Monday, December 27, 2010

"A Change of Climate in Cancun:" Adjunct Professor Cecilia Dalupan Reflects on This Month's UN Climate Change Meetings in Mexico

What a difference a year makes. Leading up to the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen in December of 2009, expectations had been enormously high. The goals were tremendously challenging - international binding agreements on a post-2012 climate framework, including controversial issues such as the fate of the Kyoto Protocol and whether the U.S. and developing countries like China would agree to carbon emission reduction commitments. Those meetings were marked by a number of large protests and covered by intense media scrutiny as the biggest political names arrived and over 30,000 delegates from governments, NGOs, business, and other sectors attempted to complete negotiations in a conference complex built to hold 15,000 people.

The atmosphere at the COP 15 negotiations and some of the language used in meetings there struck me as negative and unproductive, sometimes downright toxic. In the end, negotiations in Copenhagen were not completed as originally designed under the action plan decided by the parties two years before in Indonesia (the Bali Action Plan or BAP), and the limited agreements made were to continue the work and to “note” the voluntary Copenhagen Accord put forward by a number of delegations.

In contrast, expectations for the 16th COP in Cancun talks were manageable, even low, and media attention seemed scant especially by comparison with Copenhagen. This was particularly true for the United States where domestic issues on the legislative agenda dominated the news. It turns out that a sober and reasonable level of media coverage may actually be more productive, as the 24-hour news cycle which thrives on sound bites and hyperbole often can not reflect the sensitivities and complexities of multilateral negotiating processes, much less the difficult and often very technical substance of negotiations.

When I arrived for the second week of COP 16 in Cancun in early December, the differences I immediately noted were obvious but, as it turns out, not superficial – sunny and much more pleasant climate (pun intended) and improved logistical arrangements. Noting the even more obvious heavily armed security forces all over the place as I left the airport, I arrived after what seemed like just a few minutes at Cancunmesse, the first conference center which housed among others, registration, NGOs, media and many party (country/delegation) offices. I recalled, in contrast, the bitter cold and long lines at the massive complex at COP 15 in Copenhagen.

From Cancunmesse, all delegates and accredited representatives had to take shuttle busses to the Moon Palace where negotiating meetings were held. While both venues were situated along the Hotel Zone, they were several kilometers apart. While I heard some complaints about this lay-out, it was probably more manageable for security reasons and it did avoid the over-crowding that often characterized COP 15 and contributed to the already high level of stress there.

The COP 16 organizers apparently took some logistical notes from COP 15 and the results were impressive. I would soon conclude that that this may have been the case not just with respect to logistics, but also to the negotiating process itself. As is typical with most COPs, there were multiple meetings that took place almost every hour of the day dealing with the many different parts of the puzzle that make up the ongoing negotiations towards new global agreements on climate change.

The distinct and increasingly complex parts of the puzzle fall under two main negotiating tracks: the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA) and the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP). These two parallel but inter-connected tracks were decided at COP 13 in Bali. Under these working groups were a multitude of negotiations on many different sections.

I noted a generally positive and at times even upbeat tone of negotiations. Bouncing back from the disappointments at Copenhagen, there also seemed to be a real desire to move forward with clear accomplishments, however modest, to set the stage for other difficult issues that will hopefully be addressed and agreed upon in South Africa in late 2011. The host Mexican delegation, led by their Foreign Secretary and President of COP 16, Patricia Espinosa (picture to the left), constantly emphasized transparency in negotiations and recognized the importance of avoiding even the perception that closed-door meetings were being held with select parties or that alternative texts were being developed outside of the main negotiating sessions.

These negotiations, as with other UN processes, seem to have a language all their own consisting of acronyms, too many and sometimes too long (although it has been difficult to avoid some that I’ve already used here such as COP, AWG-LCA, AWG-KP, BAP etc). I also noted more than ever at these meetings the (over)use of certain catch phrases, for example, “form follows function” (or substance) in the meetings that I followed on the legal form of the outcome of negotiations.

I believe that the two assertions often heard in the different sessions, while used at times to mind-numbing, mantra-like proportions, ultimately and actually ended up characterizing – and saving - the negotiations. These were the terms, “party-driven process” and “let’s not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.”

At the end of the day, it appeared to me that the overriding sentiment of more than 190 delegations was that the agreements made in Cancun reflected the consensus of the parties, that parties believed that their work drove the process and the outcome. To my knowledge, there were no controversial closed-door meetings or parallel texts and the consensus seemed to be that the Mexican delegation, in its leadership role, went to great lengths to undertake consultations in a transparent manner. Common ground was reached on a number of issues on which compromises were made, and equally recognized was the need to continue working on unresolved issues such as mitigation commitments. The substantive agreements and outcomes of these meetings are now incorporated in official instruments, also known as the Cancun Package, all of which are posted on the UNFCCC website (

The final day of negotiations that began on December 10 and ended the following day reflected these substantive agreements, but probably more importantly, the progress made on process. President Espinosa - greeted with a standing ovation at the plenary - announced that consultations had been taking place and new consolidated texts had been developed which reflected on-going negotiations, emphasizing that these were not “Mexican texts” (inevitably calling to mind the “Danish text” that was circulated at Copenhagen).

Parties were given a few hours to study these texts and when the plenary session resumed after 9:00 pm, many parties took the floor in general support of adopting the texts with their positions marked by words such as inclusiveness, trust, transparency, and flexibility. And yes, “let’s not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.” Delegations, including China and the United States, concurred with adoption and were met with applause, sometimes cheers. Bolivia, however, maintained its position against the texts citing, among others, the lack of clear agreement on the Kyoto Protocol and mitigation targets. The general plenary adjourned, followed by the AWG-LCA and AWG-KP plenary sessions which commenced after midnight.

At about 3:00 am, the general plenary reconvened and adopted decisions on both the outcome of the work of both negotiating tracks despite the lone resistance of Bolivia. President Felipe Calderon (picture to the left) of Mexico later addressed the plenary, citing among others the confidence regained in the UN process, and he too was met with a standing ovation.

While the COP decisions in Cancun are not a global treaty, they are legal agreements adopted as official UNFCCC decisions, unlike the Copenhagen Accord. A number of the Accord’s provisions - such as emission reduction pledges and a $100 billion per annum Green Climate Fund for mitigation and adaptation programs in developing countries – are now formal agreements under the UN process.

A key message and outcome from Cancun was renewed confidence in multilateralism, however guarded or tenuous. The decisions adopted there moved the negotiating process forward and parties have reason to be cautiously hopeful that broader international agreement might be possible.

There was a moment during the plenary when a delegate who was seated somewhere up front stood up and turned around to walk to the back of the very large conference room. The camera was focused on the podium, and the delegate walked front and center of the camera’s view, prominent on the three massive screens up front. As the delegate walked and realized this, he quickly raised his hand and waved, causing laughter to break out among the thousands in the hall. That shared humorous moment was a fitting symbol of both our common humanity and capacity for convergence – the most important reminders from Cancun.

Cecilia Dalupan
Adjunct Professor

Editor's note: Cecilia Dalupan has attended meetings of the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change in Bonn, the Hague, Buenos Aires, and most recently at Copenhagen and Cancun where she served as one of the civil society advisors to the Philippine Delegation. She is an Associate Director of the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation. She is also a principal of the Sustainable Development Strategies Group together with Luke Danielson, and both are adjunct professors at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law co-teaching the courses on Sustainable Natural Resources Development.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for an interesting posting. Indeed this round of negotiations in Cancun was marked by the efforts of world leaders to find some sort of consensus and joint response to global environmental issues. The Independent Evaluation Group of the World Bank (IEG) in its recent Op-Ed published by San Francisco Gate made an interesting point about debates over who should pay for mitigation. According to IEG this debate usually takes place between developed and developing countries where developing countries want the former ones to lead the fight since they drove the build-up of greenhouse gases. Developed countries, in their turn, want developing countries take the responsibility for adding to present greenhouse gases and thus, take a leading role in mitigation. IEG points out that it should be a collective action since it benefits everyone and that the public needs to press for such reforms. Here is the link to the article: