4 Lessons Learned at the Cancun Climate Talks

Written by Andrew Deutz on . Posted in Learn, The Wonk Room

This is the second of a two-part series reflecting on what the UN climate conference last month in Cancun means going forward into the new year of climate action.

We learned four lessons at the UN international climate negotiations last month in Cancun.

Lesson #1 from Cancun: Climate Change is No Longer an Environmental Issue

The year leading up to the 2009 conference in Copenhagen marked a significant shift in the evolution of climate change politics. Climate change has been on the G8 agenda before, but this was the first time that presidents and prime ministers attended an annual climate negotiating session and actively negotiated. That symbolized the shift of climate change from being an environmental issue to being a strategic, geopolitical, and economic issue. It is also deeply linked to the development agenda.

This year, that shift was reinforced by the Mexican hosts. Most countries have traditionally had their climate negotiating teams lead from environment (or more recently, climate) ministries. The Danes in Copenhagen were a case in point.

But for Cancun, Mexico appointed an experienced ambassador as climate change envoy for the 18 months leading up to their conference. It made the foreign minister responsible for running the conference with the full resources of the Mexican foreign service at her disposal. And President Felipe Calderon was personally present in Cancun for the entire second week, even making a personal appearance to congratulate the negotiators at 4 a.m. on the final Saturday. Mexico deserves a big pat on the back for being prepared and running a successful conference.

So, expect to see more and more involvement of foreign, finance, planning, and trade ministries in the future. That’s a good thing considering how complicated the climate issue has become. The countries who took the firmest stances on the two hardest nuts to crack in this round of negotiations – how to ensure that other countries were living up to the emissions reductions commitments and whether to ensure a second round of commitments under the Kyoto Protocol – did so because of trade competitiveness concerns back home.

Solving those issues, and satisfying the domestic constituencies behind them, will require governmental leadership from the top, well beyond what environment ministers can deliver alone.

Lesson #2 from Cancun: The value of Low Expectations

There was a real sense in Cancun that the reputation of the whole process was on the line after the mess a year earlier in Copenhagen. That created a strong incentive for the negotiators to reach an agreement.

It was also significant that much of the content being negotiated was on things where broad consensus had largely been reached in Copenhagen (such as forests and adaptation), or were process-oriented (like how to maintain two parallel negotiating tracks). This meant negotiators didn’t have to check back with heads of state like they would have if they were negotiating new emissions reductions targets.

So, the people in the room had both the ability and the incentive to reach agreement. That served the negotiations well this time, but keeping expectations in check for long won’t accomplish the pollution reductions that we all need to survive.

Lesson #3 from Cancun: Business is Moving Faster than National Governments

There was a whole other world going on outside of the formal negotiations in Cancun – a series of official and unofficial side events spread out amongst the resort hotels up and down the beach. There were two big themes in those discussions. One, there is a growing private-sector constituency developing solutions. Two, there is a growing movement of sub-national governments developing solutions.

In past years, the business interests that showed up at the UN climate talks were primarily there to defend the status quo of carbon-intensive industries and stall progress. The balance has been shifting over the last few years. But this year, there was a clear predominance of corporate interests on display who see climate regulation as necessary and inevitable and therefore want to get the rules written quickly to remove investment uncertainty. Many now see dealing with climate change as central to their business model.

Rob Walton, chairman of Walmart, gave a talk discussing his company’s efforts to reduce the carbon intensity of their supply chain. Walmart, the biggest corporation in the world, didn’t do it to solve climate change, per se. It did it to reduce costs that could be passed on to its customers. But it found that focusing on climate change gave them new insights that were good for the bottom line.

A number of these companies were espousing policies that are out in front of where most of the governments are. There is a desperate need for a wide range of these leading companies to demonstrate solutions and create a constituency for change, and thus create the safe political space for governments to move ahead as well.

Lesson #4 from Cancun: So are States and Provinces

Municipalities have been out in front for many years in the climate debate – and they were definitely on display in Cancun – but this year marked the emergence of states and provinces as progressive incubators of solutions. For example, it is looking increasingly likely that the path to forest carbon markets will go through states and provinces before it goes through national governments. California was leading the way with its own climate legislation and with the forest-protection programs it is forging with states and provinces in Mexico, Indonesia, and Brazil – alliances which The Nature Conservancy has helped and will continue to help build.

Andrew Deutz is director of international government relations at The Nature Conservancy.

Photo by: Flickr user UN Climate Talks (COP16 participants)

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