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Cancun: Success or Failure?

Much has already been written about the outcome of the global climate change negotiations that concluded on Friday, with undoubtedly much more to come over coming months as the entrails of the negotiations are dissected.

Some are claiming the negotiations to have been successful, others express disappointment.

So what does the progress made look like?

Actually, it looks surprisingly like the Copenhagen Accord with the recognition of the desirability of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees, the agreement by developing countries to submit to international consultation and analysis to verify their emission reduction targets, the fast-start finance approaching $US30 billion up to 2012 and the longer-term finance of $US100 billion a year by 2020, the establishment of a Green Climate Fund, and a Technology Mechanism.

The problem with the Copenhagen Accord was that it had no legal effect. The agreement it set out needed to be incorporated into the UN decision-making framework in order to have any binding effect.

So the Copenhagen Accord needed to be anchored into the UN framework – and that is what has been achieved at Cancun. This was no mean feat and must in itself be seen as a measure of success.

As recently as October, developing countries – even those who had associated themselves with it - were backing away from the Copenhagen Accord. Now their emission reduction pledges are expected to be referenced in the Cancun texts.

In bringing the detail of the Copenhagen Accord into the UN decision-making framework, the basis is now set for the shift to a truly global agreement in which all countries, developed and developing, have a role to play in reducing emissions, according to their capability.

A global agreement was one of the conditions the New Zealand Government placed on its 2020 target, and is critical to avoid entrenching the competitiveness concerns that have arisen from New Zealand moving ahead of many of our trade competitors in implementing an emissions trading scheme.

It means that there is unlikely to be a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol - while there are references to a second commitment period in the decisions, no actual agreement was forthcoming - unless the US and China are appropriately accounted for.

Those who have followed and understood the dynamic of these negotiations use words like ‘pathway’ and ‘roadmap’ - failure is not a word they will use.

And essentially the negotiations were not a failure. Negotiators took a workman-like approach to delivering on those issues where an outcome was possible, temporarily putting aside the bigger issues associated with the legal form of the next global agreement.

This ensured that expectations were realistic, and the notion of a single big-bang agreement receded, enabling incremental progress to be made.

No-one wanted the near-disaster that occurred at Copenhagen.

The work that was essential for the overall agreements achieved at Cancun meant that some of New Zealand’s key interests were acknowledged but not greatly advanced.

No explicit decision was taken to continue the Clean Development Mechanism, but the presumption is that it will continue as it is critical to meet future demand for carbon units. Anchoring the Copenhagen Accord pledges will drive this demand.

The need for additional flexible market mechanisms were also recognised, but as with agriculture and forestry, more work is required before agreement can be reached.

Progress on these issues are also caveats for any future New Zealand emission reduction targets.

But a clearer overall framework is emerging within which these and other future decisions will be set.

John Carnegie


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