A month ago, many negotiators departed from Cancun with a sense of relief and achievement. The COP16 closing plenary concluded in a particularly enthusiastic atmosphere with several unusual rounds of standing ovation. Most praised the role of Mexico in skilfully managing the COP presidency.
Only Bolivia refused to participate to the festive mood prevailing in the closing plenary, emphasising the gap remaining between the level of ambition contained in the agreements and what physical reality imposes upon us.
A process back on tracks, but on tracks to where?
The talks held in Cancun have been successful in preventing the UN process to collapse and have, beyond the expectations of many, contributed to recreate a positive atmosphere. Negotiations were held in a more inclusive and transparent manner. Obviously, the UN process could certainly not afford dramatic sessions as those in Copenhagen. The renewed faith in
the UNFCCC negotiations as the most relevant forum for international negotiations on climate change should indeed be welcomed. The international community has thus avoided for the time being a complete collapse of the multilateral model of negotiations.
However progress achieved on the process will be of little value if it does not lead to fulfil the ultimate objective of the convention. The Convention clearly aims the prevention of (further) dangerous human-induced interference with the climate system, based on equity. The scientific community has repeatedly contributed to the discussions in highlighting what the corresponding of political actions would be. While there is very little doubt about the final destination of this process, especially now it’s reputed to be back on tracks, it remains unclear if it will eventually lead us there.
Balance appeared as the buzz-word in the negotiations. Since the Copenhagen conference, negotiators have emphasised the importance of reaching a balanced set of agreements. Such an outcome would need to involve all major emitters in a global effort of reduction of greenhouse gases emissions while at the same time considering the different responsibility and capacities of each.
For all young people engaged in the process, this concern of equity translates in how much policy makers are ready to balance the long term interest of humankind with short term political and economic considerations. Article 3 of Convention reads: “The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity”. The Cancun Agreements don’t seem to take us anywhere near the fulfilling of this objective. Yet eighteen years have passed since its adoption. Moreover, scientists insist more and more that the window of opportunity for action is closing rapidly. In this context of growing urgency, any additional year passing without substantial progress should be viewed as a setback.
The road ahead
Now that the negotiations are back on track, and since these negotiations always had clear objectives, the main remaining question is the roadmap to reach this destination. Here a decision on the form of the outcome expected in Durban has once again been postponed and several industrial parties have strongly rejected the notion of a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol.
The past 20 years at the UN climate negotiations have certainly demonstrated that political and non-binding commitment brings little results. At present, targets for the biggest emitters rely on non-binding pledges submitted to international review. There is no doubt that this approach to address climate change is inadequate. The negotiations will never succeed unless their outcome guarantees the survival of all nations and peoples. In order to achieve so, negotiators need urgently to adopt a science- and equity-based approach to the allocation of mitigation actions to each country. In this context, the recognition of the need to consider a stronger target such as 1.5 degrees of warming is a welcome assessment. However, there is little sense in doing so once this threshold is already reached, and this should be guiding the timing of the review.
A stronger role for the public
In the remaining eleven months, decision-makers will need to show stronger leadership and more ambition in the negotiations to bridge rapidly the enormous gap between national policies and the requirements to address the climate crisis. All groups of stakeholders will need to keep pushing and supporting national governments in their adoption and implementation of stronger domestic mitigation policies. Decision-makers will also need to acknowledge fully the role and contribution of civil society and to empower local and non-governmental actors to take actions, through a more participative multi-stakeholder approach.
The adoption of a specific COP decision in Cancun emphasising the role of climate education and public participation provides a useful contribution in this context. The longer adequate political action is being postponed, the more difficult it becomes to maintain our chances and those of future generations to avoid the most dramatic consequences of climate change. A paradigm shift will only be achieved in building public understanding and engage them in concrete measures, from the individual to the international level.
Can hope be an end in it self?
The UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres described the conference as having lighted a new beacon of hope. Having restored faith in the multilateral approach to address climate change is definitely a positive outcome. However such a beacon will be useful only if it guides all together to a safe harbour. There is no doubt that the time has come when we will need to take more than a first little step in the good direction. Drowning a little closer to the land after having celebrated the appearance of a beacon would bring us little satisfaction.