Ignore the naysayers, Cancun achieved something important

Against expectations, the Cancun climate change conference came up with a deal. Not a full, comprehensive deal. Not a legally binding treaty. Not a perfect deal. But a compromise that represents real progress compared with the entrenched positions that negotiators have held for more than a decade.

Some of the hardest decisions have been put off until next year. The future of the Kyoto protocol is a totemic issue for developing countries, and it was put aside as too hard to sort out this year. The question of what legal form any new agreement should take has also been left hanging. And while a “green fund” was ushered in with much fanfare, there is still no agreement on how exactly the $100bn a year it will require should be raised.

But those who leapt to attack the Cancun deal as soon as the chairman’s gavel had been brought down should be ignored. They would have said that anyway – they always do. By the yardstick of those perfectionists who work in NGOs, all climate change talks, like all political careers, end in failure.

To a more independent assessor, the fact that the world has in the past twelve months signed two agreements which represent the first new deals on climate change since the failed Kyoto protocol of 1997 must be regarded as important progress.

At Copenhagen, governments from both developed and developing countries for the first time agreed to lower their greenhouse gas emissions. At Cancun, those commitments were at last formally adopted by the United Nations, and added to that which governments agreed on: the form of a green fund; a framework for helping poor countries adapt to the effects of global warming; a framework on preserving forests; guidance on how to monitor, report on and verify emissions; and ways of fostering international cooperation on the development of low-carbon technology.

Looking back at the last 13 years of failure, stalemate, petty recriminations and outright battles, the outcome of both of the last two meetings must be judged a step forward.

Climate change negotiations are tortuous. It took five years to come up with the Kyoto protocol, after the historic meeting at Rio in 1992. Then it took until 2005 for Kyoto to come into effect. Of course, giving the louder and louder ticking of the clock, as emissions continue to pour into the atmosphere and we push the climate closer to the point of no return, it would be better if countries could agree faster. But the progress of the last two years should not be discounted on that score.

Sure, the process is still fragile and the consensus could still all fall to pieces. And the issues left hanging are among the toughest at the talks. A new agreement may not be possible next year, and aiming for 2012 might be a better bet. And those who are holding out for a full legally binding treaty might have to settle for something less. And if the Republicans take the presidency from Obama, then all these years of negotiation are likely to come to nothing anyway.

But it is important to recognise progress when it is made – if we don’t, the chance of future progress is diminished. So leave the naysayers to their grumblings and take an honest look at Cancun. Just a few days ago, it did not look as if we would get this far. There is much further to go, but the cooperation and compromise achieved at Cancun should make the onward journey a little easier.

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