieve. It represented a paradigm shift for global climate change politics. The major emitters that have been refusing to register emission reduction targets on a multilateral agreement, and to be a part in the global mitigation effort, stopped saying no. The U.S., China, India and Brazil are now full players on this game, although their pledges are voluntary and they are not yet parties to a binding agreement. Politics goes step by step. A major move was made in Copenhagen: from nay to aye. Now, in Cancun, the fact that these pledges do exist, will very likely help to solve the Kyoto Protocol gridlock. Anchoring the pledges on an official text and cross-referencing pledges and Kyoto Protocols targets could provide the building-block to a balance between a second period of commitment of the Protocol and a future binding agreement on the Convention track.

But this shift from negative to positive politics in Copenhagen has also had its setbacks. The Copenhagen Accord wasn’t admitted into the official UN track. Besides, the process was so ineptly conducted by the Danish presidency that it led to a loss of confidence among the parties to the Convention. Enters Cancun. The herculean effort made by the Mexican presidency to restore confidence through transparency and a carefully managed inclusive process of consultation has created a very cooperative climate. It may not lead to an agreement, but 11 days of intense conversation with everyone reaching out to everybody else is a gain in itself. Venezuela’s chief climate change negotiator Claudia Salerno said that she and all other negotiators were “valuing the negotiating process in itself”. I’ve heard from a great many delegates that confidence among parties has been restored and is stronger than ever. All are fully engaged in a very positive climate.
There is understanding, although there is no agreement. That is to say parties are, perhaps for the first time, striving to understand each other’s positions. It is a big step forward, even though not always sufficient for countries with disparate interests and opposing views to reach an agreement.

There is consensus that a weak compromise would be a bad result. If a strong agreement is still out of reach, the best result possible would be to take full advantage of this climate of cooperation and understanding. Progress is still possible in several important issues. We are actually laying down the foundations of true global climate change politics, one that requires the engagement of all. Global climate politics precedes global climate policies.

The process in itself is an important driver of domestic changes that will allow the conditions for more ambitious policies and multilateral commitments to mature. A COP is a forum where key issues necessary to design effective domestic and global climate change policy can be professionally, technically and politically discussed and negotiated. The fact that all countries are engaged on a common endeavor to deal with these complex issues, helps them to develop a stronger view on elements of their own domestic climate change policies. Dialogue and exposure increase awareness and knowledge about the possibilities and advantages of tackling climate change and moving towards a low-carbon society. Entering into conflict resolution situations is an important element of the process of global confidence-building. These talks have already, over the years, persuaded many countries through cross-pressure and cross-fertilization to advance on domestic climate change policies. The COP provides an institutional setting that helps countries to better understand what are the stakes, the costs and benefits of action and inaction and becomes a strong driver for domestic change.

Cancun has already delivered a lot. Whether it will also lead to progress also on global climate change policy we will see in the next few hours.