The Difference Between Copenhagen and Cancun – an Illusion?

On November 21st 2009, I conducted a brief overlook of media articles on the CoP 15 at Copenhagen. In that post (, I argued that global climate action could progress without the participation of the USA and China. With the failure of the Copenhagen conference particularly due to the lack of commitment by these two nations, the question now becomes what we can expect at the CoP 16 in Cancun later this year.

The rhetoric before the Cancun conference has come to resemble that before Copenhagen in many ways. The EU is still pushing for an internationally binding agreement. The USA is still not ready to fully adopt such an agreement. China is not willing to commit to the process. Yet, such a shallow analysis is inadequate for the more practical side of the negotiations.

EU Commissioner for Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard, expressed her expectations on what will transpire at the CoP 16 in the following way:

  1. There will be no international binding agreement. It is not the EU which is standing in the way of this, but the lack of political will of other states to commit.
  2. The parties have to continue what was agreed at Copenhagen. There will have to be no back-tracking on the Copenhagen Accord, which will have to be officially accepted by the parties.
  3. Developed countries must deliver on their financial pledges. In connection to this, a enforcement framework for delivering these financial commitments has to be agreed upon.
  4. A decision on forestry has to be taken. In essence, this will be an agreement between the parties on how to practically manage de-forestation. (The Commissioner was exceptionally optimistic that this will happen).
  5. An adaptation framework for reducing CO2 emissions, together with a technological framework, will have to be designed. This issue constitutes one the most important issues, since it will outline how states will adapt to a low-carbon economy and what technological innovations will have to come about.
  6. The development of a MRV (measuring-reporting-verification) mechanism. A crucial aspect of addressing climate change is a common standard and mechanism for measuring, reporting and verifying emissions.

In a sense, these are realistic goals. The EU has learned their lesson from the Copenhagen conference and are downplaying unrealistic expectations, such as those one year ago. As many people remember, the European Council meetings of September and October 2009 centered around the position of the EU on climate action.

Swedish Prime-Minister Reinfeldt Welcoming EU leaders to the European Council of October 2009

The main aim of this discussion was to balance the 27 member states, in order for the Union to speak with a single voice at the CoP 15. Despite these efforts, EU leaders experienced a break-down in agreement at Copenhagen when several members states did not stick to the  consensus position.

Whether this will not be the case at Cancun remains to be seen. Yet, there are several differences with last-year’s pre-Copenhagen rhetoric which give rise to optimism. First, the European Council of October 2010 did not mention climate change and did not address the issue of Cancun. Second, Commissioner Hedegaard’s statement that “Europe will only be listened to if it manages to speak with one voice” leads us to conclude that the way negotiations will be conducted this time around will be different than in Copenhagen. Since there is a general wave of skepticism in some member states, perhaps the Commission should coordinate a joint effort? Or would the ‘dissenters’ be pressured into silent disagreement?

Third, Laurence Graff, Head of Unit in DG Clima, expressed her view that “we need other major players to come on-board”. Since it has already proven to be nearly impossible to make the USA and China move, the EU will have to find a partner (or a number of partners) who can increase the political pressure on these actors to participate. Perhaps not everyone has forgotten the CoP 13 in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007 when the US was forced to change its position when facing the idea that it would be left behind. Nevertheless, President Obama’s task of balancing national and international politics looks like an impossible situation from a motivational poster.

In the end, the EU can accept internal measures on climate change as much as it wants, but the requirement for global action is global participation. A firm and common stance looks possible, but not probable. In this sense, the difference between Copenhagen and Cancun will hopefully be either no difference at all, or a small change for the better. We can only hope that a preference for baby-steps forward would prevail over backward frog-leaps.


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