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.
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.
There was a minor controversy at the Cancun talks on Wednesday when the question of whether Chris Huhne, the UK energy and environment secretary, would have to return to London came up.
The problem was over the crunch vote on higher education tuition fees. With several Lib Dems threatening to rebel against the leadership on the issue, there was a real chance Huhne would be recalled to cast his vote.
That would have been gravely disruptive, because Huhne is, with his Brazilian counterpart Isabella Teixera, co-chair of a vital working group – the group with the task of forging a compromise on the future of the Kyoto protocol, one of the most contentious issues at the talks.
Developing countries and some major emerging economies – chiefly China, but also including India and others – insist that the Kyoto treaty must continue beyond 2012, when most of its current provisions expire.
This issue of a “second commitment period” in the jargon – so-called because when the treaty was originally signed, it was envisaged that the signatories would meet their 2012 targets then set a new set of tougher targets, and keep doing so at intervals – is one of the trickiest in the talks.
Compromise, compromise, compromise – that is the watchword for the climate talks now going on in Cancun, according to the United Nations’ top climate change official, Christiana Figueres (pictured).
Her insistence was a clear reminder that the first objective of this year’s conference is to avoid scenes of the kind that marred the final days of last year’s summit in Copenhagen – when the debate degenerated into name-calling on the part of some countries, to the deep offence of many others.
It was impossible to predict yesterday whether her call for a constructive spirit would be heeded – on the first day, it’s easy for all the negotiators to wear winning smiles and to clap the anodyne speeches.