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Less Can Be More: Protecting Cancun's Fragile Victory



The diplomats who gathered in Mexico for the annual UN climate change negotiations in early December surprised everyone, including themselves, when they announced at the end of their session that a deal had been reached. Expectations going into the summit were at rock bottom following the chaos and discord of the Copenhagen meeting one year before. At best, Cancún was supposed to stop the bleeding and buy the international community another year to recover. But the conference went much further. The "Cancún Agreements," approved by all but one country and with raucous applause, laid the foundation for a practical approach to climate change and gave the UN process a new lease on life. But to secure this progress, diplomats need to resist the urge to turn it into a treaty next year.

The Cancún Agreements are a set of decisions that the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) took at the close of the two-week conference. Many are procedural, such as setting next year's schedule and administering existing UNFCCC work. The one that matters is the unglamorously titled "Outcome of the work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention," the text of which can be found here.

This 30-page agreement builds on the 5-page Copenhagen Accord negotiated by key heads of state last year in Copenhagen. It includes emissions reduction commitments from both developed and developing countries, a mechanism to track countries' progress in meeting those commitments, and a review of the adequacy of the commitments in meeting long-term global emission reduction goals. It also establishes a number of mechanisms and institutions to help accelerate national emission reductions and protect vulnerable countries from the impact of atmospheric warming that's already occurred and will continue in the years ahead even under the most optimistic scenario. These include a new World Bank–managed climate fund, a global network of climate-related technology experts, an adaptation framework, and a strategy for addressing deforestation.

There are a number of technical issues left to be resolved in the coming year, such as guidelines for tracking national emission reduction progress and rules for the new climate fund. But unlike the Copenhagen Accord, negotiators were able to get buy-in and acceptance of the Cancún Agreements by all 194 Parties to the UNFCCC, save Bolivia. Thanks in large part to an extremely competent and credible Mexican chair, we now have a truly global framework for addressing climate change.

What the Cancún Agreements don't do is make national emission reduction commitments binding under international law. A legally binding agreement was never the official objective of the current round of negotiations, but it has become the litmus test for many countries and environmental groups on whether the negotiations succeed. To these groups, Cancún was at best an interim success on the road to a treaty, which they hope to get next year in South Africa. In press statements following the conference, European Commissioner José Manuel Barroso called the Cancun Agreements "an important step towards a comprehensive and legally binding framework for global climate action." Greenpeace International said: "Cancún delivered the momentum, but we haven't arrived there yet. In Durban we need a global deal." And the World Wildlife Federation called on the United States in particular to "come to Durban ready to join the world in support of a legally binding agreement."

All these appeals for signing a treaty are understandable given the impatience felt around the world about the lagging effort to attack the climate change problem. But a treaty that includes all major emitters is not in the cards for the foreseeable future, and making it the goal for the next summit will undo the important advances achieved in Cancún. In the current situation, less may be a way of achieving more. Let me explain.

The treaty debate goes something like this: Europe, Japan, Australia, Russia, and Canada want to replace the existing legally binding agreement—the Kyoto Protocol—with a new treaty that includes the United States. But for the US Senate to ratify such a treaty, it needs to include large developing countries as well—which the Kyoto Protocol does not. And large developing countries would rather continue Kyoto than see it replaced with a treaty where they take on new legal obligations.

This three-way standoff was behind much of the acrimony in Copenhagen, which in turn threw the UN process into doubt and raised basic questions about the international community's ability to address the climate issue. The upshot was that no one expected a legally binding agreement to come out of Cancún, which freed up space to focus on actual substance. And with the UN process already on notice, no one except Bolivia had the appetite for another stalemate. But the treaty question was punted, rather than put to bed, and it will come up again as we move toward South Africa. The future of the Kyoto Protocol was left up in the air and negotiators agreed to "continue discussing legal options" for the Cancún Agreements during the coming year.

The conference in December began to restore faith that a global response to climate change might be possible. And faith is the single most important thing the international community can deliver, because it builds support for domestic policy where the actual emission reductions happen. So before charging headlong into another legal skirmish, it's important to step back and take a fresh look at what value a treaty offers.   

The traditional logic is that an international agreement is stronger if it's ratified by national legislatures and subject to international compliance measures. This is certainly true in international trade, where the WTO has proved largely effective in preventing countries from backsliding on commitments and allowing for targeted retaliation when such backsliding occurs. But it's not clear that it applies to climate, at least for the next decade. In fact turning the Cancún Agreements into a treaty would likely decrease, rather than increase, global emission reduction ambition.

In international trade, treaty compliance is generally pretty straight forward—pick up the phone and call the customs bureau and tell them to reduce tariffs to levels outlined in the agreement. With a climate agreement, it's a little different. Countries are testing out a wide range of policies to improve efficiency, provide incentives for clean energy deployment, and reduce deforestation. Some will work and some will fail. And while the European Union and Japan might be willing to make treaty commitments they are unsure they can meet (except by outsourcing their emission reductions to developing countries), the United States and China are not.

The United States has put forward an emission reduction target of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 continuing on to an 83 percent reduction by 2050. Even under the cap-and-trade legislation passed by the House of Representatives in 2009, it's uncertain the Senate would have had enough confidence in this trajectory to make it a treaty commitment. The legislation only covered 85 percent of emissions, and it was unclear how offset mechanisms and provisions allowing banking and borrowing of emission allowances across time would function. Now that the focus has turned to a mix of energy legislation, federal regulation, and state and regional action to meet US emission reduction targets, a 17 percent target stands almost no chance of winning Senate ratification. It's not that a 17 percent reduction is impossible in the absence of cap and trade—it's difficult but achievable. But federal regulation and the Congressional legislative agenda is still very much in flux, and it's unclear how they will interact with each other and what their combined effect on US emissions will be. And the US constitution makes it difficult for the Senate to submit state-level energy and climate policy to international treaty disciplines.

China has put forward three 2020 targets, a 40 to 45 percent improvement in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of GDP (carbon intensity), expanding nuclear and renewables' share of the energy mix to 15 percent, and increasing forest coverage by 40 million hectares. The forestry target is pretty manageable. The carbon-intensity target could be really easy or really hard, depending on how China's economy develops. The nuclear and renewable target will be a big lift, requiring that China add between 230 and 420 gigawatts of new clean energy capacity in just 10 years. That is two to three times as much nuclear and renewable power as the European Union added in the last 20. And while committed to the target, Chinese policymakers are not quite sure how they are going to achieve it.

So while the current commitments from the world's two largest emitters might not be enough, both Washington and Beijing see them as stretch goals that will be challenging to meet. Pushing for a treaty will force both countries to ratchet back their targets to a level they are certain to exceed. This would not only take the pressure off US and Chinese policymakers in the years ahead, but also allow other countries to lower their level of ambition in response.

On the contrary, a bottom-up pledge-and-review system like the one laid out in the Cancún Agreements will allow both the United States and China, as well as other countries, to raise their level of ambition as they get more comfortable with new policy instruments and gain confidence that everyone is pulling their weight. And adopting a politically binding approach does not mean surrendering the type of compliance mechanisms used in international trade to prevent backsliding, since such mechanisms have never been on the climate negotiating table.

None of this is to say that we won't need a treaty down the road, when there is less room for policy experimentation and the cost of reducing emissions is higher. And parties to the Kyoto Protocol still need to come to a decision about that agreement's future. Countries should start having a frank discussion of what a politically acceptable treaty might ultimately look like, including criteria for moving developing countries into the developed column as they get richer. But to hold the progress made in Cancún hostage to these discussions would waste time the climate doesn't have. Better to get to work implementing the agreement at hand.

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