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Expectations Scaled Back for Cancun Climate Summit

Matthew O. Berger

WASHINGTON, Sep 17 2010 (IPS) - When, following months of hype, ministers and negotiating teams arrived in Copenhagen last December for a summit on climate change, the expectations for what could be accomplished were unrealistic and made the successes that did occur seem less important than they were, says the climate chief of Mexico, which will host this year’s successor to the Copenhagen summit.

Luis Alfonso de Alba is doing what he can to ensure that the summit, starting in late November in Cancún, will avoid those expectation traps and instead focus on specific goals that can be accomplished and which can lay the groundwork for a more ambitious, legally binding treaty several years down the line.

“Before Copenhagen, most negotiators were aware that we were far from what was still being considered the goal – a legally binding outcome…but we still went to Copenhagen with the expectation of having that single treaty,” de Alba told reporters Thursday in Washington. From the start, the Cancún process has been different, he said.

How long before that legally binding treaty becomes a possibility?

“Some countries are setting their sights on South Africa next year. Our view is that it will take longer than that,” said Eliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Centre on Global Climate Change, which hosted de Alba’s briefing. “Generally I think we’re seeing a greater sense of pragmatism within the negotiations and a recognition that we won’t have a binding outcome this year.”

It is hoped that this more deliberative, pragmatic negotiation process will lead to decisions that can lay the institutional infrastructure for that global climate treaty somewhere in the future.

“Waiting until after South Africa doesn’t mean there won’t be action,” noted de Alba, saying he sees a number of concrete decisions that can be taken in Cancún that won’t be affected by a lack of a legally binding treaty.

Concrete goals

The areas he is trying to emphasise as he leads Mexico’s preparations for hosting the summit are finance and transparency.

“We’ve tried to bring down the general goals and then identify chapter by chapter what can be done,” he said.

Within that approach, he is defining success at Cancún as an agreement that confirms the commitments made in Copenhagen and allows negotiators to go home with specific action that can get done immediately. He emphasised that dealing with climate change requires steps and a timeline.

One of those steps would be to ensure that the financial commitments of industrialised countries are fulfilled. To that end, the Dutch government, with assistance from Mexico and international organisations, has set up a website to track whether those countries are providing the money they said they would and where that money is going.

The site is at Currently only the contributions of the EU, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Britain are being tracked there, but de Alba says the U.S. is close to joining the project as well.

The nonbinding Copenhagen accord that came out of last year’s summit promised 30 billion dollars in so-called fast start financing to be provided to developing countries by richer countries between 2010 and 2012. This money would be both for mitigation – moving away from reliance on fossil fuels – and to assist with damage caused by climate-related disasters.

A long-term financing mechanism is still needed, however, as well as the institutional framework that would be able to decide which projects in which countries that financing goes to.

Even without a binding treaty, the “infrastructure” of a global climate system could be built up and countries could begin to get comfortable within that infrastructure, explained Diringer.

“For us, a set of decisions in Cancún that begins to fill out the architecture would in fact be a significant success,” he said, citing finance and transparency as the key issues. “If we can achieve agreement on them we can also make progress across the full suite of issues.”

Taking the reverse approach

The move toward greater transparency, it is hoped, will increase the trust between countries and allow for stronger commitments and consensus at Cancún and future conferences.

There has already been some progress in advancing this trust.

De Alba cites Copenhagen’s success in fostering for the first time the recognition that everyone – even developing countries – shares responsibility for fighting climate change.

But the fact that the only outcome was a nonbinding agreement hashed out behind closed doors by a select few countries – and which then failed to be fully approved – means “the priority task is rebuilding trust and confidence”, he said.

With that in mind, he has, since Copenhagen, participated in consultations around the world in countries that felt their concerns were not necessarily taken into account in the Copenhagen accord.

“The main focus of these consultations was rebuilding trust and creating a very inclusive process of negotiations and consultations that would be fully in line with the best practices of the U.N. and the multilateral system,” de Alba explained.

He says this approach could be seen as the reverse of that taken in the run-up to Copenhagen.

“Before Copenhagen, the concentration was very much on the major emitters, and what we have been doing since January is going to the bottom and going from the bottom to the top – particularly to those countries that were not satisfied with the results of Copenhagen, that complained of not having been involved to the full extent in the process.”

Chief among those critics was Bolivia, which hosted its own World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in April. The meeting drew some 35,000 environmental activists from 125 nations, who called for the creation of a climate justice tribunal, with powers to prosecute persons or companies responsible for pollution, and for a thorough reform of the U.N. to allow countries that fail to live up to their greenhouse gas reduction commitments to be put on trial.

“May the next meeting in Mexico not be in vain; may decisions be taken for the benefit of all people,” Bolivian President Evo Morales said at the close of that summit.

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