Cancun accord signals end of accountability


By Sopan Joshi

NOBODY EXPECTED the Cancun climate talks to yield anything. After the Copenhagen talks came down pear-shaped in 2009, the Mexican city of Cancun was expected to be the place where the UN climate convention would go to die. Some say it has drowned indeed in the watery agreement reached on 11 December. It allows countries to declare their own targets to cut carbon emissions; all previous negotiations were about arriving on the amount of cuts required, and then distributing them according to responsibility for historical emissions. It formalises the Copenhagen accord issued under US President Barack Obama’s influence.

Summit president Espinosa’s biggest ally in hammering out the deal was Jairam Ramesh
Summit president Espinosa’s biggest ally in hammering out the deal was Jairam Ramesh
Illustration: Anand Naorem

The Copenhagen accord was widely criticised for leaving out smaller countries, especially Latin American countries — only 23 of 194 countries had signed on it. In Cancun, Mexico’s handling of Latin American countries brought them on board, the only exception being Bolivia.

Patricia Espinosa, Mexico’s minister of foreign affairs and summit president, called it “a new era in international cooperation on climate change”. Her biggest ally in hammering out a deal, say sources present at the conference, was India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh. While Espinosa worked on poor countries, Ramesh rallied the large developing countries organised under the BASIC group (for Brazil, South Africa, India and China). “They all got together to do what the rich countries wanted,” says Chandrabhushan, associate director of Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment, who was at Cancun. He says even the most radical green groups were taken by surprise and muted in their opposition, some actually welcoming the end of the impasse.

The big positive from the Cancun agreement is that negotiations will begin after remaining stuck for a few years. But this comes at the cost of quality; the content of the negotiations will be based on what countries find convenient to do, not on what is required to keep the Earth’s climate conducive for people.

Several experts say everybody got what they wanted at Cancun, except what is needed to keep the climate hospitable for human survival. The emotive appeal to ‘save the planet’ disregards a basic fact: the planet’s climate has a turbulent history, and the planet has survived all the changes. But drastic changes wiped out entire species. These changes have to do with the build-up of carbon emissions from industrial development. Since the rich countries are responsible for the greatest emissions, the Kyoto Protocol made them accountable for cutting emissions. It is effectively dead.

Signed in 1997, the protocol had rich countries agreeing to cut emissions, allowing the poor to grow their economies. The first legal instrument adopted under the UN climate regime, several environmentalists had called it a sell-out to the coercive power of rich countries. After the US (the biggest historical polluter) walked out of the Kyoto deal, it became irrelevant.

In recent years, climate talks had got reduced to somehow keeping the Kyoto Protocol alive. After the hype in the run-up to the Copenhagen talks, followed by the disappointment that came after its failure, expectations of a deal had almost vanished. This lack of expectations is what laid the foundation for the Cancun deal, which has ended up something like a common minimum programme between 193 countries.

For 18 years, negotiations have been about agreeing on clear-cut targets to reduce carbon emissions. In the 19th year, after attaining adulthood, the UN climate convention has left the house to build a home elsewhere.


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