Fiona Harvey Cancun – like the Women’s Institute, but with less jam

The Cancun climate change conference scored “eight out of 10″ as far as Chris Huhne, the UK’s energy and climate change secretary, was concerned. He told MPs on Wednesday afternoon that the conference marked “real progress”, and added that although there was hard work still to be done – he singled out agreeing on a legal form for any future climate deal as the toughest nut to crack – the willingness to move forward shown at Cancun was a good omen for the negotiations to come.

Greg Barker, a ministerial colleague of Huhne’s (though from the Conservative side of the coalition government, while Huhne is a Liberal Democrat), chided the secretary of state for being “unduly modest” in his account of the talks. The UK, along with the environment minister of Brazil, Izabella Teixera, chaired a working group that sought to agree a compromise on the future of the Kyoto protocol, a key sticking point in the talks.

“He [Huhne] played an absolutely critical role at a vital point,” said Barker. “[Midway through the second week of the two-week talks] we were really at a loss to see how the process could move forward. Right at the centre of this was the [question of the] legal form. The role that he played in that group should not be underestimated.”

Modest Huhne would not accept the full credit, but insisted that investors had good reason to applaud the Cancun talks – even though he was scathing about how the UN process is conducted. He compared the UN negotiating procedures unfavourably to the meetings of the Women’s Institute. “Even the Women’s Institute has better rules,” he said. Any WI members in Huhne’s constituency might like to invite him to a meeting to see whether this is true.

But he also added that sometimes it was good for politicians to keep things vague. Being too specific in the negotiations could be a drawback, he said. “Trying to be as clear as possible about a form of words [on the Kyoto protocol and the legal form of a new agreement] can be unhelpful,” he told MPs, to evident agreement. He quoted Alan Greenspan as saying: “If you have understood what I have said, I have not made myself clear.” We will need “some more Greenspan-isms” in the months of negotiation ahead, Huhne thinks.

Huhne’s upbeat assessment of the Cancun outcome was shared by many other participants and observers of the talks. Tim Wirth, president of the UN Foundation, said: “[Cancun] set the world on a path toward constructive global action on climate change… creating the building blocks that will advance the world toward improvements on key environmental issues, such as deforestation, technology cooperation, adaptation, and financing.”

He urged:

As the Cancun agreements are implemented and the world looks at ahead to two more rounds of talks, we should continue the strategy of developing the building blocks that will move us to a greener energy economy. The legacy of the Cancun negotiations will be the recognition that national commitments are the basis of concrete action on climate change. At the same time, developments in the US have provided an opportunity for continued US leadership on these issues, including obligations under the Clean Air Act.

Michael Jacobs, former special advisor on climate change to Gordon Brown, the former UK prime minister, was also encouraged by the progress made, and dismissed those who attacked the conference for not producing a comprehensive deal. He wrote in the Guardian newspaper on Wednesday: “The question about Cancún is not “Did it do enough?” – we knew the answer to that already – but “Does it make further action more or less likely?” On that there’s no doubt.”