The UN climate talks that wrapped up over the weekend in Cancun went a long way towards healing the wounds from last year's disappointing Copenhagen negotiations.
In some ways, the Cancun talks became Copenhagen's mirror image, and not just because of the contrast between the sparkling waves and sunshine of Cancun and the wintry Danish capital.
The Copenhagen talks were characterized by high expectations that went unmet, and by mistrust and suspicion between countries. Partly as a result of the failure of the 2009 talks, the expectations for Cancun were much lower.
Mexico's leaders insisted on transparency throughout the two-week conference, and that played a key role in rebuilding trust between the participants. Countries paid tribute to Mexico's leadership with a prolonged standing ovation for Patricia Espinosa, Mexico's minister of foreign affairs, when she opened the plenary session on Friday evening.
Although the result is very far from perfect, the Cancun talks took real steps forward — and along the way, showed that the inclusive UN process for climate negotiations can work, despite the vast differences between the countries that took part.
Cancun needed to deliver building blocks to enable adoption of a new global climate treaty at the end of next year, and the two main texts that countries agreed to here contain some of those key elements. But the hardest work is still ahead, since the compromise that countries reached was achieved partly by deferring some tough issues to 2011.
Progress and unanswered questions
The conference adopted a decision to establish a Green Climate Fund, which will receive a "significant" share of the funding that developed countries will provide to poorer countries to help them adapt to climate impacts. As they had done in Copenhagen, developed countries agreed in Cancun to mobilize US$100 billion a year by 2020 "to address the needs of developing countries" in tackling climate change.
Countries also agreed to develop stronger approaches to measuring and reporting on their efforts to reduce emissions. The emission reduction targets and commitments that countries made after the Copenhagen talks will now be listed, and elaborated, under formal UN decisions. (This was not the case with the Copenhagen Accord, because a number of countries rejected it.) Importantly, the text agreed to in Cancun also "urges" developed countries to "increase the ambition" of their targets in order to bring them into line with the findings of climate scientists.
One of the biggest question marks still hanging over the UN negotiations after Cancun is the fate of the Kyoto Protocol. The first phase of this treaty ends in 2012, and most countries want to see a second phase begin after that, to ensure that industrialized countries continue to face binding emission reduction commitments (developing countries' emission reduction efforts would be covered by a parallel process outside of Kyoto). But a handful of industrialized countries don't want to see Kyoto continue. The compromise text that countries adopted on Kyoto pushes the question into the future, stating only that the negotiations will aim to wrap up "as early as possible."
Environment Minister John Baird made just one statement to the high-level portion of the meeting, and it offered no new commitments. Despite this relatively low-key role, Canada was again identified as a laggard among its peer countries. The UN's top climate official, Christiana Figueres, named Canada as one of the three or four countries unwilling to agree to a second phase of the Kyoto Protocol in the first week of the conference. Canada went on to win six of the "Fossil of the Day" prizes that environmentalists give to the countries deemed least constructive at the talks — a total high enough to earn Canada the title of 2010's "Colossal Fossil."
If Stephen Harper's government wants to do better next time around, the formula is simple: stronger climate policies at home would give Canada the credibility needed for success on the world stage. As long as the government continues to delay effective actions to cut Canada's emissions, the annual international critiques are likely to continue.