Cooperation in Cancun Creates a Tale of Two International Conferences
I've recently returned from the UN Climate Conference in Cancun and I'm still holding on to some of the good, warm feelings. No, it wasn't the beautiful sandy beaches (didn't see much of those) or the tasty margaritas (ok I had a few). It was the world coming together in a busy conference hall and getting something done.
It was a totally different experience from my last trip to Cancun in 2003. Back then, international trade negotiators descended on the holiday destination for a World Trade Organization summit that came to be known as the "Collapse in Cancun." This time around, negotiators actually reached a productive agreement, breathing new life into global action on climate issues. What made those two global talks so different? Why did one end in a failure that landed on the front pages of newspapers around the world, while the other ended with multiple standing ovations for the Mexican foreign minister, Patricia Espinosa, who chaired the talks?
Of course, context has much to do with it. For international trade negotiations, Cancun 2003 was a critical moment for determining the willingness of developed countries to put aside short-term protectionism and cut their agricultural subsidies that undermine developing country farmers. Two years earlier, in 2001, a round of trade negotiations kicked off with a promise of attention to the needs of poor countries in an attempt to create a new image and agenda for the WTO. But in Cancun, the bloom came off the rose as it became clear that rich countries were not willing to make the changes that poor countries were promised.
Cancun 2010 took place in a much different context, a year after the messy negotiations in Copenhagen, where President Obama and a host of country leaders showed up to try to strike a major climate agreement. That experience left what many referred to as the "ghosts of Copenhagen" hanging in the air when countries gathered in Cancun. But amidst those ghosts, and maybe because of them, countries seemed determined to make progress at Cancun. Not necessarily huge progress—and certainly not agreement on a final outcome—but real progress nonetheless.
A lot of the success had to do with the Mexican government and the high priority they placed on creating a much more inclusive process than had been the case a year earlier. Seasoned diplomats at the helm believed in the value of multilateral engagement and focused on diplomacy—not just policy—as the key to success. And that was ultimately the key difference between Cancun 2003 and Cancun 2010. This year's negotiations tapped a sense of global cooperation on an issue that all understood to be one that everyone's future depends on. While parochial interests often interfered with the talks, they were not the entire conversation.
As a result, the recent outcome in Cancun reflected the desire of the countries gathered there to make common cause, at least for now, on this global challenge. Establishing a new global Climate Fund, agreeing to tackle the needs of poor countries in dealing with climate impacts today and to assist them in their efforts to prevent those impacts in future decades are all the result of the emerging multilateralism of Cancun. And this progress created a lifeline for the overall negotiations.
Indeed, we saw the tremendous benefits when the full range of countries—not just the most powerful or the biggest emitters, but also the small and vulnerable countries who have the greatest stake in addressing climate change—are at the table for these talks.
Sure, the period of goodwill in climate diplomacy may not last long. Most countries did not abandon their basic policy lines, which have often been driven by narrow commercial interests. And not everyone walked away happy, including some with very legitimate grievances about the need for more ambitious action.
Next year will be a trying one as difficult issues around the next commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and challenges about legal obligations have to be addressed squarely, not punted for another year. Indeed, much work remains to be done if we are really going to tackle the tremendous climate challenge we face—especially to ensure adequate funding for developing countries and to cut emissions dramatically.
But for now, we should soak up what we can from the Cancun sun of 2010. Given what's ahead in the New Year, we need it.