Climate Clash in Cancún | The Nation


Climate Clash in Cancún

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size


Just after 3 am on the last day of the UN climate change conference, exhausted negotiators from 193 countries signed an agreement that was modest and reflected elements of desperation (the one country refusing to sign, Bolivia, decried what it called "a hollow and false victory" that would fail "to prevent runaway climate change"). After the failure last year in Copenhagen, the UN-led talks were falling apart, with some beginning to suggests that the issue be handled outside the UN, either by bottom-up approaches or in more elite groups like the G-20. The Cancún Agreements are significantly less ambitious than what many observers had hoped for, but at least they avoided collapse. The failure in Copenhagen and Cancún to agree on binding emissions-reduction targets marks a significant scaling back from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the first and only international agreement to set legally binding targets.

About the Author

Lucia Green-Weiskel
Lucia Green-Weiskel, a PhD student in political science at the CUNY Graduate Center, teaches Asian politics at Queens...

Also by the Author

Beijing’s carbon-reduction targets are already far more ambitious than Washington’s.

The latest trend toward fossil fuels is dangerous for the entire planet, since China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

In lieu of binding targets, the Cancún Agreements address technical issues like transfers of green technology to developing countries and a reiteration of the domestic reduction plans initiated in previous talks. The documents postpone, until next year's conference in Durban, South Africa, the contentious issue of whether to extend Kyoto, which expires in 2012. Instead they call for establishing a $100 billion fund to help developing countries adapt to climate change. But that fund will be managed by the World Bank, which has a dismal record on environmental protection. And it is still not clear where the money will come from.

"It is not what is ultimately required, but it is the essential foundation on which to build greater, collective ambition," said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN process, formally known as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Between pleas for progress, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had to resort to a tired cliché to describe the mood: "We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good." By producing an agreement, the Cancún delegates partially restored the credibility lost at Copenhagen.

A key question about Cancún was whether the world's biggest emitters, the United States and China, would come any closer to a common understanding on who is responsible for the climate problem and what to do about it. The two countries together account for 30 percent of the world's economic output and 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. The US and Chinese negotiators at Cancún were crafty and subtle. Both teams used cautious language that on the surface appeared to present similar positions. Both wanted a deal and both wanted to be seen as playing a constructive role—but each saw the other as an obstruction to progress.

When Dr. Yang Fuqiang, director of Global Climate Solutions for WWF International, arrived in Cancún, his hopes were dim that the United States and China would reach a meaningful agreement on reductions. With more than thirty years of experience working on energy and environmental issues in China, Yang has attended the three most recent of the UN's sixteen rounds of climate negotiations. China, he said, would only accept an agreement that allowed exemptions for developing countries—the concept known as "common but differentiated responsibilities," which is the bedrock of the Kyoto Protocol. In this claim, China is aligned with Article 3.1 of the UNFCCC charter, which states, "The developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof."

Throughout the meetings, the US deputy special envoy for climate change, Jonathan Pershing, expressed plans to scrap Kyoto—not surprising, since the United States is the only developed country that has not signed it. Washington wanted to draft a new agreement that has "symmetry"—one that is legally binding for developed and developing countries. As Pershing explained in a briefing to NGOs, the Obama administration can't sell a package in Congress that doesn't include specific requirements for developing countries like China.

By the end of the conference, it was clear that both delegations were oriented toward domestic regulators more than anything else. The chief negotiators, Xie Zhenhua and Todd Stern, read the same document but reported on it in completely different ways. Xie told China's Xinhua news agency that the Cancún Agreements uphold the Kyoto Protocol and reaffirm the principle of differentiated responsibilities. Stern told a press conference that the Cancún Agreements build on the 2009 Copenhagen Accord (widely viewed as the document that undoes Kyoto) and reflect progress toward firmer commitments from all nations, developed and developing.

From the beginning, the UNFCCC process has been marred by a sharp divide between developed and developing countries. Key developed countries hold the view that the developing world, where energy consumption is accelerating, should be bound by firm targets. The position of the developing countries, which China firmly promotes, distinguishes between luxury emissions and sustenance emissions, arguing that the latter are required for economic development and to alleviate pressing problems such as poverty and inadequate infrastructure.

In Copenhagen Chinese negotiators were eager to point out that although China is the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases on an annual basis, its per capita emissions remain much lower than those of America (and America is still the world's largest climate polluter on a cumulative, or historic, basis). In addition, they point out, almost a quarter of China's emissions come from the manufacture of products sold in the West, a fact that leads many in China to argue for a consumption-based rather than a production-based approach to emissions quantification. Given this different view of the accounting process, China prefers to use its own domestic mechanisms to set and meet targets outside the UN system.

US-China tension erupted during the debate over measuring and verifying emissions. In UN parlance this is called MRV, or measuring, reporting and verification of greenhouse gas emissions. MRV, where the treaty details are actually spelled out, is what gives the agreement meaning and power and thus is also the area that can cause the greatest turbulence. It is to climate change what the 1040 is to taxes, an agreed methodology that makes clear what is and what isn't included in a carbon footprint, at the individual, corporate or national level. Too technical for nonexperts, MRV helps standardize quantification and ensures that a ton of CO2 in France is equal to a ton of CO2 in China or the United States.

The United States and China have agreed on how to do the M (using criteria established by the International Organization for Standardization) and the R (with domestic mechanisms and answering to local or central governments). But there is serious dispute over verification, and who has the authority to determine what constitutes an "avoided" ton of carbon—that is, carbon that would have been released into the atmosphere but was not because of national policies that promoted cleaner technology. The United States insists that emissions reductions not transparent and verified by international inspectors are not valid. For China, this is an example of how the United States has politicized the climate talks. Beijing views calls for inspections and "more transparency" as an infringement of its sovereignty and alleges ulterior motives aimed at destabilizing its government. From China's perspective, the US demands on verification are less about climate change than about the American establishment's desire for China to adopt Western-style democracy and transparency.

The tension was evident at an intercessional meeting in Tianjin in October, when Xie's deputy, Su Wei, met with his US counterparts. In Copenhagen, Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei had said Stern "lacked common sense." In Tianjin, the vitriol continued when Su said Stern (in absentia) was like a "pig preening itself in the mirror," a reference from an ancient Chinese legend that implies hypocrisy and gluttony. (I was later told by a Chinese friend that this episode was misunderstood in the US media and that two different but similar idioms were confused.)

Perhaps it was the paradisiacal quality of the turquoise beaches and the ubiquitous margaritas, but there was clearly a warming of relations at Cancún. Yang Ailun of Greenpeace noted that the Chinese delegation chose to focus on what it could offer rather than what it would oppose. This new posture marks a clear departure from its negotiating style at Copenhagen and Tianjin. But the new tactics do not reflect a new position. China's stance in Cancún—that its voluntary reductions could be part of a global agreement if the United States adopts a legally binding commitment—is a new arrangement of its previous position. The fact that the United States, given its domestic political climate, will probably not adopt a legally binding agreement renders the Chinese offer moot. It shows, however, that China is becoming a more sophisticated negotiator and more adept at public relations.

Su Wei, second in command of the Chinese delegation after Xie, opened the conference by declaring that China would play a "constructive role" in the talks. In the first week he announced that the differences between the United States and China were not significant. Then, to the shock of many, he said casually, "We have no problem with MRV." This statement struck many as a reversal of China's Copenhagen position, which had been vigorously against the MRV process. But, as Yang explained to me, when the United States and China speak about the MRV process, they have different ideas about what it means—and it is precisely these differences that prevent agreement on the fundamental issues of climate change.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.