The time for tough choices in Cancun

Blog - Dec. 7, 2010 - By Clare Demerse

The arrival of political ministers at the UN climate talks in Cancun today marks a turning point in the negotiations.

In theory, negotiators use the first week (and weekend) of a conference like this one to clear the "easy" issues out of the way, agreeing on most of the text and identifying the tough choices in areas where countries hold opposing positions. That opens the way for the politicians to take over and make deals.

A year ago in Copenhagen, the talks were in crisis by this point, with fears of secret negotiations and leaked texts undermining countries' trust in each other. So far, the Cancun talks have gone much more smoothly. The president of this conference, Mexican foreign affairs minister Patricia Espinosa, has won widespread praise for her efforts to be open and transparent.

As a result, Oxfam assessed the mood at the halfway point of the talks as one of "cautious optimism." There is persistent talk of compromises from some key players. And the summary texts produced by the chairs of the negotiating tracks contain many strong elements.

Unfortunately, they also contain a nearly equal number of weak elements. So if ministers make the wrong choices in the days ahead, we could end up with a poor outcome, or even with no agreement at all.

One issue that still needs more attention in the negotiating text is how to increase the level of ambition of countries' emission pledges. (The most recent projections from the Climate Action Tracker show the world on track for over 3 C of global warming — far above the 2 C limit that many countries recognized last year in Copenhagen, and even farther from the 1.5 C goal that over 100 countries support.) In Cancun, countries should recognize the significant gap between their environmental goals and the pledges they've made to meet it, and then launch a process to close that gap.

As we explained in a Cancun backgrounder last month, observers of the UN climate talks came to Cancun with no expectations of agreeing to a full global climate deal  here. Instead, Cancun has the task of laying the groundwork for a binding deal a year later, at the UN climate conference to be held in Durban, South Africa in December 2011.

Although we won't get everything we need in Cancun to tackle climate change, reaching agreement on some core elements — like creating a new global climate fund and agreeing on transparency for emission reduction efforts — would still represent an important stepping stone that countries can build on over the next year.

Canada's role in the days ahead

Christina Figueres, Executive Secretary for the UNFCC, speaks at a news conference in Cancun. Photo: Courtesy began this conference with a sweep of the "Fossil of the Day" awards on opening day (these satirical "prizes" go to the country that does the most to obstruct negotiations). And Canada closed the week in a similar style, taking another Fossil "prize" after the Executive Secretary in charge of the UN's climate convention, Christiana Figueres, named Canada as one of a handful of countries opposed to taking on new commitments under the Kyoto Protocol here in Cancun.

Kyoto isn't perfect, but it's the only binding international instrument we have to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. In Canada, it has become accepted that the government won't meet its 2008-2012 Kyoto target, so it's easy to forget how important Kyoto is elsewhere in the world. Canada is the only country to have walked away from its Kyoto target, and developing countries see the continuation of Kyoto as essential. (However, Kyoto is just one of the negotiating tracks here in Cancun; the other negotiating track is looking at emission reduction actions from developing countries and from the United States.) A compromise on the Kyoto Protocol is vital to getting a success here in Cancun, and that's why many countries, including those in the EU, stated their clear support for the continuation of Kyoto before these talks got started.

If Canada, Japan and Russia won't compromise, their stance could derail these talks. All three need to rapidly reconsider their opposition to the world's only legally binding approach to cutting greenhouse gas pollution.

Environment Minister John Baird speaks with Radio-Canada about Canada's participation in the Cancun climate talks. Click to watch video. Minister Baird arrives today to lead Canada's delegation. Two of his provincial counterparts, Alberta's Rob Renner and Quebec's Jean Charest, are already in Cancun. Their presence could produce some interesting exchanges, since Minister Baird recently critiqued provinces like Quebec and British Columbia for making promises but not taking action on climate change.

From a government that yesterday placed 54th of 57 countries for its climate track record, that's a very bold statement — even more so from the author of a climate plan that never went into effect.

Minister Baird surely realizes that pointing fingers won't solve Canada's climate problems. Only real action and meaningful commitments can do that, and that's what we'll be looking to Canada for in the critical final few days of climate talks in Cancun.

Clare Demerse
Clare Demerse

Clare Demerse was the director of federal policy at the Pembina Institute until 2014.


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